Beth Rhinehart was in line to become the next chair of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. Instead, she became its next president and CEO.
During the entire tenure of the previous president, Joy Madison, and for several years prior, Rhinehart had been involved with the Chamber in several roles while working as director of government relations for Wellmont Health System, lobbying for that organization’s interests on the local, state and federal levels. So when Madison stepped down to pursue other opportunities at the end of April, and with Wellmont in merger talks with Mountain States Health Alliance, Rhinehart says her phone started ringing.
“I’ve been on the board for a number of years,” Rhinehart says. “I was actually chairman-elect this year to follow Jim Maxwell. With my governmental relations background I had been asked to be vice-chairman of our government relations committee. That would have been a natural fit for me.”
“When we were going through the process of starting to hire someone, we named our executive committee as our search committee,” Rhinehart says. “I was a member of that committee. Immediately I started getting a tremendous amount of push from other board members and community members saying, ‘This is a great fit for you. Have you thought about it?’”
“I had really not seriously thought about it at all because I love what I do at Wellmont. But I kept feeling that push and getting those requests for me to consider it. I called Chris Lee and Jim Maxwell and said, ‘Until I make my decision about whether I want to apply, will you take me off the search committee before anything gets started.’ I wanted to keep it clean. So before any of those emails and plans started rolling, I removed myself from that process. I ended up applying on the last day you could apply.
“I’ve started other jobs where I knew no one and knew very little about the organization. Here that was very different. I already knew all the players, and they have all been very welcoming. It’s been great.
“I took a leap of faith,” she says, “and I’m really glad I did.”
Faith has become a theme in Rhinehart’s career. A decade ago, before she went to work for Wellmont, Rhinehart was executive director of an organization called Faith in Action. Faith played a role in her transition from that position to Wellmont as well. She applied to Wellmont based on the recommendation of a friend with no idea what position she was applying for.
“They called me and asked me to come interview, and that turned into a great nine-plus years at Wellmont,” she says. “It was a very, very hard thing to leave there because I loved my job. This new position is just an extension of that one, in my opinion. This pulls together more of my skill sets into one job with education, community and other concerns.”
Her confidence is high as she steps into the new position, Rhinehart says, in large part because of two groups of people around her. “This is a great staff who are very committed not only to the Chamber itself, but to the community. Also we have a terrific board. If you come to board meetings and see the faces of those who consistently come to every board meeting, it’s a very strong group who really wants this chamber to succeed.”
From day one in her new position, Rhinehart says, that level of support will allow her to lead the Chamber with confidence, so the Chamber can do the same thing for the community.
“What I really need to focus on is making sure the Chamber – because we represent all the businesses in this community – that we are the best example of a well-run business we can be,” Rhinehart says. “If we are going to be the leader, we have to be the best we can be.”
To that end, Rhinehart is already studying best practices of other Chambers, though, she says, she will not adopt someone else’s best practices just because they happen to work somewhere else. “I’m big on utilizing those if they fit our Chamber and our community. I think there are a lot of areas where we can grow and be great support to the cities. For instance, we already support and advocate for them on the governmental side, but I think we have to also be a partner in the economic development piece that the cities do.”
That economic development piece will be where Rhinehart’s organizational skills will come into play. Because of Bristol’s unique bifurcation (half the city is in Tennessee, the other half in Virginia), economic development is more than twice as complex for Bristol than it is for neighboring cities and towns. If the Johnson City Chamber wants to collaborate on an economic development project targeted at creating new jobs and investment for the city, it’s president, Gary Mabrey, can check in with one city government, one county government, one state government, and one county-wide economic development council. In Bristol, however, Rhinehart and her staff deal with twice the number of meetings with twice the number of organizations on roughly the same budget as the Johnson City Chamber.
Thus, the notion of “working smarter” is key. “Figuring out where everyone’s time is allocated, we’re going to have to look at that,” Rhinehart says, “because there are a lot of responsibilities.
“We’re meeting to death in this world,” she continues. “I want to make sure we have the time to do the work in between the meetings. That’s where the organizational piece will really come into play. Making sure we not only do what needs to be done in attending the meetings, but also doing all the behind-the-scenes work that goes on – that will be a challenge. I’ve never shied away from a challenge, though.”
And, she says, she knows enough to realize she doesn’t know everything on day one. “Some of it I will have to sort out as I get a little more acclimated. Obviously we have a great staff here and they are very focused on their specific programs and key areas,” Rhinehart says, “But I think there are a lot of areas we can reprioritize. Some of that ties into economic development. You look at the business and education division here – those need to be focused on everything from excellence in education to workforce development. Tourism is another economic development area we already focus on, but I think we might need to refocus on how we do certain things. In terms of juggling, that’s yet to be determined.”
Several other things are already determined, Rhinehart says, and those will serve as cornerstones moving forward. The first is that the Chamber will advocate for the Bristol business community at all levels of government. “We need to be a voice,” Rhinehart says. “There are a lot of legislative actions that come about from the state, local and federal levels that we need to be keen on and know what’s going on and when we need to speak up and advocate.”
Another cornerstone principle is that the Chamber will be sensitive to the needs of all its members, not just the ones that make the most noise on a given day. “We have a very diverse membership base,” Rhinehart says, “so we need to make sure that what we do for one member or group doesn’t turn out to be to the detriment of another. Partnership will be key no matter what we do.”
And the concept of partnership will not be limited to Chamber members. “I know there has been a terrific working relationship between the (Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol) Chambers,” Rhinehart says. “I’ve known Miles and Gary for a long time and am intent on maintaining that. I really appreciate that they have both reached out to me right off the bat. I can’t imagine any of us not being able to share responsibilities that benefit us all. That will be a key – how can we work together to make us all better?”
As she settles into her new role, it’s apparent Rhinehart’s tenure will start with a strong theme of cooperation, whether it’s between three Chambers or two cities, counties and states: “When you work together,” she says, “it helps everyone.”