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Lifestyles

April 23, 2014

MOSS: Business leaders praise 1si’s Dant Chesser for leadership

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — One Southern Indiana needed a president and CEO. Wendy Dant Chesser asked for the job.

She didn’t get it.

Before too long, One Southern Indiana again needed its top leader. Chesser again applied.

She again was turned down.

Before even less time, a whole lot less time, a shell-shocked One Southern Indiana returned to the hunt for a top exec. Yes, an undeterred Chesser was back as an option. The organization surely noticed Chesser’s resilience. It also had to believe she better was ready. Anyway, the third time was the proverbial charm. Chesser finally got what she wanted.

One Southern Indiana finally got what it needed.

That’s certainly the sign, seemingly every sign. The fourth in the role in eight years, Dant lends stability but not just that. One Southern Indiana adds members, nears 1,000. It forges partnerships, promotes regional brotherhood. It plans, it advises, it pats backs. It returns to relevance, even to prominence. One Southern Indiana has stopped being One Southern Indiana Turmoil.

“There was a lot of uncertainty,” Dale Gettelfinger, board chairman, said. “With Wendy, we’re able to have more certainty. Finances are much better. Everything is moving in the right direction.”

At 45, living with her 6-year-old daughter, Joslyn, in Sellersburg, Chesser is back home. She grew up in Jeffersonville, earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University Southeast, went away for 20 years for a career in economic development. Chesser’s homecoming was welcomed if but to lift the organization off the mat. She expected more, though, right off, at least of herself.

“They could’ve easily hired a nanny — stop the bleeding, take it to the next level,” Chesser said. “I didn’t want folks to see me in a nanny role. That’s why it was important to get a strategy in place.”

Approachable, eager for the organization to be the star and not herself, Chesser set out to listen and to learn. One Southern Indiana met with business people and surveyed others. The board huddled.  Chesser buoyed staff spirits. Gettelfinger notices Chesser and that staff steadily winning broad confidence.

“There was a lot of reaching out to folks, getting them involved,” Gettelfinger said.

Or as Melanie Douglas, the group’s marking and communications director, said, “Wendy set a path for the organization. We have to have a strong leader. We’re very fortunate.”

Chesser understood One Southern Indiana — part Chamber of Commerce, part economic development agency — had lost a stream of members. Others could leave, as well, if they don’t believe their dues buy them something.

“A lot of folks are sitting on the sidelines, watching this,” Chesser said. “They’re not participating yet.

Chesser aims to tailor services to needs. She pushes for our workforce to add skills and to keep learning throughout life. Education must be seen as a region strength, not a weakness.

Business leaders such as Paul Wheatley, director of marketing and finance for the River Ridge Development Authority, noticed not only Chesser’s effort but her effectiveness.

“Wendy is a dynamic leader with strong local roots and is implementing a strategic plan for taking this community forward — particularly in terms of key infrastructure and workforce requirements,” he said.

Some regional plusses are clear cut, enviable in fact. Upcoming Ohio River bridges, development at River Ridge, blossoming of downtowns, these are among potential game changers. Chesser also devotes herself to squeezing every drop of such benefits.

“We can screw it up,” she said. “If we don’t put our best foot forward . . . .”

Chesser kept seeking this job because she believed she could do it well, and that she wanted to do well on her home court. Like One Southern Indiana needed Chesser, she needed One Southern Indiana.

“I own this challenge,” she told me. “I need to work to protect the value of an organization that I believe in.”

— Send column ideas to dale.moss@twc.com

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