War Stories, Leadership and Camels

When it comes to real war stories, Paul Leath’s got them. A U.S. Army dependent when he was young, as he entered adulthood he fully grasped the sacrifices of choosing a military career. His father served in three wars, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer.

Leath’s tours of duty have included Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Fort Lee, Virginia, Bamberg, Germany, two deployments to Mogadishu, Somalia, and Bosnia.

Leath also speaks “un petit peu,” French, which translates to “a little bit,” thanks to his mother and aunts, who hail from Bazas, France near Bordeaux. And, while parachuting from planes and helicopters and speaking French are not prerequisites for nonprofit volunteer leadership, they each in their own way exemplify self-discipline, organization, and a heartfelt willingness to learn new things. Those are definitely skills that translate to serving as Chair of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors — skills Leath has developed over several careers.

Leath began serving as Chair in July and will serve in that role through June 2024. He’s served as a Public Policy Committee member, vice chair of the Chamber’s Economic Development Committee, and treasurer.

“It makes sense to have different experiences before taking on the chair position,” says Leath, adding he really enjoyed their economic development work and misses it.

Now Director of Regional Operations for Chattanooga Gas and Northwest Georgia at Atlanta Gas Light, Leath and his family spent 11 years in Middle Georgia before moving to Chattanooga in 2012. He’s proud to call Chattanooga home.

Leath says Chattanooga Gas has doubled its growth over 10 years, now adding about 1,500 customers a year. He gives partial credit to the Chamber’s work in recruiting companies and people to Chattanooga.

“We’re the fastest growing utility in Southern Company. We’re the smallest by far, but we’re still the fastest growing.”

As part of his role for Atlanta Gas Light, he crisscrossed Georgia, observing that communities with strong, vibrant chambers of commerce also experienced solid, well-planned economic growth. No coincidence there.

In fact, Leath began his volunteer ‘career’ with chamber work in Macon, Georgia, where he served as chair of their board.

Paul Leath and team walk through Liquified Natural Gas plant. Photographer: Flint Chaney.

“This has always been my philosophy: I always try to see what the organization’s needs are and seek ways to assist them in achieving their goals and add value. When I commit to being a board member for an organization it is important to me that I am actively involved in the success of that organization. I also want to personally learn more about the organization,” Leath said, adding that Southern Company encourages volunteer leadership. “We’re citizens where we serve and we look for ways to enrich our community.”

The Chattanooga Chamber Board welcomes a new class of board members each year for a total of up to 80 members with an Executive Committee comprised of 18 members.

Leath especially values how the Chattanooga Chamber brings together leaders from a variety of business and community organizations, enhancing community-wide strategic planning and communication and helping spur innovation.

“It’s a great network and sharing of ideas, but we also can learn from each other and bring that back to our companies to improve our business,” Leath says. He compares the experience with how he learned from “some great noncommissioned officers and warrant officers” during his service. “I learned something new daily from some great leaders of every rank: noncommissioned, warrant, and commissioned officers.”

He’s also one to give others credit and to honor those who served before him, pointing out the work of Janelle Reilly, immediate past chair and CEO, Market CHI Memorial Healthcare for the Chattanooga region, whose tenure included identifying the Chamber’s next President and CEO, no small task.

Through June 2024, Chattanooga Chamber team members, Leath and board members will continue to focus on talent/workforce development.

Leath points to more than one example of success because of community collaboration – including the Construction Career Center, which prepares students for construction-related careers.

“At Atlanta Gas Light and Chattanooga Gas we’re onboarding about 150 employees a year,” Leath says.

Programs here and in Georgia coordinate curriculum with on-the-job skills. (Both Chattanooga Gas and the Chattanooga Chamber sponsor the Construction Career Center). He’d like to see more growth in career academies and dual enrollment programs.

“The dual enrollment programs allow you to graduate high school with valuable certifications and no debt. You can immediately join a great company and earn a good salary with benefits,” Leath says. “What’s beautiful about the Natural Gas Technician Certificate program we have with the Technical College System of Georgia, we have a week of hands-on experience to offer – students spend a week working with us. And it gives them an opportunity to see what our folks are doing on a day-to-day basis. It’s not simulated work, it’s real work,” he emphasizes. “We send them out with our subject matter experts, and they get to experience what a day in the life of a natural gas employee is.”

Leath also points out future work needed to continue to attract more direct flights for the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, the need for affordable workforce housing, and support city officials on crime reduction initiatives.

Back to family. Married for 33 years to Sharon, the love of his life, it’s easy to tell right away how important family is. Leath tells the story of how he and Sharon went from being engaged to being married about a year earlier than planned.

When the Army says “go,” soldiers go. Thinking he was about to be deployed to Saudi Arabia for the first Gulf War, he and Sharon arranged a quick wedding that was supposed to be witnessed by two of his military buddies but ended up being attended by most of the officers in his battalion. “They made that day extra special – complete with a reception for us that evening,” says Leath.

One year and one day later, they married ‘again’ in a large church ceremony at their university’s chapel, giving them two anniversaries.

Also in a coincidence of work assignments that played out in his family’s favor, he was able to be with Sharon for the birth of their daughter, he says with a big smile. He returned home on leave from the Bosnia deployment around 1 a.m. and Sharon went into labor that same morning. Paul enjoyed seven days at home in Bamberg, Germany with Sharon and baby Jessica prior to returning to his base in Hungary.

Fast forward. Now both of his and Sharon’s children are adults pursuing early careers. His son, Zach, spent two years in Arizona for his first career opportunity but returned this spring to start a new career in Chattanooga. This move made mom and dad very happy. Now both of their children are working for two great companies in Tennessee. Early career candidates moving to Chattanooga is a trend the Chamber has worked to encourage.

Leath attributes any success he’s had to the great women in his life. His mother, Andree, was widowed and raised two children (age 5 and 11) by herself. “She went back to college and graduated with honors while never missing a drop off or pick up at school, practice, game, or scouts,” says Leath, who is an Eagle Scout.

“My mother showed me what unconditional love is and demonstrated an amazing work ethic. We recently celebrated her 90th birthday, God has truly blessed our family.”

Paul Leath at Liquified Natural Gas plant. Photographer: Flint Chaney

Leath understands the challenges of first jobs and what it takes to be successful. Talent development, retention, and recruitment line up with the top Chamber priorities, including programs such as Leadership Chattanooga, Protégé, and Young Professionals of Chattanooga, all Chamber programs.

“I tell my children and their friends to get involved in the Chamber because of these great programs,” Leath says. “Leadership Chattanooga was one of the first things that I did after we moved here. I had already graduated from Leadership Macon and Leadership Georgia. Leadership programs provide insight into your community and an opportunity to learn from successful business leaders and elected officials. I’m a big fan of Leadership Chattanooga,” Leath says, pointing out the network of connections and how program graduates stay connected.

For Leath, setting clear goals, moving forward through collaboration, investing in people, and leading by example, are essential to leadership.

Find the full Chamber Board of Directors list here.

Learn more about how the Board of Directors helps the Chamber reach new economic heights here.

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