Cape Chamber, Magnet in the midst of leadership searches

Aaron Panton and Robbie Guard discusses the search for a new president of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce and Magnent.

Finding new leadership for the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce and Cape Girardeau Magnet will be a challenge and an opportunity.

That’s according to Aaron Panton, 2021 chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, and Robbie Guard, chairman of the Magnet board. Both men sat down with B Magazine recently to discuss the process of selecting new leaders for Magnet and the chamber.

Cape Girardeau Chamber president John Mehner announced in June plans to step down from his post by the end of the year. His departure from the chamber will also leave a void in the Magnet industrial development organization, which Mehner currently heads as part of a dual leadership role.

But thanks, in part, to additional funding sources, Magnet will have the resources to hire its own executive director, something it hasn’t had since Mitch Robinson left the position in 2012.

“John Mehner has accomplished a lot over his career,” said Guard, senior vice president and market president at MRV Banks who also serves as a member of Cape Girardeau’s City Council and as the city’s mayor pro tem.

Mehner, Guard said, will be a tough act for anyone to follow.

“I mean, look at the industry that’s been brought to Cape and that have expanded under his leadership,” he said. “He has managed to head the chamber and Magnet through a recession and a pandemic and had a lot of other curve balls thrown his way.”

Panton, regional president of The Bank of Missouri, agreed with Guard’s assessment of Mehner’s contributions to the Cape Girardeau business landscape.

“We’ve been blessed to have John in his role for a number of years, and I would stack our chamber up with any other chamber across the state and the country,” he said. “But I’m a big believer that with any change comes opportunity, and that’s not a reflection on the past. It’s a reflection of making sure you take full advantage of this great opportunity we have.”

To that end, both the chamber and Magnet have created search committees to find two people — a new president for the chamber and a new executive director for Magnet.

The chamber search committee, which Panton heads, includes SoutheastHEALTH vice president and chief operating officer Maria Sudak; Schaefer’s Electrical Enclosures CFO Cliff Brooks; Southeast Missouri State University president Carlos Vargas; Mason Capital Partners president and CEO Jeff Maurer; GlennView CEO Jeff Glenn; and Arnold Insurance co-owner Angie Umfleet.

“We feel we have a good, diverse group,” Panton said of the chamber executive search committee. “We wanted to make sure industry was covered along with the private sector, health care, government and education.”

The chamber search committee will coordinate its search with Waverly Partners, a Kansas City-based consulting firm that specializes in leadership recruitment for organizations such as chambers of commerce, visitors bureaus and so forth.

The consulting firm, Panton said, will give the search committee a “third party” perspective on the search process.

“I think most search committees are put in place to sit there and interview a list of people that have come to the table,” he said. “We could have done that as a group, but we wanted a third party to help us navigate our conversation on the committee level, and then expand it out to key stakeholders in the community and find out from them what they believe the role needs to look like.”

Panton said he hopes finalists for the chamber position can be identified by early November and that a new chamber president could be named later that month.

“That would line up very well with the timeline John has mentioned [for leaving the chamber], but I’m very hesitant about putting timelines on important things like leadership roles,” Panton said. “I definitely want to get it right. I’ve said it before, but I think the staff we have at the chamber today is well positioned and fully able to continue running the chamber’s day-to-day activities and keep the momentum going until a new president is named.”

As for the Magnet director search, Guard said a search committee won’t be named until after the organization develops a new strategic plan this fall. A strategic planning committee, composed of Guard, Codefi co-founder James Stapleton and Cape Girardeau County 2nd District Commissioner Charlie Herbst is working with consulting firm Ernst & Young to formulate the plan, which will, in turn, help shape the search for Magnet’s new executive director.

“Once the strategic plan is in place, and I’m thinking that will be by the end of December, I’m hoping we can then work with Ernst & Young to do the executive search,” Guard said. The timeline for choosing a Magnet director, he said, could stretch into the spring of 2022.

“We might have to have an interim director, depending on John’s schedule and depending on how long it takes to develop the strategic plan,” he said. “The good news is that, on the Magnet side, we have a great group that could fill in if they had to as well as [Magnet executive assistant] Janice Voss, who has been John’s right hand person when it comes to Magnet.”

By early 2022, a new chamber president could be in place who could also help with the Magnet director selection, Guard said.

Having recently gone through the process of choosing a replacement for retiring city manager Scott Meyer, Guard said the search for a new Magnet director won’t be as intimidating as it otherwise might have been.

“If we hadn’t just hired a city manager, I probably would be a little more overwhelmed,” he said.

Both Guard and Panton view the leadership selection process as an opportunity to continue the momentum Mehner has piloted.

“I’m excited about this opportunity,” Panton said. “I know I’m not going to make everybody happy, but I get excited about the opportunity to be a part of something so special, and I understand the bar is pretty high. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s very similar to what I do on a daily basis in my profession.”

Guard echoed Panton’s perspective.

“We’ve got great things we can celebrate, and [Mehner] is leaving Cape better than he found it, and now we have the opportunity to get better,” he said.

“Both of us are looking at this and asking ‘How do we get better?’ and that’s what we get super excited about. While change can be difficult, it can also be good, so we’ve got to get this right.”

“And if we get it right,” Panton said, “then everything else will fall into place.”