Top Issues For The Next Greater Memphis Chamber Chairman Reflect Her Life

By Kevin McKenzie The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.

Carolyn Hardy, an African American entrepreneur who has blazed trails in the Memphis business community, said that her leadership style and what she's willing to push are a little bit different.

Yet, Hardy believes that it's because her priorities align with those of the Greater Memphis Chamber that she's been chosen to become the new chairman of the area's best known business organization.

"We have to deal with the poverty issue and we have to focus a lot of emphasis on the middle class, we have to," Hardy said.

"Memphis is not going to be the great city it can be with all $8 and $10-an-hour jobs."

Add to those priorities growing women-owned and minority-owned businesses, as well as redeploying resources to train the workforce for well-paying manufacturing jobs, and the alignment becomes clear.

As a member of the chamber's executive committee for several years, Hardy will provide continuity for changes gaining ground in the last two years, said Drexel Chemical Co. chief executive Leigh Shockey, the chamber's current chairman. Hardy will succeed her Dec. 9 at an annual chairman's luncheon at The Peabody,

During her two-year tenure as chairman, Shockey said that making the chamber a much louder voice of business and a more inclusive one have been goals for her.

"I wanted small and large businesses, minority businesses alike, to all feel needed, included and an important part of the community," Shockey said. "And I think we've accomplished that, I think we are moving in that direction. I think there is a new energy and excitement going on with the chamber and the chamber members."

The chamber's Chairman's Circle, launched in November 2012, and "moon missions" ranging from growing 1,000 entrepreneurs in seven years to ensuring prekindergarten education and advancing green space are examples of the new energy.

For Hardy, chief executive of Chism Hardy Investments LLC, which focuses on commercial real estate development that primarily supports railroads, issues such as poverty and workforce development aren't theories. She's lived them.

As the seventh of 16 children born to Lois and Sidney Chism -- she said her father was not related to the former Shelby County Commission member Sidney Chism -- Hardy said she grew up happy in Memphis, but poor.

"At Christmas I got an apple, an orange and socks. Most Christmases. Maybe a little candy," she said.

Her father worked as a truck driver delivering plumbing supplies and labored a second shift doing repair work in people's homes. Her mother remained a homemaker until her youngest child was in school, then worked in housekeeping for the former Memphis City Schools until she retired, Hardy said. The family moved a dozen times, avoiding eviction, until settling in Orange Mound when she was 13.

Two of her parents' 16 children, one boy and one girl, died at or a year or two after birth, she said. Her mother said that the brother who died had a high fever and was dehydrated, but she couldn't get him in to the old John Gaston Hospital. "She said that he died because we were poor, and it still bothers her to this day," Hardy said.

Hardy, who declined to tell her age, said she worked part-time for Baptist Memorial, serving food, to earn her bachelor's degree at the University of Memphis after graduating from Melrose High School. That was followed by an MBA at the university, as well as becoming a certified public accountant.

At age 20, she started her first career, with the J.M. Smucker Co. plant in Memphis that at that time made jams, jellies and ice cream toppings, she said. She said she wanted to introduce Smucker's to working with African Americans. She left that firm about 20 years later as the first female African-American plant manager, having learned how to navigate the corporate and manufacturing worlds.

"One of the things that most people don't understand is that it's important that if you're going to rise up in the organization they have to be comfortable with you as a person," Hardy said.

Dragging the plant's veteran workers into the computer age through training, with the help of what is now Southwest Tennessee Community College, helped her understand what the Memphis workforce is capable of and produced a world-class manufacturing plant, she said.

"So when you hear that Memphis does not have a capable workforce, I'm not saying that we don't have work to do, but I believe in our workforce," she said.

By the year 2000, Hardy had moved from Smucker to Honeywell-POMS Corp., where she became a vice president overseeing software development. She then stepped back into a pioneering role, becoming vice president and general manager for the Coors Brewing Co. plant in Memphis.

Buying that plant for $9 million in 2006, becoming the nonalcoholic Hardy Bottling, and then selling it in 2011 to City Brewing for the Blues City Brewery, led to Hardy's becoming the modern-day spark plug for training workers for manufacturing jobs in Memphis.

Days before Thanksgiving in 2011, she called a meeting with the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County and other elected officials, Southwest Tennessee and Blues City Brewery officials to start the Industrial Readiness Training program at Southwest that's become a model for training a manufacturing workforce.

The "soft skills" -- how to communicate, getting to work and on time, how to dress -- are key parts of that training causing potential employees to examine why they haven't landed jobs, Hardy said. But employers and managers should look in the mirror too, she said.

"We don't understand that we can be the blockers because we're not granting the opportunities, and so leadership has to believe in the people in order to give people opportunities," she said. "And what I saw was that we weren't believing in the people."

Memphis mayor-elect Jim Strickland chose Hardy to be one of three members of a team forming a "policy playbook" for minority business development. It's another subject she's lived. In addition to her own business, with daughters Jennifer and Whitney she founded Henderson Transloading Services, involving grain shipping. Hardy and her husband, Marino, a plant manger for Klinke Brothers Ice Cream Co., also have a son, Christopher, who is a dental student at Meharry Medical College.

"I think in order for women and minority businesses in the city of Memphis to grow, the chamber has to take a part and play a role in making sure that the business community is aware of the awesome businesses here," she said.

"I want to look at what do we need to do to move the needle that's healthy for business, because in order for Memphis to grow, I need all business to grow."

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