Talking Shop with John Mehner, chief executive officer and president of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce

Monday, February 15, 2010
John Mehner is president of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce. (Fred Lynch)

John Mehner is the leader of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce. But before he was leading commerce efforts in the city, Mehner spent time chasing down criminals as a police officer in St. Louis. Business reporter Brian Blackwell visited with Mehner about his love for Cape Girardeau, his time as a police officer and his thoughts about business activity in the area.

Q: You served as a street officer in the St. Louis County Police Department from 1981 to 1985, after you had received a degree in criminal justice from Southeast Missouri State University. What motivated you to choose that job for a short few years?

A: It was a tremendous experience. We rode in one-man vehicles, so you were in a car by yourself. That experience is something I wouldn't trade for anything in the world because it prepares you for everything. In police work you have to make split-second decisions. You have to immediately assess individuals and situations. You have to be able to negotiate your way into and out of anything. You have to learn voice and situation control. It's a disciplined profession. It's very similar to [having a] military background. Police work was very interesting to me. From a carry-over standpoint, it's that desire to help people. That's something I always had. And I like people. Once I was in it for that long I realized I wouldn't be able to do that for a profession, but I respect people who can.

Q: Did you ever fear for your life while in St. Louis?

A: I had a couple of dangerous situations, though I never shot anybody. We had a guy who was holding a hostage in a house that we went into and the suspect was armed. That was a very difficult, high-stress situation. You don't think about it when you're doing it, but when you're done, you realize it's tough. I never got actually shot at, though I had my share of fights.

Q: After serving on the police force you returned to your family's business, Advanced Business Systems, which your father, Jack, launched in 1963. Why did you choose to return to that company and this area?

A: As I said, I knew that I wasn't going to do police work long term. I had a week up there where I handled seven dead bodies in a five-day period of time, and that sealed the whole deal. I had this other opportunity and had worked for my dad while in college. So it just made sense to come back here.

Q: You worked for your dad. In addition to your dad, who has inspired you throughout your life?

A: Both my parents, Jack Mehner and Carole Stotler. They're just great parents who have a strong Christian background. That has influenced my decision-making and who I am as a person. Jesus is huge. That's not somebody I knew here on Earth because he left here years ago, but he is who he is. And then in the '60s and '70s I became a huge Green Bay Packer fan. So their coach, Vince Lombardi, inspired me. That whole team was an inspiration.

Q: You're down here in Rams country, but are a Packers fan who has attended four games at their stadium, Lambeau Field. I understand they are a popular team with a rich history, but why did they appeal to you so much?

A: When I first got interested in football, they were great then. So I started reading what I could about them and fell in love with the team. The whole Packers story is cool. I've been to some games at Lambeau Field, and that's an unbelievable experience. For people who are football fans, it's a great experience. For Packer fans it's unbelievable. You think of the history in the stadium and the guys who have played there. It's hard to describe.

Q: What do you do when you're not in the office?

A: Mostly at this point it's family-oriented and church activities. My oldest son, Austin, is a sophomore at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. When he was in high school he was a swimmer and in band, so he did a lot of activities there. I have two other twin sons, Alex and Aaron, who are in eighth grade. They are both involved in sports and music. I love music, and I play guitar. I jam with them now. My wife, Kristy, is a librarian at Central High School.

Q: If you could trade places with any person for a day, who would that be and why?

A: If it was someone from the past, it would be one of the disciples, probably John. He was in Jesus' inner circle, and that would be awesome. Modern-day, I would trade places with Mike Shannon or John Rooney, who both broadcast Cardinal games. That's something that I would love to do.

Q; You were named chamber president and chief executive officer in 1993. Did you ever think you'd be serving in that capacity when you returned to Cape Girardeau?

A: When I came back in 1985 I started volunteering with the chamber and fell in love with what it did and meant in the area. It wasn't in my sights until the opportunity came up. It's been what I thought it would be and more. It's a great job and I get to work with great people. We get to work on things here that are long-term impacts on the area, and that's big.

Q: Mitch Robinson, director of Cape Girardeau Area Magnet, and Dan Overbey, director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority, both started serving in those roles the same year as you were named leader of the chamber. In an era when five years seems like an eternity at one company, all three of you have stayed in your roles for 17 years. Why is that the case?

A: I can't speak for Dan or Mitch, but there are other opportunities that come up. For someone to be in a position that long, two things have to occur. They have to decide they want to stay in that position that long. If they're successful, they'll have those opportunities. Second, they have to be recognized by those in the industry and work for to be in the job that long. When you love the area you're working in, it makes you want to do more for where you are.

Q: The recession has hit virtually every sector of the economy. While this area may not have suffered like Michigan or California, Southeast Missouri hasn't escaped the down economy. What challenges does this region face?

A: The national economy trickles down to the local and regional economy. Not knowing where we'll head from a regulatory standpoint is a concern for the future. The deficit will be a concern. You have to increase revenue source or cut spending, or a combination of both. We have to get back to where job creation is the biggest thing in what we're doing. That's the only way to succeed.

Q: Can you fill me in on any future developments?

A: There are more things in the pipeline right now than have been in the pipeline the previous 12 months, so we're seeing a little bit of an increase in what's going on. At least there's more possibilities, though I obviously can't divulge exact names. It's not all gloom or doom.

Q: In 2007 and 2008 more businesses closed than opened in Cape Girardeau each year. But in 2009, that trend reversed with more businesses opening than closing. Why do you think we saw a reversal in that trend?

A: [The recession] forces people to be innovative. More than half of today's Fortune 500 companies were started either in a recession or a really down stock market. What's happening is when it gets really rough, the innovative people's brains start running.

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