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Chamber’s Humphries to Retire, Dignan Named Replacement

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Tom Humphries, president and CEO of the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber, will retire Dec. 31 after two decades as its leader.

Succeeding him will be James Dignan, former commander of the 910th Airlift Wing at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station.

Humphries, a former telephone company executive in Warren, announced his retirement at today’s annual meeting of the chamber in Boardman.

Dignan will join the chamber as chief operating officer in June and take over as CEO Jan. 1

Humphries became the first chairman of the Regional Chamber Board of Directors in 1994 upon its formation when the Youngstown, Warren and Niles chambers of commerce merged.

“I found a niche where I really do like to help people and it gave me the chance to do that,” he said.

At the request of attorney John Pogue, second chairman of the Regional Chamber board, Humphries weighed becoming president. Humphries was retiring as regional general manager of Sprint.

He was reluctant to accept, he said, because he had a pair of companies he wanted to start, but the board allowed him to move forward with those ventures as he ran the chamber.

“I thought I would stay a while and get the ship righted,” he reflected. “This work ends up getting in your blood. It’s not because of the money. It’s because of the things you can help people with.”

Ted Schmidt, Youngstown regional president of PNC Bank and chairman of the chamber board, praised Humphries’ leadership, work ethic and commitment to the community. “He works tirelessly. He’s well-connected and always sees the best interests of the entire Valley,” Schmidt said Wednesday. “That’s hard to replace.”

Humphries looks back with satisfaction on the projects and initiatives the chamber pursued during his tenure. Among them are the $1 billion-plus Vallourec pipe mill in Youngstown and other projects related to the shale industry; the Bring It Home campaign to save the General Motors Lordstown Complex, which GM had targeted for closing; helping secure funds for the state 711 Route Connector; and the Steel to Scholars program.

“I can say something significant happened each year,” he said. “I’m very proud of our team because if you get a billion-dollar project once every 15 to 20 years, you’re doing well. Because every city in the country is trying to get them. We’ve had three or four of them.”

In addition, the chamber CEO said he has “had the privilege” of working with both labor and management in the Mahoning Valley. And chamber membership today is nearly double the 1,400 when he stepped in as CEO.

The chamber didn’t always achieve its goals, he allows. While the Mahoning Valley was passed over for a major Boeing project, it ended up in the top five of sites the aircraft manufacturer considered, “the biggest project that we got close to but we didn’t get,” Humphries said.

At his urging, the chamber was an early supporter of Senate Bill 5, a state law passed in 2011 that severely restricted the rights of state and municipal employees to bargain collectively. The Ohio General Assembly passed the measure and Gov. John Kasich signed it, but voters overwhelmingly rebuked them by overturning it in November.

“That was my fault,” Humphries said. “It was a decision that I took to the board. And I should have moved slower than I did.”

The chamber supported the legislation in draft form but by the time the Assembly passed it and Kasich signed it, the bill wasn’t what Humphries or his board expected, he said.

“The intent had changed quite a bit,” he recalls. “We had already stepped out on the plank, and there were enough people with saws that I could never get off the plank.”

Some members of the chamber publicly quit as a result of its support, which fractured the chamber’s ties with organized labor. The damage from that misadventure has been repaired, Humphries said, and he continues to meet regularly with organized labor as he has since the Bring It Home campaign.

Consolidation of municipal governments and local school districts, another initiative the chamber pursued with the intent of achieving efficiencies and lower taxes, remains a nonstarter.

“What we learned is that it takes a lot of money to run a campaign, and the critical component – even more so than the money – is you have to have a crisis,” he said. “A crisis brings a lot of media attention on the issue.”

Humphries has been weighing retirement, he said, the key being finding the right successor. A few years ago, a successor was identified but he changed his mind the week before he was to be announced.

Dignan is the right person, Humphries said.

“He’s engaged with us with economic development since his arrival at the base,” Humphries said, which helped him and the chamber leadership get to know him.

Humphries describes Dignan as a “modest risk taker” and a “good decision maker [who] has a passion for our community.”

Schmidt likewise praises Dignan’s leadership at the airbase and his ability to communicate. “He understands people,” the banker said.

Humphries will remain affiliated with the chamber as an adviser, focusing on fundraising, government/administration issues and as president of the Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corp. “I agreed that I would be happy to do that but it’s not full-time,” he said of the board’s request

“It’s been a pleasure to work with Tom over the past few years,” Schmidt said. “It’s the right time for him to take on the next chapter in his life and for the chamber to have a new beginning.”

In addition to continuing to serve on several boards – such as the Ohio Board of Regents and the state Local Government Innovation Council — Humphries said he looks forward to devoting more time to his company, Data Voice Systems, in downtown Warren. At 72, spending his summer afternoons in a hammock or binge watching old TV shows is not on his agenda.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever quit what people see as work,” he said. “I have some opportunity to have impact. I have energy and so I want to do that.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.