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News Halsey stresses education in new role

Halsey stresses education in new role

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Robert Francis
Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

A. Lee Graham lgraham@bizpress.net

Whether representing Chesapeake Energy Corp. in its $100 million purchase of Pier 1 Imports’ Fort Worth office tower or helping push through smaller deals, Susan Halsey understands consensus. It’s that art of negotiation that the real estate attorney brings to the table as the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s newly named chairwoman. “Whatever the chamber’s initiatives are, I’ll try to get those done, handling those in the same way I handle real estate negotiations,” said Halsey, who succeeds Whit Smith in helping the chamber attract new companies and enrich the city’s tax base. Twenty-five years ago, the Louisiana State University graduate seemed more likely to go to bat for Dallas than Cowtown. But that changed when Jackson Walker LLP asked her to help open a Fort Worth office after five years at its Dallas location. “I moved here and have been here ever since,” said Halsey, whose husband, Gordon, runs a consulting business. And with daughters Taylor newly graduated from LSU and Brooke attending Texas A&M University, Halsey says she can find the time to expand her past role as chamber board member with the new position. Your real estate experience is undisputed. Does that insight make you uniquely qualified to serve as chamber chairwoman? I’ve been involved with the Chamber of Commerce for a number of years. Part of what makes me qualified is not only experience with the chamber itself, but also with the city through my own real estate activities and acting as former chairman with the [Greater Fort Worth] Real Estate Council. I think what ties it all together is that the chamber is involved with economic development in the community and both retaining companies already here and bringing new companies to town. What’s more important: bringing new companies to Fort Worth or bringing companies to Dallas-Fort Worth in general, since many believe the entire area benefits? It’s true that a new company in Tarrant County benefits us all, but I do think that the Fort Worth Chamber is concerned with small businesses and large ones here in the greater Fort Worth area. We want to work together as a region when we can, but if a company is looking at one spot in Arlington and one spot in Fort Worth, we, of course, would rather have them here. Fort Worth has a great story to sell. The [chamber’s] economic development team has attracted businesses that are not just businesses with low-level wages, but are companies whose employees are making higher salaries, which means they are buying more expensive homes that translates into more tax dollars for the city. How do you plan to continue encouraging that? The chamber asked me what I want to focus on in my term, and although there are a lot of issues important to the health and well-being of our city, education has got to be at the top of our list. Every company that looks at settling in our area, one of the first questions [they ask us] is what is the economic system like, and how well trained are our future employees going to be, and what kind of school system are they going to send their children to? Are you referring to colleges and universities or k-12 public schools? Both, but I’m talking more about the Fort Worth Independent School District because that’s the foundation that helps a person get into the community colleges and [four-year] colleges. There are lots of jobs available in our community, but we don’t seem to have people graduating from our schools having the right sets of skills for those job openings. Not everyone is well-suited for college. When you compare some jobs where only a two-year associate’s degree is required that a community college could provide versus a four-year college degree, we’re graduating a lot of kids with four-year degrees in jobs that don’t pay as much. We have a high dropout rate, and maybe some reason for the dropouts is, if I’m not going to go to college, why do I need a high school diploma? That issue – educating students for trade jobs and specific skills rather than traditional four-year degrees – has spurred lots of discussion. How do you plan to pursue it further? I’d like to see us learn from what successful charter schools do. [Gov. Rick] Perry just signed [House Bill] 5 about [reducing the required number of standardized tests for high school students], but there are a lot of spokes in this wheel in how education fits. The chamber’s mission is to help support businesses and the community, and that means providing businesses with good, skilled employees. Name the greatest challenges the chamber – and the Fort Worth economy – faces in the coming year? How will the chamber tackle those challenges? One challenge we face is a program with the chamber called Forward Fort Worth. It was known as Controlling Our Destiny and has been rebranded. That is the funding program for economic development at the chamber. I learned recently that the amount of money collected by the former Fort Worth campaigns was a fraction of the amount collected by Dallas, Austin and by San Antonio for the same reason. That means … our budget for economic development activities is substantially lower than the budget of those other cities. Part of the reason is we are part of a larger Metroplex. Some companies that come for Fort Worth are also looking to Dallas’ economic development fund, for example. I know the chamber is undergoing a campaign trying to increase those dollars. I see that as a challenge, but one I hope people will help the chamber meet because the more money we could raise would help us be more successful in attracting companies. We need to sell better.

What strengths does Fort Worth have in attracting new companies and how to you plan to capitalize on those? Our strengths are really numerous. One thing is we’re in Texas, which has an economy that is much better than most other states in the country. We are located near [Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport] and have Alliance [Airport] and have so many great assets. If I had to sum up what I think is Fort Worth’s best advantage, it’s that it has big-city advantages with small-town culture. We bridge the gap of small-town feel and urban experience. How strong is Fort Worth’s real estate industry? Is it truly rebounding, as some believe? Look at the growth in the building. You use downtown and I think that once we get this construction completely done on the highways, that’s going to continue. Development will happen around those lanes of traffic. It’s definitely rebounding. You’re a managing partner with a major real estate law firm. And you’re also chamber chairwoman. How do you find the time? I’m a good juggler. I have a lot of really great help. The thing about being chairperson at the chamber is that staff at the chamber does all the hard legwork. They set up the events. They help in so many ways, and it really is an honor to be chairman. It’s more of an honor than it is a burden. What personal traits make you a successful businesswoman, and will any of those help you in your chamber role? I think I am a good listener and that’s the best thing. If you listen to what people are saying and really think about why they are saying certain things, it’s easier to help them get what they want. That’s my job as a real estate attorney: to help people achieve success with their projects. As a real estate attorney, a transactional attorney like I am, my biggest goal is finding a point of consensus for people. Whoever it is, I’m working with the attorney who represents the other party, and I try to find a meeting place where both sides are happy. My goal is to keep my client out of a courtroom. In a trial situation, you have a guy suing another guy. In my job, I’m trying to get a deal done. Whatever the chamber’s initiatives are, I’m trying to get that done. Whatever negotiations we’re having it go through, I handle those the same way I handle real estate negotiations. Are you a Fort Worth native? A native Texan. I started working here [in Fort Worth] in June 1988 and moved here in January 1989. I did live in Louisiana in high school and was an LSU undergraduate and law school graduate. Why Texas? My whole family was from Texas. We moved to Louisiana because my dad bought an insurance agency there, but I was recruited by Jackson Walker out of law school. That was in 1983 in the Dallas office. It was the only office they had at the time. They already had clients in Fort Worth, and I helped open up the Fort Worth office. I loved living in Dallas at the time. I didn’t know if I wanted to move to Fort Worth. I commuted three days a week, but then they came out with a newfangled thing called a mobile phone that cost $1,200 back then. I said, ‘Give me one, then I’ll do it.’ It would only be three days a week. Have you gotten any advice from your chamber predecessors? They said it’ll go by so fast, you’ll wish you had a second year. Every one of them said that.  

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