After tumultuous year, Charlotte business leaders focus on inclusion

Bank of America’s Andrea Smith is incoming chairwoman of the Charlotte Chamber.
Bank of America’s Andrea Smith is incoming chairwoman of the Charlotte Chamber. Bank of America

After a year marked by lost business and sporting events from House Bill 2, street protests spurred by a police shooting and controversy over a toll-lane project, Charlotte business officials are eager to move ahead into 2017.

At their annual meeting Tuesday night, Charlotte Chamber officials echoed themes of inclusion moving into the new year to a crowd of about 2,000 at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Incoming chairwoman Andrea Smith said the chamber has the responsibility to make sure “all voices are heard” within the community, “not just those in the room.”

“We need to continue to be a convener, to drive courageous conversations with each other and with the businesses we represent,” said Smith, Bank of America’s chief administrative officer.

The chamber’s new mission is to “connect, innovate and grow opportunity for all who do business in Charlotte,” Smith said. “It’s very exciting for all of you to see that in 2017.”

Some of the ways the chamber will work to do that is through programming that supports economic mobility, growing local talent and bringing more diverse voices to the table in 2017, chamber officials said.

Smith, after accepting her new role from outgoing chairman Ned Curran, CEO of the Bissell Companies, harkened back to the chamber’s annual retreat in Asheville in October, when some of the city’s most prominent business leaders discussed some of the city’s most pressing issues. One of the prominent themes, Smith said, was inclusion, something leaders will keep top of mind into the new year.

Leaders at the retreat, including former Bank of America Chairman Hugh McColl and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, suggested methods to help heal after what has been the city’s most tumultuous year in recent history.

“We can make all kinds of speeches, but the truth of the matter is we had our hands forced,” said McColl in a video projected onto two massive screens in the meeting ballroom. “No matter how much we tried, we failed.”

Most recently, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, a black civilian, at an apartment complex near University City on Sept. 30. Some protesters turned to violence, drawing national attention to Charlotte’s treatment of its African-American residents.

Even before that, the city was in the national spotlight following the March passage of House Bill 2, the state’s controversial LGBT law. Businesses, entertainers and sporting events have boycotted North Carolina over the law, causing Charlotte to lose the ACC championship football game, the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, a major expansion by payments firm PayPal and performances by artists such as Maroon 5.

Earlier this year, the chamber also came under fire for supporting the toll lanes under construction on Interstate 77, a controversial project that will cost an estimated $647 million.

Rick Hendrick, who heads the Hendrick Auto Group and Hendrick Motorsports, received the 2016 Citizen of the Carolinas award, the chamber’s highest honor that was previously announced in April. Hendrick’s automobile career began when he was 26 in 1976 in Bennettsville, S.C., where he turned a struggling Chevrolet franchise into the most profitable in the region.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Hendrick said of his company’s charity work, echoing a central theme of business leaders Tuesday.

Past winners of the chamber’s award include Gantt, McColl, Tar Heels’ coach Dean Smith, philanthropists Leon and Sandra Levine and former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.