‘Once-in-a-generation’ leader’s tenure is coming to a close

A typical work day for Tom Humphries, now in his 70s, has him sitting in on several conference calls, possibly attending a breakfast meeting and likely discussing potential growth options with any number of company leaders — and that’s all before noon.

Working a 12-hour day translates to business as usual for the Mahoning Valley native and longtime head of the Youngstown / Warren Regional Chamber.

Earlier this year, Humphries announced he intends to step down at the end of December. But those who know him best and have worked closest to him realize stepping down for Humphries doesn’t equate to stepping away.

“I like to be busy,” said Humphries, noting he could have retired several years ago.

But Humphries can’t see himself not working. Instead, he plans to become more involved with Data Voice, the company in Warren he started about 20 years ago and has entrusted others to run.

And, although he has been in the process of transitioning since he announced plans to hand the reins over to James Dignan, former commander of the 910th Airlift Wing at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna, Humphries intends to continue working for the chamber one day a week, but “for one year only,” he said.

“I agreed to one day a week next to offer support in a few key areas,” he said.

Making a regional chamber

Humphries, who grew up in Youngstown and now lives in Girard, was working for Sprint in the early 1990s when the Youngstown, Warren and Niles chambers merged, and joined forces with two area economic development organizations, to form the Youngstown / Warren Regional Chamber that would serve Trumbull and Mahoning counties. Humphries soon became the regional chamber’s first chairman.

“We saw the importance of having these smaller organizations join together, work together as one unit, for the betterment of the community as a whole,” Humphries said.

For him, sitting in the top spot of the newly formed organization was a natural evolution.

“Wherever I’ve been, working at a company or volunteering, I always rose to leadership roles,” Humphries explained. “I was always very active in and committed to the companies and organizations where I’ve been. I’ve always had a sense of satisfaction knowing I was doing what I could to help people, to serve the community.”

The chamber has grown from about 1,300 members to around 2,600. In the beginning, the organization was ranked “number eight in the state at a distance,” Humphries said. Now, it is No. 3, coming behind Cleveland and Cincinnati.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” Humphries said.

But it hasn’t all been easy.

“Merging several organizations, representing different communities, there are issues to work through,” Humphries said. “There are cultural differences between Warren and Youngstown, between Trumbull and Mahoning counties. When you bring it all together there’s some pain you have to go through. If you have two people at the table, you could easily have two differing opinions. Bring a roomful, bring leaders from 1,300 businesses and companies, there are a lot of opinions.”

But, for the most part, all have agreed to put economic development at the forefront.

Building an economy

Humphries, who was inducted into the 2017 class of Cleveland Magazine’s Community Leader Business Hall of Fame last week, typically introduces the regional chamber as “the private sector of economic development.”

“All of the work we do is to support economic development,” he said.

That could include introducing or bringing new products or services to the Valley, attracting companies , helping established businesses grow, retaining companies already here, hosting social events, educating people about government issues and promoting educational opportunities.

Under Humphries’ leadership, the chamber netted France-based Vallourec’s $1 billion-plus pipe mill that landed in Youngstown. The chamber also successfully helped the General Motors Assembly Complex in Lordstown, through the “Bring It Home” campaign, save the plant after the automaker targeted it for closing.

“The GM campaign actually had three partners, the plant’s management, the union and the chamber,” Humphries said. “We worked together and we were successful. I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of this entire community for that.”

Tom Mock, GM Lordstown spokesman, credits Humphries with being “a strong, effective and results-oriented leader.”

“He knows how to build a success story by building relationships and never shied away from the tough stuff to get a job done the right way,” Mock said. “His accomplishments are many and his legacy and reach will continue to create game changing opportunities for the Mahoning Valley.

Humphries said of note is that after Delphi emerged from bankruptcy more than 10 years ago, the company closed facilities in Dayton, Columbus and New York. But operations that continued, the plants left standing, were in the Warren area.

In the midst of the chamber’s accomplishments, Humphries said, he would have liked to have been able to do more. Before he’s done, he would like to see membership grow to 3,000.

His efforts were rebuked when the chamber backed Senate Bill 5, a state law that restricted collective bargaining rights among state and municipal employees. The Ohio General Assembly passed the measure and Gov. John Kasich signed it, but voters overwhelmingly overturned.

“We lost some members over that,” Humphries said. “But we gained support, too.”

The Valley also lost Boeing, but not or lack of trying.

“That was the biggest project that we got close to but we didn’t get,” Humphries said. “But everyone, the Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Akron areas all stood behind Youngstown. We made it to sixth place for consideration. We didn’t get it, but we sure tried. You have to try. You hear people say why reach for that. You’ll never get it. But how do you know if you don’t try.”

Humphries, who is on his third set of staff, said his proudest moments are seeing the people who work for him move onto bigger and better opportunities.

“I’ve maintained good relationships with the people who worked at chamber over years,” Humphries said. “A lot of good people have come through here, and I’ve been honored to be a leader of really good, successful people.

Tony Paglia, former vice president of government affairs for the chamber, said “to be on Tom Humphries’ staff and help to make the Valley a better place to live and work” was the highlight of his career.

“A community leader like him comes along once in a generation so his shoes will be hard to fill, but he leaves the Chamber structurally sound and poised for continued success,” Paglia said.

“Tom took a newly merged Youngstown / Warren Regional Chamber that was in financial trouble and in the midst of merger pains and made it one of the largest chambers of commerce in Ohio in terms of membership. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.”

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