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 ó a life balance class, she says. I took
this test, and I scored below average on everything: health,
recreation, relationships, everything ó 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 ó 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
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
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
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
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, ëI'm leaving, and I want you to
interview for the position.' I said, ëAre 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 ó just for the experience ó 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
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. ëThis is over,' he said, meaning that we
could turn out the lights, because the party was over. Everybody
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
ó it was a pretty awesome sight.
It also was a foreshadowing of her biggest challenge ó 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 ó 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
ó and still get ó 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
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
Sartelle's nine years in Jacksonville have been marked by steady
growth ó both literally and figuratively ó 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 ó 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, ëSusanne 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
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 ó in front of a small group of family and close
friends ó 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
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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