Teaming Up at the Top

CEOs and Chairs Spill the Secrets
Behind Their Successful Partnerships

(Above) Photo by Rich Smith

By Catherine Smith

It’s often said that “teamwork makes the dream work.” John C. Maxwell coined the phrase back in 2002, but the message is still relevant for today’s leaders. Successful teamwork starts at the top of an organization’s leadership – often in the partnership between Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chair of the Board (COB).

We spoke with several of the CEO and COB teams leading successful operations in the Chattanooga area. What follows is a deeper look into how they work together to further the unique goals of their organizations.

In the Business of Better Business

Christy Gillenwater, CEO (Right) & Jim Haley, COB (Left)

Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce

The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce partners with a vast group of businesses to promote economic growth in our city and beyond. The partnership between Christy Gillenwater, CEO, and Jim Haley, chairman, began in 2020, and they have proven to be a powerful team as they’ve navigated the challenges of the past two years.

Gillenwater is a catalytic, visionary leader with her sights set on a bright future for Chattanooga businesses. Haley is an analytical problem solver who brings others to the table to make things happen. Together, their leadership dynamic has created a powerful force behind the Chamber’s goals for the Chattanooga area. “We want the Chamber to have an earned reputation as a major catalyst for the success of the business community,” Haley shares. Gillenwater agrees, “We want our businesses and our people to thrive.”

With these goals in mind, Gillenwater and Haley have worked to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion within Chattanooga businesses under the guidance of Lorne Steedley, the Chamber’s vice president of diversity and inclusive growth. Both Haley and Gillenwater agree that a diverse and inclusive workforce is critical to Chattanooga’s long-term economic growth, and therefore a critical issue for the Chamber to address. “We need to unite our community around the prospect of everyone thriving in order to compete globally,” Gillenwater states. “I believe the impact already has been significant, but with the continued attention of the Chamber, can be long-lasting,” says Haley.

Given the one-year tenure of Chamber chairs, Haley stepped down from the position on June 30, but he and Gillenwater were able to make great strides toward shared goals over the past year thanks to their strong teamwork and commitment. For other leaders working together in a similar capacity, Haley advises, “With trust and candor in the relationship, all things are possible – the successes will come more easily, and the setbacks will be more endurable.” As she prepares to welcome a new chair and form another close partnership, Gillenwater adds, “I believe in surrounding yourself with great talent and working together to find and execute solutions. My intention is to be a collaborative, results-driven leader who sees hurdles, not walls, in the path ahead.”

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Partnership in a Pandemic

Janelle Reilly, CEO (Right) & Jill Aplin, COB (Left)

CHI Memorial

CHI Memorial is a nonprofit, faith-based healthcare system of three hospitals and three health centers serving Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia. With 4,500 employees, 597 medical staff members, and 350 volunteers, overseeing the operations of CHI Memorial is no small feat, but Janelle Reilly, CEO, and Jill Aplin, COB, have proven to be up to the task.

The partnership between Reilly and Aplin began in 2016 and deepened in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on healthcare systems around the world. “Jill took over as board chair in the middle of the pandemic,” Reilly recalls. “Her calm leadership style has been very helpful in influencing me, and therefore the whole organization, to stay steadfast as we managed surge, upon surge, upon surge of the virus.” Given the dire circumstances, Reilly and Aplin had to adapt quickly to their new partnership. “COVID-19 changed our focus quickly and dramatically,” says Aplin, who is a registered nurse with a Master of Science. “Our open communication and shared vision helped us navigate the uncharted, constantly changing landscape of the pandemic.”

Certainly, adaptation has been the name of the game for both women since stepping into their respective roles. “I believe leadership styles need to adjust to the situation. In most normal circumstances, I am extremely inclusive and prefer team-based decision-making. Occasionally, I’ve had to swing to the other side – call the shots, be directive – but that is rare,” Reilly explains. Aplin adds, “Recognizing the changing needs in our community and shifting our focus accordingly has helped us handle the complex challenges that have come our way during the past two years.”

The partnership between Reilly and Aplin has been forged in steel by the challenges of the pandemic, and they have valuable advice about teamwork for leaders facing their own challenges. “It’s through trust and transparency that you can lead the organization together. Be willing to share the good as well as the struggles,” Reilly says. “I know that Janelle will keep me informed of what I need to know in order to function well in my role, and likewise, I keep her informed,” Aplin explains. “I have come to care about her as a person, and I know that is mutual.”

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Committed to Culture

Mitch Patel, CEO (Right) & Ish Patel, COB (Left)

Vision Hospitality Group

Family-owned and operated, Vision Hospitality Group is the Chattanooga-based company behind a number of premium hotels throughout the United States. CEO Mitch Patel founded the group in 1997, and his father, Ish Patel, joined the team in 2002 as chairman of the board. The family dynamic that shaped their core company values has also influenced the people-first approach that the Patels take as leaders.

Mitch has always had a reliable mentor in his father, who introduced him to the hospitality industry as a child. “That mentor relationship has continued to develop as Vision has grown from the first hotel to what it is today,” Mitch shares. “A president rarely gives out the title of chairman, but his impact on Vision has been so powerful that it warranted the title of honorary chairman.” Certainly, Ish’s impact on the company’s culture can be felt at every level. “He remains a constant presence within our office and hotels, ensuring our team members feel like a part of our family,” Mitch continues.

This family culture is a pillar of Vision Hospitality Group’s success. “Our focus on culture has paved a new path for hospitality that guides us to positively impact the communities we call home, even as our company footprint steadily grows,” Mitch states. Echoing this sentiment, Ish elaborates, “Without culture, we have nothing. Our foundation is strong and based on the Golden Rule – if you are honest, do things with the utmost integrity, and treat everyone with respect, good things will happen.”

An unshakable culture like this can help a company navigate even the most unforeseen challenges, and the pandemic certainly proved that. In order to uphold their commitment to culture throughout the pandemic, Mitch says, “We created several initiatives, such as establishing a food bank for our associates to access, providing lunches for the children of team members during the school week, and having weekly Zoom calls so we could see each other’s faces.”

This commitment to culture will continue to guide their leadership in the future. “Our hope is that we continue to build a company that is dedicated to our values as we work toward our shared goal of being the best, most respected hotel company in America,” says Ish.

Photo by Rich Smith

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Competence Inspired by Confidence

Andrew Scarbrough, CEO (Left) & Stephen Culp, COB (Right)


Delegator is a Chattanooga-based, fully integrated digital advertising agency that was founded in 2009. Much has changed in the last 13 years, but co-founders Andrew Scarbrough and Stephen Culp have consistently worked together to ensure that Delegator has kept up with the times.

The two first teamed up 15 years ago at Smart Furniture, with Culp serving as CEO and Scarbrough taking charge of digital marketing. As their skill sets expanded, so did the digital world, and with that came the need for a specialized digital marketing agency in Chattanooga. This is what prompted the pair to found Delegator. “We love this community, and we want to do our part in contributing to its success,” say Scarbrough and Culp.

“We are all in on helping team Chattanooga win.”
United by this goal, Scarbrough and Culp quickly developed trust in one another, maintaining open and honest communication even in challenging times. “When I faced a significant period of health concern with one of my children, I was able to be open with Andrew about it. He stepped up to fill any leadership gaps at the time,” Culp shares. “It was another trust- and bond-builder between the two of us.” This level of trust has guided their core company values and contributed to their success, which can be summed up by what they call a “TIER1” ethos, meaning: one foundation built on Trust, Integrity, Expertise, and Results.

For leaders who wish to foster a culture of trust and effective collaboration, Culp advises, “Focus on building trust, and a golden rule ethos, with your team. Everything flows from that.” According to Scarbrough, this allows leaders to adopt “a more delegative leadership style with the team, confidently relying on their expertise and capabilities.” Confidence in their team has allowed Scarbrough and Culp to focus on innovation and future growth rather than everyday task management. The pair says they don’t have to worry about rules and directives when they have a team they can trust to consistently deliver strong results, guided by their own initiative.

As for the future of Delegator, Culp and Scarbrough hope to continue expanding their business ventures without compromising on the fundamental values that set Delegator apart.

A Mutual Mission

Baron Herdelin-Doherty, CEO (Right) & Dennis Blanton, LBMC, PC Market Leader (Left)

YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga

For 150 years, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga’s various programs and services have promoted community well-being in our city and the surrounding area. Today, Baron Herdelin-Doherty, president and CEO, and Dennis Blanton, market leader and COB, work together to ensure that the YMCA’s legacy lives on.

Since 2021, Herdelin-Doherty and Blanton have successfully navigated a number of challenges, particularly those brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that the YMCA is a nonprofit organization and relies heavily on memberships to fund their operations, they were dealt a particularly heavy blow. “It was extremely difficult to maintain that membership under the restrictions of COVID-19,” Blanton admits. As a result of this financial strain, Herdelin-Doherty says, “There was some uncertainty about how we would come out of it.” Undoubtedly, their teamwork made all the difference.
As they worked to overcome these challenges, Herdelin-Doherty’s enthusiastic leadership energized their team, while Blanton’s diplomacy brought people together to focus on the mission. “Common ground is always more productive,” Herdelin-Doherty explains. “The shared sense of a mission-based organization drives effective collaboration.” Fostering this sense of purpose allowed their team to adapt quickly. “We, along with many of our volunteers and staff, got creative with funding sources, made a lot of tough decisions regarding spending, and figured out a path forward that allowed us to continue our mission throughout our community,” Blanton says. As a result – in 2021 alone – the YMCA’s Community Support Campaign topped $1 million for the first time, and roughly 575,000 meals were served to Chattanooga locals in need.

Now, a year into their partnership, Herdelin-Doherty and Blanton remain hopeful for the future as the YMCA continues to evolve. “Through my partnership with Dennis and the rest of the board, my hope is that the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga will grow to serve more families and children in need and provide healthy choices for this community that is active and vibrant,” says Herdelin-Doherty. In the same spirit, Blanton adds, “My term is two years, followed by an additional two years as immediate past chair. At the end of that time, I hope Baron and I can look back and honestly say we moved the Y forward.”

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Single-Barrel Synergy

Tim Piersant, Co-Founder (Left) and CEO & Barry Large, COB (Right)

Chattanooga Whiskey

In 2015, Chattanooga Whiskey became the first distillery to legally produce craft bourbon in Chattanooga – signaling an end to prohibition-era restrictions that had been in place for 100 years. Since getting the green light to set up shop in the Scenic City, Chattanooga Whiskey has risen to prominence under the leadership of Tim Piersant, CEO, and Barry Large, COB.

Piersant and Large connected shortly after Chattanooga Whiskey was founded in 2011, amidst the organization’s Vote Whiskey campaign to legalize liquor distillation in Chattanooga. “It took two years of pushing for the law to change, and Barry was nearby throughout the whole process,” Piersant recalls. “We did not take on any investment until the law passed in 2013, but he was one of the first investors. We’ve been through a lot together since that time.”

Indeed, shortly after their legislative victory, one of Chattanooga Whiskey’s co-founders split from the group – an early test of the trust between the brand and their investors. “The support system could have failed in that moment, but Barry, along with our other investors, not only helped me navigate that split but gave me the confidence to lead, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without that mutual trust.”

According to Piersant, after Miller Welborn’s six-year tenure ended, bringing Large on as chairman of the board in 2020 was an easy decision. “We wanted a board chair who was in tune with the organization and in tune with me personally, and Barry is that guy,” he explains. “Barry is very entrepreneurial, so I lean on him particularly in that realm. We want to challenge the status quo by pushing ourselves and the rest of our team to think outside the box.”

In just under 10 years, Piersant and Large have made Chattanooga Whiskey a prominent figure in the Southern distillery scene. “We’ve finally made it onto a national platform, and we’re known throughout the country by craft whiskey connoisseurs,” Piersant says. Looking forward to the next 10 years, he adds, “We hope to continue investing in the brand holistically – building up our team, our community, our facilities, and the overall experience. We have a lot to do, and I hope to keep working with Barry for a long time.”

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Focused on the Fans

Jeremy Alumbaugh, CEO (Left) & Paul Rustand, COB (Right)

Chattanooga Football Club

Founded in 2009, the Chattanooga Football Club (CFC) has fostered a love of soccer in the Chattanooga area for over 13 years. Since Jeremy Alumbaugh became CEO in 2019, he and Paul Rustand, COB, have worked closely to maintain the community CFC has created here in the Scenic City.

CFC joined the National Independent Soccer Association in 2019, but COVID-19 had a number of challenges in store for their first year as a professional team. Pandemic-related restrictions were particularly challenging. “CFC is built on community and was built by the community,” Alumbaugh says. “So much of our interaction with the community occurs at Finley Stadium, so we had to find new ways to engage when that went away.” Increasing the club’s digital presence helped to bridge that gap, according to Rustand. “When games were cancelled, we showed some great games from the past, ran contests, and found ways for fans to get to know the players and coaches a bit more,” he explains. “It wasn’t anything amazingly innovative, but we were consistent and dedicated to maintaining connections with the community.”

Despite these challenges, CFC has stayed true to the mission that has guided them from the start: bringing the Chattanooga community together by fostering a love of soccer. “Soccer is a great thing to gather around. It attracts people from all socio-economic backgrounds, all races, and all walks of life that might not normally get together,” Rustand says. “We started this club to give people another reason to cheer for Chattanooga – it’s all about making our community better.” This mission has empowered Alumbaugh with a clear path forward as a leader. “We hold ourselves accountable to a mission of being authentic, being inclusive, being involved in the community, and working collaboratively,” he shares. “It’s easy for me to maintain that culture in the office when it’s the same culture we have in the board room.”

Looking to the future, CFC is poised to grow alongside Chattanooga as our city continues to attract new residents. “Soccer is tribal more than any other sport. The Chattanooga Football Club gives people a place to belong as they acclimate into the culture of our city, and we feel a responsibility to uphold that,” Alumbaugh says.

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