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North Carolina's largest business group proudly serves as the state chamber of commerce


Executive Profile

Dream Job
Connie Majure-Rhett's ship came in when Wilmington
invited her to promote a city she absolutely adores

By Kevin Brafford

It was a chamber of commerce day, as fate would have it, when Connie Majure-Rhett first steered her little red Miati through the streets of picturesque downtown Wilmington. Lots of sun, a blue sky and nary a road construction project in sight.

She was there on this sunny day in 1994 to interview for the vacant top spot at the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. As she surveyed the blossoming city, thoughts darted through her head. She couldn’t possibly get this job, she rationed, because so many better qualified candidates than she would be beating down the door.

So she made the drive down from Washington, D.C., where she worked for a lobbying organization, for nothing. Oh well, she thought, the experience of interviewing would be good for her future and a couple of days away from the big city, all expenses paid, would be even better for her present.

But Majure-Rhett (pronounced “major-rett”) found her heart beating faster with each turn that she navigated. By the time she reached the chamber’s offices, she was no longer content to be a bridesmaid. “When I’m driving down Market Street and I get under all of those big oaks, it gets to me,” she says. “Something really clicked about the beauty and size. Then when I get to the chamber, I’m expecting like a doorway into a strip mall. But I see this great big building that says ‘chamber’ — on the river, no less, and I can’t believe it. I knew then that this was where I wanted to be, where I needed to be.”

The task then became convincing the chamber that it wanted her. “This was my first job search — I’d always been offered things in the past,” she says. “So I’d decided to still stick with my original plan, to have a great time with the interview, to be me and not worry about what the so-called book said I should do.”

The search committee apparently wasn’t too concerned about protocol either. Majure-Rhett was offered a second interview. Soon thereafter came another offer, this one the position. Quicker than you can say “battleship,” the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce had its woman.

Majure-Rhett, to her way of thinking, had cashed in the ultimate longshot and landed her dream job. While much around her has changed in the eight years since, that opinion hasn’t. “This is still the perfect place for me,” she says.

And vice versa. Under Majure-Rhett’s leadership, the chamber has more than doubled its budget, aggressively taking advantage of events, programs and services to increase its spending from $460,000 to $1.2 million.

“I was fortunate to get here at the right time,” says Majure-Rhett, who turned 49 in March. “I didn’t think I had a chance at getting the job, but I wanted to be prepared so I had done a lot of research. Growth had already started in the community and Interstate 40 had just opened up, which was really changing things.

“Up until that point Wilmington was one of the best-kept secrets anywhere — in some ways that’s still true. But more and more, business and industry and families were learning — and are still learning — what a great area this is to live and work.”

Majure-Rhett may not have encountered any road construction on her way in, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t run across the occasional bump once she got here. “I got the job, but I wasn’t a unanimous choice,” she says. “I found that out the first time I got a call from a reporter. I was like, ‘What do you mean — everybody doesn’t like me?’ But you go forward and do your best and try to win those people over with your work.”

The Wilmington chamber’s primary focus is economic development, although it dabbles in recruiting and even occasionally tourism, gladly playing second fiddle in that arena to the Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our main goal is to improve the economy and advocate for the business member,” Majure-Rhett says. “The quality of life is what attracts people to the Wilmington area. In the world today, where people can do their jobs from so many locations and not have to be tied to a plant, what’s available outside an office is most important.

“As a chamber executive, I’m responsible for knowing a little bit about a whole bunch of things. I have a staff that gets to the depth on issues, because I really have to know more quantity than quality.”

Majure-Rhett finds the exposure to so many varied topics one of the most rewarding aspects of her job. “I can be talking about a convention center one minute, then maybe a staff issue, then maybe an insurance problem, whatever. There’s never a dull day.”

On this day, she’s eager to go back to the convention center topic. She speaks of the frustration of trying to get people together “in a community as diverse as ours,” especially where it’s related to this necessary project. She points to vacant land not more than a couple of football fields away her office as ideal for a convention center — “if we can get everyone on the same page,” she says. “It’s really disgusting that we keep sending North Carolina meetings to Myrtle Beach.”

The perpetual smile that Majure-Rhett wears had disappeared for a few seconds. Now it’s back. “We’re not going to give up the ship, so to speak,” she says. “If you believe in something, you stay with it. That’s how I was brought up.”

Charlie and Betty Majure, both grounded to their rural, deep-rooted values of perseverance and perspiration, wouldn’t have had it any other way for Connie and her younger brother. The family lived just outside Columbia, S.C., where a little farm was always maintained and where a teenage girl fell in love with horses.

“We’d driven out to see my cousins in Mississippi — that’s where my dad grew up — and they had horses and cows and everything,” Majure-Rhett says. “We’d go ride, and there wasn’t anything better in the world to me. When I was 13, my dad got me my first horse, much to my mother’s dismay. Soon we were showing horses and I got pretty serious about it.

“It was a fun childhood. I had a great place to grow up and a great family. You couldn’t help but be happy. When I think about those times now, the two things that stand out most are going to the movies with my mom and going to horse shows with my dad.”

Heading off to college for the first time is traumatic for many teens, but Majure-Rhett got a double-dose of homesickness. About the time she was enrolling at Winthrop, a small college about an hour north of Columbia, her parents and younger brother were moving to Alabama. “I can still hear my mother crying,” she says.

Ironically, Majure-Rhett was back in Columbia the following year, choosing to transfer to the University of South Carolina with an eye on becoming a teacher — “that’s what most girls in college in South Carolina those days did,” she says.

She worked her way through college at odd jobs, carefully balancing business and pleasure. “One of my jobs was in the office at a Miller Beer distributorship, which was a real hoot because I didn’t like beer and didn’t drink. Then I got a job with a bunch of people at South Carolina National Bank balancing the money each night. It was a lot of fun. When you’re that age, you can work all night, go out and still get up for an 8 o’clock class the next morning.”

Majure-Rhett graduated in 1976 and moved to Charlotte. While waiting to land a teaching position, she took a temporary job at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, doing various odd jobs around the office for a couple months. She had taught for a year and a half when the phone rang one day. “It was the Charlotte chamber, and they said they wanted me back, this time full-time,” she says. “So I took it, not because I didn’t like teaching, but because the guy who hired me promised lots of fun to go along with hard work, and that was appealing. And you know, he lived up to that promise.”

She stayed there until 1980 when she was recruited by the chamber in Cobb County, Ga., in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, to become its membership director. Two years later, the Atlanta chamber wooed her away for a similar post, and within a couple of years she was promoted to vice president for small business and branch operations.

Talented and energetic, Majure-Rhett was a major player for one of the most innovative and active chambers in the country. “We had six area councils — in every region of the community — and Connie had to keep up with and understand the politics of each of them,” says Charles Van Rysselberge, one of her supervisors in Atlanta and now the president and CEO of the Charleston (S.C.) Metro Chamber of Commerce. “She had to be conscious of the small business community while keeping a lot of people happy. She very much has a ‘can-do’ spirit, and that was important to her success then, just as I’m sure it is now.”

Majure-Rhett feels the Atlanta experience shaped her career. “That was where it all clicked,” she says. “I was really behind the scenes in Charlotte, but in Atlanta I was out there a little bit more and got to see incredible people do great things. That’s when I decided I wanted this to be my career path. So I started paying attention to the little things, to fill in areas that I didn’t know much about.”

So she wasn’t looking for a career change when a Washington lobbying group came calling. The National Small Business United organization needed a vice president and Majure-Rhett answered the call. “That was the end of me being naďve, I think,” she says. “It’s D.C., you’re young, you’re excited and you’re going to change the world. Then you get there and get involved and it’s like, ‘Oh my lord.’

“Still, it was a great experience in that it educated me to politics and how difficult it is to effect change. The job enabled me to travel a lot, which I enjoyed, and I loved the energy of the big city. The downside was that I was having to commute 40 miles one way each day to have the quality of life that I wanted. And after a while I didn’t enjoy the work as much. I decided I wanted to get back to chamber work, but this time I wanted to run my own organization.”

As Majure-Rhett was dusting off her resume, she got a call from a friend at the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce who had heard about an opening in Wilmington. Problem was, the deadline to apply was only a day away. “I didn’t have anything to lose,” she says, “so I applied. The way it’s worked out has been incredible. I’ve been very lucky.”

Her luck extended to love. Haskell Rhett III was working on a committee to have the Cape Fear River designated as a river trail when he first laid eyes on the chamber president. Needing assistance with the design of a map for a project, he looked her way for help. She, in turn, looked elsewhere.

“I kept trying to push him on another staff person,” she says, “because we don’t do a lot of tourism things and we certainly don’t do river trail maps. But he was persistent in that he needed to meet with me, so I finally gave in.”

After one meeting, Rhett was certain that a second get-together was necessary, at least from a personal standpoint. “I guess you could say that follow-up call was more of a social one than a working one,” he says.

It wasn’t until a staffer clued her in did Connie understand that she was being romanced — sort of unusual for someone so accustomed to being pursued by employers. Each had been married once previously, and it didn’t take long before both knew that this was a second chance of a lifetime. “Her smile, her intelligence, her vivacious nature — all those things drew me to her,” he says. “The world is such an interesting place to Connie. She takes one look around her and sees 10 times more things than your average person.”

They liked the idea of a small wedding, but logistics made that impossible. “He’s from Wilmington,” she says, “and if you include all of his sisters and his stepbrothers and their children, well, you’d fill a small chapel. So we ultimately decided to go to the magistrate, who was wonderful and agreed to keep it a secret — he even told us not to get the marriage certificate until the last second because they print those things in the newspaper. So that’s how we got married.”

The two spent last year restoring a home downtown — 17 blocks from the chamber office — that’s been in Rhett’s family since 1961. There they live with Rhett’s two teenagers by his previous marriage and a 2-year-old poodle named Mattie.

If you think this sounds like something out of a 1960s’ sitcom, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. The Rhetts enjoy kayaking, reading, and walking the dog, of course, and seem as hearty and happy as a family can be. “We have a great porch with gliders and rocking chairs,” says Majure-Rhett. “I used to move every three years — always looking for something better — and that was OK for my life then.

“Now, I don’t look at it that way. I don’t think it can get any better.”

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