Carl Blackstone enjoys a challenge, an attribute that’s sure to serve him well in his new role leading the largest and most influential business advocacy organization in the Midlands.
Following an extensive nationwide search that included two dozen candidates, the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce named Carl its new president and chief executive officer in March. He replaces Ike McLeese, who died last year after serving the chamber for 19 years.
“Columbia is a great place to live, with so much promise and a lot to offer families,” Carl says. “My goal is to continue this theme of partnerships and regionalism that’s been fostered the past couple of years. I hope to use my relationships from 13 years in the general assembly to broaden that.”
The 43-year-old Washington, N.C. native has a background in public policy, government relations and strategic communications as well as experience working with small and large businesses and trade associations of all levels. In his latest job as government relations advisor for Copper Dome Strategies, a Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd subsidiary, Carl offered guidance on legislative issues and other governmental actions. He also worked closely with members of the South Carolina U.S. Congressional delegation, bridging gaps between local, state and federal stakeholders.
Holt Chetwood, chair of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, says that Carl stood out from the field of applicants.
“We had many strong candidates from around the country, but Carl’s experience and expertise, combined with his extensive knowledge of our region’s current and future needs stood out among the rest,” Holt says. “The search committee, along with the Chamber’s executive committee, is confident Carl is the best choice to continue the mission and work of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.”
Before joining Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, Carl worked as senior legislative advisor to Gov. Mark Sanford where he was the governor’s liaison to the South Carolina House and Senate. In prior roles, Carl also served as manager of state government relations for the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and as district field manager for then U.S. House Rep. Mark Sanford.
Outside of his work at the chamber, Carl continues to be an active member in the community. He serves as a member of the Riverbanks Society, the South Carolina Economic Developers’ Association, Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital board of directors and as a member of First Presbyterian Church.
“I am also a husband and father of four,” he adds, noting two more crucial roles.
Same focus, new legacy
To say that Carl has big shoes to fill is an understatement.
Ike McLeese was an iconic and constant figure in the Columbia business scene; he was praised in the business sector for guiding the chamber from debt to strong financial footing and for securing missions and support for Fort Jackson and other area military bases.
“Ike was a great leader in this community. He is known for his love of the military and Fort Jackson, and they loved Ike as well,” Carl says. “I have a bunch of challenges. There’s no way I could fill his shoes. I hope to grow into them as he truly played a pivotal role in the business community. Of course, I would like to make my impact as well. And hopefully, I can be as successful as Ike was.”
Carl takes over an organization that is highly touted and regarded in the area. The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce’s mission is to create and promote South Carolina as a business-friendly environment and to act as an advocate for businesses.
The private, non-profit, membership-driven organization works on behalf of more than 1,500 members, serving members from business enterprises, civic organizations and educational institutions in Calhoun, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lexington, Newberry and Richland counties. Among its local business initiatives, the chamber currently offers Business@Midday, Leadership Columbia and the Palmetto Pillar Awards.
Carl has a lengthy list of goals to help grow and continue the chamber’s work. Meeting with business and political leaders and growing regional ties are among his top priorities. He also plans to continue his predecessor’s strong focus on military issues.
“It goes back to that theme of regionalism. If we’re going to continue to grow the economy of the Midlands, we all have to be singing off the same sheet of music,” Carl says. “One of our largest employers is Fort Jackson, and I’ve been out there a number of times in my first weeks to meet with leaders. It’s a jewel for our area with 7,000 direct jobs at Fort Jackson and 12,000 dependents for those folks that work out there. So, it’s a huge component of our economy.”
In addition to protecting the area’s military installations from cuts and helping to attract new industry, Carl says he must also focus on retaining existing businesses. “Attracting new industry is important, but maintaining a positive business environment with existing businesses is a huge component of what I would like to see,” he says.
Incivility and the perception of incivility between stakeholders is another issue Carl hopes to address. “Anytime incivility is the lead story in papers or in the news, that’s a problem for attracting business,” Carl says. “It’s tougher when we don’t have a unified approach to where we’re going and what we’re trying to do. I hope my role is to bring some collaboration, working with folks from different political backgrounds and persuasions. That’s what I’m really excited about.”
With years of legislative and governmental experience and a record of key leadership roles, chamber officials are confident that Carl can continue the chamber’s success. “His skill-set and experience is exactly what is required to keep the Columbia Chamber and the business community on its current path of economic success and growth,” Holt says.
Into the foreseeable future
Carl feels the business future of Columbia is strong — strengthened by its resilience during the recent economic downturn.
“We all felt the pinch of the recession; however, the Columbia market has withstood the downturn fairly well. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we have such a broad base. We have a large university, state government, federal government and military presence. All are stabilizing forces in the economy,” Carl says.
He believes that Columbia has many opportunities to grow and thrive. “It’s just a matter of taking advantage of those opportunities,” says Carl. “My short-term goal for the next six months to a year is structuring the chamber in a way where we recognize the issues that affect small and medium size businesses within the region. I want to be responsive to our members.”
He says he will also work to grow the area’s brand and let businesses know that the chamber is there to assist them; objectives he believes will remain a part of the Columbia chamber well into the foreseeable future.
“I am excited about the opportunity ahead to make the region more competitive and help align businesses with the resources they need to grow and expand, ultimately bringing new jobs into our community,” Carl says.