Suited for Business

Cathy Burns makes history as the first female president of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce

By Renee Maass

The minutes of the April 9, 1926 meeting of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors stated:

“After a discussion as to whether or not women should be allowed to join the [Huntington] Chamber of Commerce, a motion to that effect was lost after a rising vote.”

In the 87 years since that April meeting, much has changed. Over the course of the 20th century, as more and more companies began employing women, women were finally allowed to became members of the Chamber. The first females to serve on the board of directors were appointed in the early 1990s. And now, in 2013, Cathy Burns is the Chamber’s first female president and CEO in the 120-year history of the organization. That accomplishment, however, is no big deal to her.

“I didn’t set out to break a glass ceiling when I applied for the position of president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce,” Burns says. “I applied because I knew I was the best person for the job.”

Burns has an impressive resume with previous jobs as director of development and planning for the City of Huntington (1992-99), executive director of the Huntington – Ironton Empowerment Zone (1999-2010), director of the Business Training Resource Center for Ohio University Southern (OUS) (2006-12) and, most recently, workforce development recruiter with the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (2012-13).

“I have been part of city, county and tri-state development for close to 30 years. Every previous job that I have held helped prepare me for my role at the Chamber,” Burns explains. “Something I learned at OUS was that I spent way too much time in the office. I needed to be out more and meet our customers. The best thing that happened to me with that job is that I had the opportunity to meet a lot of our manufacturing base, the owners, who their customers were and the challenges they faced every day. I was then able to network and help them solve these challenges. That is a skill set I hope to emulate here.”

Prior to being named president and CEO, Burns was active in the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce for several years including her tenure as a member of the steering committee for Women 2 Women, a Chamber subcommittee.

“I think the best way to get women engaged in the Chamber is to move them into leadership roles where they feel like they have more of a voice and are accepted – that has been a benefit of Women 2 Women,” Burns explains. “I also feel that as women we still manage the household, have primary responsibility for our children while holding down demanding full-time jobs. So the Women 2 Women committee allows its members to network, to attend a one hour meeting and leave feeling like they learned something without cutting into their incredibly busy days.”

Born in Parkersburg, Burns moved to Hurricane when she was a small child. She began living in Cabell County her freshman year at Marshall University. Burns graduated in 1983 and then received her Master’s in public administration from Eastern Kentucky University. Her first job after graduate school was assistant development director and mayoral assistant for the City of Huntington.

“It was a low-level position,” Burns point out. “But I learned to work with a variety of people, to network with elected officials as well as private and non-profit organizations. I began to develop the interpersonal skills that serve me today.

“Development involves bringing people of various backgrounds together to achieve a common goal. I strive to be approachable and a good listener. Everyone doesn’t have to be the best of friends, but a common goal can make any group of people cooperate and work together.”

When Burns was promoted to executive director of the Department of Development and Planning in the early 1990s, there were several female trailblazers in Huntington. Jean Dean’s election as mayor in 1993 was a game changer for the women of Huntington.

“She was a true pioneer – the first female mayor and well respected at the state and federal levels. Vickie Shaffer is another woman who excelled in a male-dominated world as CEO of the Tri-State Transit Authority. Plus, she was also one of the first female board members for the Chamber. Vickie showed that gender didn’t matter in a field; it takes a smart, dedicated and hard-working individual of either gender for any organization to be successful. Huntington has been blessed with an abundance of professional women in banking, medicine, the law, the arts and education.”

Burns points to the creation of the Neighborhood Institute as one of her biggest accomplishments as Huntington’s director of development and planning.

“I am proud that it has endured,” she says. “It’s hard for volunteers to sustain that level of commitment to their local community. The only reward is the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are improving things for the generations to come.”

Burns is also proud of the call to action the city answered when Owens Illinois closed and 600 jobs were lost in 1993.

“The city was part of a team to take ownership of the site and redevelop it for multiple uses,” she says. “It was a hard process that required so many layers and so many people, but the property is back on the tax rolls with full-time employees.”

Following her tenure with the city, Burns became the executive director of the Huntington – Ironton Empowerment Zone. The Empowerment Zone was a federal economic development initiative started by the Clinton Administration to elevate the economic well being of geographic areas (or zones) through invested dollars and tax credits. There were a limited number of zones designated, so it was a competitive selection process. Huntington partnered with Ironton as well as Lawrence and Cabell counties to form a zone. Burns believes that Huntington’s prosperity and growth are firmly tied to the success of Lawrence and Boyd counties.

“We had a 10-year strategy to elevate and increase the tax base, increase the opportunity for job creation and improve the image of our communities,” she explains. “While the promised funding from the federal government was never completely fulfilled, we achieved our goals and were able to concentrate on the downtown areas of Huntington and Ironton and what we determined were three developable sites – The Point, Kinetic Park and the HADCO Business Park.”

At the end of the Empowerment Zone funding, Burns was named the director of the OUS Business Training Resource Center. She worked with area business clients to define short and long-term business opportunities and design programming to optimize organizational effectiveness. She then accepted a job as workforce development recruiter at RCBI. Her work with OUS and RCBI created a desire to see improvement in the area of education.

“Training and education are integral to providing the workforce necessary to recruit business to Huntington,” Burns says. “We hear that we have a good work force and that we work hard. But if you drill down our statistics don’t really bear that out.

“Our education level is well below the national level. Our math and science scores are well below the national average. We say we have a good work force, but how qualified is that work force? That is the next big issue that we have to address if we want to diversify this economy. To attract different types of jobs to this community we have to raise the skill set and education level of the youth in the area.”

Burns has definite ideas about how the Chamber should be serving its membership and places a strong emphasis on customer service.

“There are some things that the Chamber does very well – advocating for business in public policy, promoting business-friendly legislation on local, state and national levels and the events we sponsor are well attended and respected.At the same time, the way we communicate with our members is different now with the advent of social media. We are going to have to look at how we communicate our message, and we must have a goal of assisting all of our members regardless of whether they are a small or large business. Our membership is comprised of the service industry, manufacturing and professional services, which is a pretty wide base. Who are our clients and what do they expect from us? That, to me, is the approach we need. An asset to anyone in this position is that you know how to network and put the right people in touch with each other. My core strength is in bringing people of various talents and backgrounds together.”

Burns places a decided emphasis on the word “regional” in the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“We think nothing of crossing the river to shop at Sam’s Club, nothing about driving an hour to attend school, and we know people will drive up to an hour for a job that has benefits and a good living wage. That’s the way I look at it – I have always had a regional approach.”

Outside her work at the Chamber, Burns and her husband, Dale, are small business owners themselves, operating Prime Copy Plus. When they are not working they enjoy going to their cabin near Snowshoe. Burns has two daughters – Katie, an RN in Lexington, Ky., and Kelsie who is in her plebe year at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She also enjoys watching college sports – soccer, football and basketball.

Burns firmly believes that working together is how regional businesses and the economy will be successful, a belief she will promote through her work at the Chamber.

“The days where you could expect someone to come in and solve your problems are long gone,” she asserts. “Look at your assets and strengths, and gather the right people to identify the solution. Work together to create the long-term impact that you want.”

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