Chamber sends off Cullom with black-tie gala
By Susan Stabley
Surrounded by family and offering a final wave goodbye during a black tie gala honoring him Friday, longtime Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce leader William O. Cullom stepped off the stage and retired to life on a North Carolina farm.
The former chamber CEO and president was honored with the Sand in my Shoes award, a recognition given to outstanding community leaders who have made significant contributions to the region. The name of the award comes from a phrase written by columnist Damon Runyon explaining why he would not leave South Florida.
Mr. Cullom's contributions to his community made him one of the award's most deserving recipients, said chamber Chairman Peter Roulhac.
"Bill Cullom is Miami and Bill Cullom is Sand in My Shoes," Mr. Roulhac said Tuesday. "We sent him off in grand style."
Mr. Cullom spent the better part of the opening reception near the doors of the New Radisson Hotel Miami, also home to the chamber's offices, hugging and laughing with many of about 900 who came to say farewell.
"I can't believe the people who came here on a Friday night," Mr. Cullom said, in-between hellos and handshakes.
Among those in attendance were 19 past chamber chairmen who served during Mr. Cullom's 22-year tenure. Armando Codina, last year's recipient of the Sand in My Shoes award, called the turnout a "tribute" to Mr. Cullom.
The evening also featured a few short videos celebrating the chamber's president emeritus - one of local leaders describing his distinctive characteristics, another a tongue-in-cheek documentary of Mr. Cullom at his farm in Burnsville, NC. Photos of his college football years alongside teammate Burt Reynolds and shots posing with US presidents were juxtaposed with scenes of him fishing at his farm and with his grandchildren.
Mr. Cullom said he will live six months of the year at his 100-year-old home in North Carolina, a former tobacco farm with four fireplaces. He joked that he planned to take Spanish lessons and expressed delight at being able to relax after more than 50 years of working.
During his remarks after receiving the award, when he also received a standing ovation and bellows of "bravo," he thanked the many he worked with, from staff members at the chamber to hotel staff serving the dinner.
He said he would miss living in the "hugging capital of the world," humorously recounting how different the culture was from South Florida to North Carolina, where "the women aren't sure they want to be hugged, and I assure you the men don't want to be hugged."
Mr. Cullom noted that while packing for his move had found a copy of Time Magazine that had featured the city in a cover story called "Paradise Lost" and had only recently read it for the first time.
"I now know why I was the candidate for this job in 1981," he joked.
When Mr. Cullom was recruited from Ryder Truck Rental Inc., Miami's image had hit a low, suffering from high-profile riots and crime sprees.
Under his leadership, the chamber grew to become one of the most powerful in the nation, said Miami City Commission Chairman Johnny Winton.
During his term, Mr. Cullom helped spearhead formation of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Coalition for a Drug-Free Miami and the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County's economic-development agency. He helped the city weather the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, the integration of new cultures that came with waves of immigration and the struggles of a recent economic downturn in the wake of 9/11 terrorism.
Those who worked with him mentioned his finer touches, his down-to-earth manner and his ability to connect people.
"He was like my American father," said Rosa SugraŅes, chairwoman of the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council and head of Iberia Tiles.
William Talbert, president & CEO of the convention bureau, praised Mr. Cullom for offering profound insights "in short phrases."
"His focus was always on the greater good, not himself," said Mr. Talbert.
Mr. Cullom's retirement signals the end of an era for the Greater Miami Chamber.
"It's a new time," said Isilio Arriaga, Mr. Cullom's replacement and formerly the president and CEO of the social service agency Hispanic Unity of Florida in Broward County.
The chamber is chugging through a massive reorganization of its structure and governance as it enters its second century of service.
Mr. Roulhac has said changes to the organization would be "from top to bottom," with less emphasis on committees and more focus on business issues. A better sketch of how the reorganization will occur will be determined by the end of January, he said Tuesday.
In November, the chamber's three-year strategic plan was unveiled at a Board of Governors meeting. It addressed concerns with the chamber's competitiveness with other community organizations.
While the chamber has a reputation as one of the oldest voluntary business associations in the US, economic uncertainty has stressed its membership-driven budget, its leaders say. Volunteers are finding their time and money spread too thin among many groups within the community.
There has been one other new hire at the chamber: Jeff Bridges in the new position of chief financial officer. Two other top-level jobs in its 39-member staff have recently been filled from within: Cornelia Pereira was promoted to chief development officer and Marisa Feito to chief operating officer.
The new strategic plan also reorganizes the chamber's staff around four focal areas: membership services, economic development, advocacy and finance. Staff members are now going through a transition process.
Restructuring the 56-member executive committee and 123-member Board of Governors has also been discussed.
One of the most visible changes will be to the chamber's goals conference, which this year is only being billed as its "annual conference."
Mr. Cullom said during the reception that he has no quibbles with the changes but he did remark at the end of the evening how much he had enjoyed its location at the hotel. The chamber recently launched a campaign to raise $500,000 to upgrade its facilities and information technology systems. That could involve moving out of 1601 Biscayne Blvd.
Mr. Roulhac noted that the chamber's attorneys would soon look at a new contract with the hotel for three to five years.
"That does not mean we are not looking at moving at some point," he said, "but we may stay for at least three years."