The People in the Room: Lessons Learned Along the Way

By Jim Campbell, ETEC’s First President | March 31, 2022

It all started with a committee. That’s probably how it ends too, but let’s wait a minute for that.

Roy Pruett, a friend and former Mayor of Oak Ridge, chaired the meeting. I had just been a part of his retirement roast, and wasn’t totally sure he was still a friend. Joe Lenhard, retired from the Department of Energy, was full of energy. Joe would be the chair of ETEC after Mayor Pruett and was the strongest proponent of Oak Ridge until his dying days. Also around the table were former ORNL Director Herman Postma, my old boss and Oak Ridger newspaper owner Tom Hill, entrepreneur Pete Craven, then Oak Ridge Chamber President Tom Rogers, and business owner Ben Adams (whose wife worked for me at The Oak Ridger). I knew them all, and all of them were a lot smarter than me.

It was one hell of a committee.

They had a job and needed someone to fill it. Actually, they had five or six jobs, but they only had enough money to pay one person. The job had a great title, ‘President, East Tennessee Economic Council’. The problem was the East Tennessee Economic Council was a new name for an old organization, and no one really knew what it was or wasn’t, or what it could be. I didn’t know what I was doing either. Collectively we were intrigued though, and we decided to see what could happen.

That was 26 years ago. All but one of those gentlemen are gone now. I miss them. They taught me well. Here are a few of those lessons.

Lesson One: Surround Yourself with Great People.

Looking down the list of chairmen of the ETEC board since 1995 you see some really brilliant people. The first 10 years included: Alan Liby, business owner; Gary Coxon, Bechtel and Lockheed Martin; Jeff Bostock, former Y-12 plant manager; Homer Fisher, UT Vice President; Pat Beasley, business owner; Nat Revis, scientist and business owner; Ron Townsend, CEO of ORAU; Tom Ballard, then at ORNL; Bob Van Hook, retired from Y-12 and ORNL; and Jan McNally, administrator of Methodist Medical Center. Each one brought new ideas and energies into the organization and helped us continually change to meet the needs of the community we served.

That didn’t include others who came in for a project or two, like Bill Manly, a National Merit of Technology Award winner. Or the Board members and subcommittee groups. People who knew how to get things done.

I can’t even begin to do justice to my co-workers over the years. Nicole, Lindsey, Ashley, and Tracy are awesome people. And Jesse Noritake, the first staff person for the Roane Anderson organization and my first hire at ETEC, was in a league of her own.

The people around me made it work.

Lesson Two: Failure Happens, but Keep Trying

Early on some folks believed that ORNL’s expertise in genetics might attract some investment from biotech companies. We formed a group to explore the opportunity and got a grant to pay some of the bills. We spent over a year talking to people in the industry and building the case they should be in East Tennessee. And we were right, sort of. A company reached into ORNL and offered the lead genomics researcher and his staff jobs…at another location.

Reindustrialization is an area where persistence is paying off. An idea of the early 1990s was designed to take a Superfund site and return it to productive use. That is not an easy task. Still, the site is beginning to blossom under private-sector ownership. New materials, computer sciences, national security, and the nuclear renaissance are all areas that are growing in East Tennessee.

Great people and persistence of effort make great things happen.

Lesson Three: Compete, Compete, Compete

The opportunities moving forward are significant.

Start with the cleanup program. Even with the huge amounts of progress in the program, there is still roughly 20 years of work to do at a cost of about a billion dollars a year—assuming funding can be sustained. That cleanup, focused now on ORNL and Y-12, opens up spaces for new science, enrichment, and nuclear security programs.

The cleanup already has created a space for a new lithium production facility at Y-12, part of its modernization program going forward. There is a good-sized list of projects that are designed to bring Y-12’s capabilities to the cutting edge.

Don’t forget the Clinch River TVA site. That site is prepped to showcase the capabilities of small modular reactors, and perhaps a couple of other demonstration projects.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is in a special place right now. It’s poised to compete for new work in just about every area: neutron sciences, nuclear sciences, chemistry, climate, advanced materials, computing, radioisotopes, and more.

Lesson Four: Finally, Have Fun

People’s day jobs are usually hard. There are lots of rules and regulations each company has, and if you are a government contractor, triple that.

We’ve tried to keep ETEC simple over the years. We don’t have a lot of rules, just a commitment to each other to make a few things happen. That’s reflected in our tactics: convene, catalyze, champion, and celebrate. The emphasis is on celebrate. Make people’s efforts to change this region fun, and they’ll keep coming back.

That initial committee taught me a few things over the years. I never regretted saying yes to the opportunity they put in front of me. It’s been fun.