Clark Tries, Likes Presidency

February 1, 2005
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HOLLAND — The tryout went both ways.

Not only was the time when she served as interim president of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce a period to see if she was the right person for the job, it provided Jane Clark an opportunity to see if the job was right for her.

In 15 years at the Holland chamber, Clark had largely worked behind the scenes, recruiting new members and doing marketing and program administration. Now she was being asked to step out front and lead the organization.

Although apprehensive at first, since it was not a job she sought, Clark agreed in October 2003 when the chamber’s board asked her to serve as interim president following the abrupt resignation of Chris Byrnes. In taking on the role, and moving up from her position as the 1,300-member chamber’s vice president, Clark had an opportunity to lead the Holland organization in a position that would give her a much higher public profile within the Holland business community.

“I was very, very happy with the role I had been playing in the organization. It was an unexpected opportunity and I decided to try it out and see: Did I aspire to be the CEO of the organization?” Clark said.

After eight months, she did. And Holland Area Chamber of Commerce directors removed the “interim” tag from Clark’s title last June.

The period when she was interim president allowed Clark to become comfortable in the role and to find out that the position was indeed the right one for her. Clark, her husband, Robert, and their two children made a “family decision” and she accepted the position, minus the “interim” label.

“It gave me an opportunity to try it out for size,” Clark said. “It was the right place at the right time for me. It’s going very well and I’m enjoying it.”

In Clark, the chamber got a chief executive who is well known in the business community and certainly familiar with the internal operations and strategy for the future.

When the board of directors named Clark president last year, Lynn Kobes, chairwoman of the chamber’s executive committee, credited her with providing “great stability” during a period of transition following Byrnes’ departure. She especially noted Clark’s work during the 2004 formation of the regional economic development agency Lakeshore Advantage, where Clark serves on the board of directors.

A 42-year-old Indiana native, Clark came to Holland in 1987 when her husband joined the former Prince Corp. as an engineer. After moving from Green Wood, Ind., Clark took a job doing fundraising for the Grand Rapids Symphony, a position that matched her professional background and education.

In Indiana, Clark had worked in the development office at her alma mater, Indiana University, where she earned a degree in music with a minor in business in 1985. While a music degree is certainly not seen as the traditional academic base for a career in business, Clark says there are parallels. The discipline it takes to learn how to play a musical instrument, performing in public and competing all are traits that Clark says are useful to her today.

“It just gave me a solid foundation,” said Clark, who plays the flute and has twice performed at Carnegie Hall in New York.

After three years of working for the Grand Rapids Symphony, Clark had an opportunity to join the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce. A friend who worked there was moving away from the area and told her of the opening. She applied and was hired as membership director.

The job gave Clark an opportunity to work in her new hometown, in a position where she could become more involved in the Holland area.

“This gave me an opportunity to work in my own community and to get to know our community. It was just a real fun way to get connected and tied in,” she said.

Likewise, she saw the position as chamber president as a chance to take on a higher leadership role in the community.

“One of the fundamentals is you’re making a difference in your own community. That’s what the chamber is all about, to make this a better place to work and to live and to do business,” she said.

Working for several years under long-time chamber President Lou Hallacy, who retired in 2000, Clark gradually took on increasing responsibilities, “wearing a lot of hats” and branching more into marketing and day-to-day and program administration. She was promoted to vice president in 2001.

Now, as chamber president, Clark is focusing on the future. Among the chamber’s goals are helping firms compete in the global environment, supporting the further development of Lakeshore Advantage, fostering regional cooperation, supporting work-force development and diversifying the membership base.

In promoting regional cooperation, the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce has formed a coalition with chambers in Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Grand Haven. The coalition provides the four organizations a forum to offer a united front on common issues.

“Each of us can serve our own communities, but it makes a lot of sense to work together,” she said. “There’s opportunities to speak as a united voice for West Michigan.”     

Name: Jane Clark

Organization: Holland Area Chamber of Commerce

Position: President

Age: 42

Residence: Holland

Business/community organizations: Board of directors for Lakeshore Advantage

Personal: Husband, Robert; two children

Biggest career break: Being named interim chamber president in October 2003

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