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Executive Profile

Dances With Wolves

As the first woman chamber executive in a male bastion
Susanne Sartelle has taken all the right steps to success

By Kevin Brafford

Thousands of people in Jacksonville know Susanne Sartelle. That's not surprising -- as president of the Jacksonville/Onslow Chamber of Commerce she comes into contact with old and new faces every day. But only a couple hundred knows that she loves to dance. And only a select few know that she loves to tap dance. Yep, that's right. Susanne D. Sartelle, a 37-year-old single mother of one and the 1993 North Carolina Chamber Executive of the Year, kicks up her heels, well, by kicking up her heels.

“About three years ago, I was in a class at a chamber institute a life balance class,” she says. “I took this test, and I scored below average on everything: health, recreation, relationships, everything except that I was one point below perfect on career.”

Get a life, the results screamed. So she did. “I was doing so few fun things,” she says. “I play the piano a little for me, but not in front of anybody. And I sing in my church choir, which is very fulfilling. But I wanted to do something else. I had been laughing and joking with some friends of mine for a couple of years about taking tap dancing. When I paid $54 for a pair of tap shoes, I knew I was committed.”

She still is. Most Thursday nights at 6:30, you'll find Sartelle at dance practice along with seven other members of this very close-knit sorority. Some are in their early 30s; others are just a few steps from 60.

“I took tap for a couple of years as a child,” she says. “This is just something that came into my brain, and I couldn't let go of it.”

Why would she? The hobby provides an outlet a wonderland to drift off into that's free of phone calls, fax messages and e-mails. “When I'm there, I don't think about work, I don't think about that stack of papers I brought home, I don't think about opening my laptop,” Sartelle says. “It's like I'm off in another world.”

Add the stamp of approval from 10-year-old Hannah, who, Sartelle says, “thinks it's pretty cool that her mom takes dance,” and it makes for a heavenly, albeit sometimes humbling, time.

“It was out of my comfort zone at first, because I like to do things I'm good at, and I'm not the greatest tap dancer in the world,” Sartelle says. “But that's OK, because it's still fun. The only thing I'm concerned with when I'm there is making these stupid feet do what they're supposed to do. And that's a challenge.”

That's a part she relishes, of course. You can't assume the presidency of an urban chamber of commerce unless you like a good challenge. Not if you're a woman. Not in 1991. Not in a community that bunks with 40,000 Marines at Camp Lejeune.

“What she's come in here and done borders on the remarkable,” says Dr. Ron Lingle, president of Coastal Carolina Community College and the chamber's chair-elect. “It was one thing for her to come in here as the first woman chamber president. It was another to come in and blow everybody away with her insight, vision and direction.”

Those attributes have served Sartelle well in a rapid ascension through the ranks of a profession that works predominantly with men. A sparkling personality and a smile to match haven't hurt, nor have her savvy and street smarts.

“You meet people that you have a gut feeling are going to succeed,” says Chuck Ewart, the president and CEO of the Spartanburg (S.C.) Chamber of Commerce. “I knew the first time that I met Susanne that she would be a great chamber executive.”

That meeting came in the summer of 1983. Sartelle, a rising junior at the University of South Carolina, went home to Conway looking for work. Ewart, then an executive at the Conway chamber, liked what he saw in the journalism major, who was eyeing a career in public relations.

“She had the people skills, even at that age,” says Ewart. “She was extremely personable, and you spotted that right away. You could tell that she enjoyed what she was doing.”

Good thing. At $3.25 an hour and 25 hours a week, Sartelle barely earned enough to pay for her dry-cleaning. Still, she didn't mind. “It was great experience,” she says. “It helped affirm that this was the type of work I wanted to do. I welcomed the challenges that it brought.”

She welcomed another challenge prior to her senior year when she got married. Friends and family encouraged her to wait, saying that being a newlywed would adversely affect her grades. “So I went out and made a 4.0 that semester just to prove a point,” she says. “They told me I couldn't do something, and I was determined to prove them wrong.”

Sartelle went to work for the Myrtle Beach chamber in June 1985 for a salary that would have paid her $8,000 a year. But she caught a break. “I had only been there about four months when the department head of public relations left,” she says. “I got promoted to that position. I was lucky.”

During the next three years she helped energize a chamber membership of 1,850 that had been long on potential but often short on results. She edited newsletters, radio spots, newspaper columns and news releases. She was responsible for her department's budget, and she oversaw the operation of the entire chamber's burgeoning computer system. In 1987 alone, she generated more than $1 million in free publicity for the Grand Strand area.

“It was a wonderful time of personal growth,” Sartelle says. “I really got my feet wet and started getting to know a lot of people who have been very important to me.”

She left in March 1988 for a position as executive vice president of the South Brunswick Islands Chamber of Commerce in Shallotte. Again, her energy had an impact. The chamber membership grew from 280 to 425 in less than three years. The staff numbered two when she arrived; two years later, it stood at five.

The budget, which topped out at $130,000 in 1988, totaled $200,000 by 1990. And during her tenure, which spanned to June 1991, Sartelle was responsible for the creation and implementation of 23 new programs and projects.

The offer to move to Jacksonville “just kind of landed in my lap,” she says. “The previous executive there before me (Jeff Downin) called and said, I'm leaving, and I want you to interview for the position.' I said, Are you crazy? That's the ugliest place I've ever seen in my life.' “

Then she remembered what Ewart had told her: Never pass up the opportunity to interview just for the experience even if you're not interested.

So she did. And much to her surprise, she liked it. “It did not take me but minutes to learn that behind the scenes of the tattoo parlors and girlie clubs (since removed) was a very beautiful community in terms of aesthetics and in terms of its people.”

More importantly, they really liked her. “We had done all of the appropriate advertising and narrowed the list to six or seven that we wanted to interview,” Lingle says. “We had interviewed two or three people when Susanne came in. She was so sharp, and she presented herself, her ideas and her approach so beautifully. She was really impressive.”

Particularly impressed was Lindy Cockman, a young, highly regarded executive at Wachovia and the chamber's chairman of the board. “Lindy was sort of like the E.F. Hutton (TV) commercial,” says Lingle. “He didn't say a whole lot, but when he did, people listened.

“Well, someone escorted Susanne out of the room when her interview had ended. Lindy got up and walked over to the light switch, and hit it. This is over,' he said, meaning that we could turn out the lights, because the party was over. Everybody cracked up.”

The search committee fulfilled its obligations and conducted interviews with the remaining candidates. “But for all practical purposes, it was over,” says Lingle. “She had become the benchmark by which the others were measured. If she had turned us down, I think we probably would have started the entire process again.”

But that wouldn't be necessary. “The more I thought about it, the more I liked it,” says Sartelle. “It was an opportunity to move to the next level, to make more money. Not many people go into the chamber business straight out of college. To be that young and have that chance was really neat.”

Sartelle's first official day in Jacksonville was July 9, but she fondly recalls an event exactly one week prior. “It was a parade to celebrate the homecoming of the troops from the Persian Gulf War. The Marines marched in their desert utilities down Western Boulevard. Ten thousand troops marching down the street it was a pretty awesome sight.”

It also was a foreshadowing of her biggest challenge working in an area with a male-heavy population of 128,000 that was decidedly “old school” in its approach to business. “There were a number of people who were immediately opposed to me being hired because I was a woman,” Sartelle says. Most were men. “It toughened me as a professional, but if I had known all that, I never would have gone.”

Sartelle aced her first year, winning over many of her detractors while mesmerizing her supporters. “She had a spectacular year,” says Lingle. “She's a superb networker. She's fun and she's exciting, and people saw all those things. They saw what she could do how she could lead this chamber in a way no one ever had.”

She leaned on the right people. Ewart was a confidant. So was Lingle. And so was Col. John Kopka, who, as chief of staff at Camp Lejeune, served as the primary liaison to the business community. “He taught me everything I've learned about working with the military,” says Sartelle of Kopka. “He made me a mission, I guess, to help me to be successful working with the military.

“Now I'm chairman of the Military Affairs Committee,” she says. “For years, it was 100 men and me. And we all got and still get along. I am not a feminist by any stretch. If someone would rather give me a hug than a handshake, I will take it. Maybe that's why I've been successful as a female chamber executive, because it's never been my mission to prove the cause of women.”

Kopka says several factors helped Sartelle cultivate a relationship between the military and business communities. “She was a quick learner, and you've got to be a quick learner and a good learner when your key players are going to change every couple of years. She coordinated, administered -- you name it -- to ensure that the relationship grew. She laid the groundwork for getting the right things done at the right time.”

Sartelle's nine years in Jacksonville have been marked by steady growth both literally and figuratively in numerous areas. She's increased chamber membership by 25 percent. Her staff, which consisted of one full-time employee and two or three part-timers in 1991, numbers eight.

One of those, Mona Padrick, is a joint employee of the Onslow County School System and the chamber and has been for nearly four years. The agreement is an example of the job-ready program, in which the employee's salary is paid by the school system and the housing is paid by the employer. “We've become the model in the state,” Sartelle says. “The federal folks ranked us No. 1 in the state, and we've been breaking our arms patting ourselves on the back.”

The program's continued success is one of the priorities in a five-year strategic plan that launched recently. Already in place is a community liaison officer from Camp Lejeune who keeps regular office hours three afternoons a week. There's a newly formed sports commission. On the way is a new downtown $1.7 million office building that will house the chamber's offices and include 5,000 square feet of conference space.

“Those things are great, but if I had to hang my hat on anything that's me, it's partnerships,” Sartelle says. “I couldn't care less about carrying a flag in front of the parade saying, Susanne did this and Susanne did that.' We accomplish more by sharing a vision and bringing people together to complete a mission. That's what's made this community successful. People come first.”

For Sartelle, there's one person in particular, and it's Hannah. “As challenging as my career is, it doesn't touch motherhood. It's not even close. We make sure that we have our time together, and I try to take her on as many trips with me as I can.”

Lingle says Sartelle's priorities are in order. “She does it all. You can tell that her little girl means the world to her, yet she still is able to balance a demanding job that doesn't have 9-to-5 hours.”

There you have it. A devoted mom. A chamber executive extraordaire. Comfortable in both heels and sneakers. And don't forget those $54 tap shoes.

Isn't there a chink somewhere? Well, perhaps. “It's funny,” she says. “I can get up in front of 600 people to speak and not bat an eye. But when we were getting ready to have a recital in front of a small group of family and close friends I was the most nervous one.”

So Sartelle sought advice. “I had a dance teacher tell me that when you go on stage, if you smile big enough, it won't matter how you perform, because no one will be looking at your feet.”

Consider the problem solved. “I guess it's fitting,” says Ewart of her hobby. “In this business, every once in a while you have to tap dance.”

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the July 2000 issue of North Carolina magazine

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