Bimbo Banter

Believe in Memphis

  • Leadership
  • October 5, 2018
  • by Merrie Spaeth

Memphis skyline from the air

Sometimes you get to see the heart and soul of a city. Yesterday was one of those times for anyone at the memorial service in Memphis for a man named Phil Trenary. Phil was the former CEO of Pinnacle Airlines and responsible for building it into a success. As CEO of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, he was involved in countless initiatives—creating jobs, improving transportation and infrastructure, grappling with education, reducing poverty. At the service, speaker after speaker, most visibly emotional, described his passion for improving lives in Memphis and for the city itself.

This service stood out from other memorial services for Business Luminaries. Phil was murdered last week by three young African Americans. They attempted to rob him at the conclusion of a Chamber-sponsored run. The individual alleged to have pulled the trigger is a 22-year-old man who has been reported to have special needs. Memphis has long been a city with racial wounds, and just days before, a police officer shot a young African American man. Other long-standing controversies fester. Phil’s daughter told those at the service that she knew they were grieving and that they were angry, but she urged them to channel their passion into positive efforts for Memphis. She said, “Take time to be kind.”

Her words fell on receptive ears. The congregants were a very diverse body racially, and what impressed me, is that it seemed like everyone knew everybody else. The African American Baptist pastor, the Reverend Roger Brown of the Greater Whitestone Missionary Baptist Church, observed that he and Phil had been friends and worked together for 25 years. Describing himself as Phil’s “other pastor,” it took him a while, but Reverend Brown appealed to the crowd, saying, “I’m a Baptist preacher, I need some help,” and finally got the crowd punctuating his spirited preaching with “amen,” “that’s right” and “hallelujah.”

Given the bitterness and partisanship dominating our debates in almost every policy issue, I wished that the 40 or so Democratic candidates running as avowed socialists and Black Lives Matter leaders could have been there to see a positive example of how a city riven with serious challenges is pulling together when it has leadership that inspires solutions. Black Lives Matter might indeed have been paying attention. They protested last year in Memphis and also targeted the Chamber. Phil’s response was to invite the group in, ask what they wanted and then say, “What can I do?” One issue they identified was the problems temporary workers have moving to permanent jobs. Phil helped create a program for staffing companies to provide mentorship to temp workers as well as a process for identifying training to address skills gaps that can help move temp workers to full-time positions.

The self-described socialists would have seen what American business and the American economic system can produce. The Chamber is currently chaired by FedEx executive Richard Smith who has built a reputation as a visionary leader. As a businessman, Phil built Pinnacle into a billion-dollar enterprise, and he remains a revered and beloved leader. When Rev. Brown asked anyone from Pinnacle to stand, more than a hundred people rose to their feet. One of Phil’s children read notes from his employees on his departure. Over and over, they mentioned his accessibility, his encouragement and his belief in them. Former colleague Peter Hunt described flying with Phil. The CEO would find a Pinnacle employee who was waiting for the flight and ask for his boarding pass. Then Phil would hand over his first-class boarding pass. Peter paused and added, “Then he would hand over my first-class boarding pass.” Hunt shared Phil’s oft-repeated admonition to Pinnacle employees, “Take care of each other.”

It seems fitting to close with advice shared by Phil’s youngest son, Pearce, from his father. After admonishing him to “do the right thing,” and “lock your phone,” the final commandment was “love,” the familiar commandment Rabbi Micah Greenstein noted was inscribed on his Temple’s wall, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Thank you, Phil Trenary and rest in peace.

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