Coaching. Teamwork. Motivation.
Bill Thornton, who just retired as president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce on July 7, has basically had two careers: football coach and leader at the chamber. He coached for 16 years and now leaves after 31 years at the chamber, most of those as president and CEO.
In both careers, coaching, teamwork and motivation have been key.
“I didn’t know what skills were readily transferable,” he said as he worked through his final day at the chamber. “I found out pretty quickly that the same tools that I had developed coaching – and following in the footsteps of some great mentors – were the same skills I needed at the Chamber.
“You’ve got to be organized, you’ve got to provide leadership, you’ve got to motivate people, you’ve got to be able to communicate, you’ve got to be able to sell and to market. All those things I also had to do in the coaching business. And those were the same things that you must do in a disciplined way in any endeavor in life. I was fortunate that I had, like I said, been mentored by some really great leaders and it gave me a fighting chance when I joined the Chamber.”
Thornton, who earned BA and MA degrees at Southwest Texas State University, had been offensive coordinator for that school – now Texas State University – with Head Coach Jim Wacker. Thornton followed Wacker to Texas Christian University in 1982, again as offensive coordinator. Wacker had success, ranking as high as No. 12 in 1984, the first time the program had ranked since 1960.
Thornton was one of three finalists for the head coaching job at Kansas State and then decided he wanted to do something different. He had met Mayor Bob Bolen while at TCU and Thornton interviewed for an entry level position at the chamber as Director of Local Business Development. He was hired for the position and, as Thornton says, “away we went.”
Thornton has now been in the CEO and president role since 2000. He joined the Chamber staff initially in July 1989 and was named vice president of economic development in 1992.
As president, Thornton has been a key player in numerous community initiatives, including the Wright Amendment agreement, the Base Realignment and Closure task force, and the formation of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council.
Thornton has been recognized as one of the top economic development practitioners by Southern Business & Development magazine, and Businessman of the Year by the Fort Worth Business Press.
Thornton, who has rarely sought the spotlight, finds himself in it as he exits an organization where he has spent more than three decades. A few days before his final day, the Fort Worth Chamber staff was able to celebrate Thornton COVID style with a surprise neighborhood drive by parade filled with balloons, streamers, and a cake.
“Bill Thornton has been a true champion for Fort Worth and the entire business community,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price in an email. “Under Bill’s leadership Fort Worth saw unprecedented growth and major developments such as the Alliance corridor. His commitment and passion for Fort Worth was contagious and resulted in the Chamber being recognized as a top economic development organization. Bill’s thoughtful leadership will be missed, but he leaves the city well positioned to move forward.”
Thornton noted that the Chamber and the business community have placed a greater focus on workforce and transportation infrastructure than they did in his early years at the Chamber.
And, as the city has grown to be the 13th largest in the county, Thornton knows the city is in the spotlight for economic development.
“People are giving Fort Worth a look right now, Chris Strayer, [Executive Vice President of Economic Development at the Chamber] has 105 active prospects,” said Thornton. “Of those, there’s probably 80 that they’re in regular contact with. And those vary in size, everything from headquarters to back office, to industrial, to manufacturing, you name it.”
Thornton said one accomplishment for the Chamber during his time here has been the work he did with other economic development leaders to shepherd the Texas Economic Development Act, better known as Chapter 313, though the Texas Legislature.
The act helped level the economic development playing field for Texas with other states and has helped Texas attract large capital-intensive projects such as the Facebook development in the Alliance area.
The act needs to be renewed in the next legislative session, Thornton noted.
“That legislation is something that originated right here in our backyard because it’s the experience that we had seen on several projects where we could not just get over the property tax hurdle when you’re talking about companies that are investing multiple billions of dollars into facilities,” said Thornton. “I’d say we’re very proud of that piece of legislation. I don’t think we’d have the Facebook investment here if it wasn’t for 313.”
Thornton’s departure is hardly the only longtime Chamber staff member to depart. In April, Marilyn Gilbert, Executive Vice President of Marketing, retired after 30 years.
While Thornton is retiring from his position with the Chamber, don’t be surprised if you see him around town. One other aspect of his football career has carried over to his Chamber career. Thornton is a fan – make that a very big fan – of Fort Worth.
“I’ve talked to some folks and there’s some things out there percolating, I’m not going to retire retire,” he said. “COVID-19 has kind of impacted some of those potential plans, but I’m not going to retire regardless.”
As Thornton leaves the Chamber, he leaves it in the hands of Brandom Gengelbach who has taken the helm at the Chamber as president.
Gengelbach came to the Chamber as executive vice president of Economic Development in November 2016.
Before coming to Fort Worth, Gengelbach served as president of the public-private Maury County Chamber and Economic Alliance. He re-energized the Columbia, Tennessee.-based organization, doubling membership while leading a three-year effort that brought 2,300 jobs to the county, $158 million in capital investment and a reduction in unemployment.