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Vandiver retires: When it came to area economic development, he was ‘hands on’

POSTED: March 31, 2013 12:27 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Russel Vandiver talks about his career at Lanier Tech during his last day in the office.

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It may have seemed out of sorts for some folks, like putting on tight-fitting new shoes and longing for the comfortable pair.

Afterall, important technical education matters were being discussed at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce board meeting last week, and Russell Vandiver was nowhere to be found.

But there was still buzz about the white-bearded Vandiver, who retired March 21 from Lanier Technical College after nearly 37 years.

“Every company that has moved here or those that are an existing industry, he has had his hands on,” said Kit Dunlap, the chamber’s president and CEO.

For many community leaders, Vandiver has made his mark in many ways. He spent the past two years as president but the previous 30-plus exclusively in economic development, recruitment and workforce training.

“Russell has been the epitome of a servant leader,” said Will Schofield, Hall County Schools superintendent, in an email about his friend.

“He approaches life with a can-do attitude, always willing to roll up his sleeves and get the work done.”

And hard, physical work was how Vandiver started his career.

The Habersham County native and Jefferson High School graduate had graduated in the mid-1970s from West Georgia College in Carrollton with a “real shiny political science degree.”

“I decided I wasn’t going to go and make $8,000 a year with a four-year degree when I could make twice that just laying brick,” Vandiver said in an interview Tuesday at his southeast Hall home.

He was working a job in Chicopee Village for Carroll Daniel Construction when he approached Lanier Tech for a job. He ended up starting work in July 1976, doing special needs testing in a work-study program.

Companies were starting to move to Hall County about that time, particularly ones discouraged by labor unions in the North and encouraged by cheap real estate and wages in parts of the South, Vandiver said.

A Lanier Tech employee who worked with industry decided to leave as a plant manager, and Vandiver saw a new job opportunity

Then, industrial interest in the Hall County area “just broke loose,” he said.

“We had 10 or 12 companies every year locating and we’d do Quick Start projects for them,” Vandiver said, referring to the state program that provides free customized workforce training to qualified businesses.

“I had no background on how to do it. We just figured out how to work with companies and make sure we had people that would fill jobs,” Vandiver said.

In the years ahead, the work got intense and complex at times, as new industries were being lured and other community leaders were drawn into talks.

“If you talk about economic development and what Gainesville and Hall County have done, it’s a team (effort),” Vandiver said.

“When you sit down and talk to a company, you’ve got all these people in the room who have all the answers, whether it’s schools, utilities or incentives that are part of the package.

“Sometimes, that (togetherness) will close the deal. Companies don’t have time for the community to bicker back and forth about whether we want ’em, that type of stuff,” Vandiver said.

Community efforts to attract King’s Hawaiian as the bakery’s East Coast distributor turned out to be as sweet as one of the company’s dinner rolls.

Vandiver said he got a recent phone call from an executive who had called to congratulate him on his retirement. During the conversation, the executive recalled a potential deal-making dinner he had with Vandiver at Lake Lanier Islands.

The executive said he had to turn to the company’s owner and tell him “to quit smiling or I wouldn’t have anything to negotiate.”

The owner had his mind already made up, settling on what would be a location in Oakwood. “Before they got on the plane the next morning, there was a handshake and (an assurance) they were coming,” Vandiver said.

He credited much of Hall’s recent successes to Tim Evans, the chamber’s vice president of economic development, who had worked in a similar capacity with the state.

“With somebody like that, you’re going to have calls you wouldn’t have gotten if you had a normal person out there without that (background),” he said.

Evans had equal praise for Vandiver.

“He was revered (even long ago) as one of the real stalwarts of economic development in Georgia,” he said in an earlier interview.

There have been bumps along the way, particularly in the form of the Great Recession, which slowed development — industrial and otherwise — across the nation.

But Vandiver believes Hall was even able to weather that because of a diverse industrial base.

“We got kind of close (to being saturated) with automotive suppliers, but that sort of took care of itself,” he said.

“We’ve always been able to absorb plant closures and layoffs because we have so much diversification. People say it would be great to have a Kia plant.

“You really don’t want three or 4,000 people employed by one company, because if that company goes down, it’s like dropping a bomb — it just destroys everything.”

Also, a low jobless rate isn’t necessarily a great thing when it comes to industrial recruitment.

“Let’s say it drops to 5 percent, other people know that too,” he said. “And if they’re looking to locate a plant and they need 200 employees, that’s a bad employment rate.”

Vandiver, now 60, looks back over a career with few regrets — including staying put in the same place almost his entire career.

“I never looked at doing the work at Lanier Tech as a job,” he said. “It was more of a love of being able to see people getting a job, changing their lives, growing their families.”

One thing that never crossed his mind was serving as president.

But he jumped into it head first when he was appointed in September 2010. He was eager to gain a second accreditation for the college, making transfers easier for students, and accelerate marketing and branding for the school.

However, Vandiver was faced with a dilemma early in his tenure.

He wanted to name Tim McDonald as his successor as the college’s vice president of economic development, but McDonald was leading the Dawson County campus during a time of key construction.

“I ended up, for over two years, as being the vice president of economic development and serving as president,” Vandiver said.

“I would do my president’s job during the day, then do the VP’s job in the evenings and come home and wear the computer out at night trying to catch up on emails.”

That kind of tireless pace caught up to him.

In October 2012, he broke the news at the school’s board of directors meeting that he was retiring in March.

“I’m at the point where the bucket list of stuff I wanted to accomplish (at the college) is getting down to where there’s just a few things left to do,” he said on that day.

But most of all, he was ready to spend time with his family, especially with his son, Josh, his daughter-in-law, Amanda, and their two children, Jackson, 8, and Taylor, 5, who live next door.

Vandiver’s wife, Laura, died in August.

“I’m trying to teach my grandson the wonderful art of deer hunting and fly-fishing,” he said.

Vandiver loves the outdoors — just one look at his living room confirms that. Deer trophies and fish he’s caught line the wall, above a roaring fireplace that welcomed visitors on a cold, early-spring day.

The two-piece suit and tie he wore at work are way gone. For last week’s interview, Vandiver was at his most casual, down to the camouflage Crocs on his feet.

His services are no longer for hire. “If I wanted to continue working, I would do that at Lanier Tech,” he said.

But he’ll consider volunteer work, up to offering some advice on economic development.

In the meantime, Laura Elder, Lanier Tech’s vice president of administrative services, will hold the reins until a new president is named.

Technical College System of Georgia Commissioner Ron Jackson, speaking at the chamber meeting, said the State Board of the Technical College System of Georgia will vote this week on a recommendation for a new president.

Vandiver believes all will be fine at Lanier Tech, perhaps better than ever.

“It was time for a change and the college certainly needed a change,” he said.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there that I can’t see because I’ve been there for so long. ... I think you’re going to see some dramatic changes in the way Lanier Tech approaches different programs.

“I’m really comfortable with that.”

He echoed that sentiment during his retirement reception, where he got a glass sailboat as a gift and a portrait of his likeness was unveiled.

“Things are in good shape,” he told the group. “We’ve got a bright future in front of us.”

Still, McDonald, who now serves as Lanier Tech’s vice president of economic development, said he believes his former boss left a mark on the school — and the region as a whole.

“His passion for growing jobs in our area is unmatched. I’ve never met anyone who was more passionate about improving the living standards of our area through job creation.”

McDonald recalled being introduced to the college’s board as the new VP.

When Vandiver gave him his turn to speak, McDonald said, “If you want to know what kind of fool would try to replace a legend, I’m that kind of fool.”


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