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World Business Chicago President Athas resigns

5-23-03 This is Color Copy RitAthas. Sun-Times.

5-23-03 This is a Color Copy of Rita Athas. Sun-Times.

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Updated: January 15, 2013 11:26AM

World Business Chicago President Rita Athas is resigning effective early next year after a five-year stint leading the organization, which works to attract and retain businesses here.

A search committee appointed by World Business Chicago Vice Chairman Michael Sacks will seek a replacement, the organization announced Thursday.

The changing of the guard at World Business Chicago comes as no surprise.

Athas, 65, was a former executive director of the Northwest Municipal Conference who was hired by the city in 1997 to help then-Mayor Richard M. Daley rebuild his strained relationship with suburban mayors.

At the time, Daley had been at odds with Northwest suburban mayors over new runways at O’Hare Airport. The mild-mannered Athas was hired to promote regional cooperation.

“She’s very well-respected. She knows issues dealing with cities — the larger cities to the smaller,” Daley said at the time.

Athas inherited the World Business Chicago job after the resignation of the organization’s first executive director Paul O’Connor. But, business recruiting was never her forte.

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel expanded and invigorated World Business Chicago and put close confidante Sacks in charge, it was only a matter of time before Athas was replaced.

On Thursday, City Hall sources described Athas as a transition person, and said the time for transition is over. Emanuel has transformed World Business into an aggressive business recruiting agency, and the powers behind it are excited to begin a national search for a new leader with a stronger business background, the sources said.

A top mayoral aide portrayed Athas as “very valuable” in launching and delivering a 10-year economic blueprint for Chicago that outlined ways for the city to emerge from, what Emanuel called a “lost decade” economically.

But, the Emanuel adviser said, “It’s a different World Business Chicago than it was. Our mayor has taken it in a new direction. Rita agreed to stay on through the transition. She got us to this point. But, she’s ready to hand the reins off.”

Athas said she has valued her tenure at World Business Chicago and the opportunity to represent Chicago, which she called “a first rate global city.”

“I think the time is right,” she said of her decision to step down. “I’m at an age where I’d like to do some other things. I don’t know quite what those are yet,” but noted she wants to have the time to find out.

She plans to remain on the board and to do consulting on projects.

World Business Chicago is critical to bringing jobs and attracting business to Chicago, Emanuel, who is chairman of the board, said in a statement.

“Rita has been key to the success of World Business Chicago, and I am thankful for her work there and look forward to working with the new leadership of World Business Chicago to continue these efforts,” he said.

Last year, Emanuel more than tripled the size of the board overseeing the organization, a change aimed at asking 50 of the biggest names in Chicago business to put their time, money and other efforts to work to help attract new companies and jobs to the city.

World Business Chicago is a not-for-profit that draws annual funding from Chicago taxpayers.

During Athas’ tenure, it has consistently been ranked as one of the top economic development groups in the country and always placed as one of the top three cities for number of new businesses, the organization said. Athas is credited with overseeing the recruitment of Miller Coors, Ventas, Veolia Environmental, United, Willis, and Coyote Logistics to Chicago. Last year, under her leadership, World Business Chicago was involved with the creation or retention of about 15,000 jobs and worked with 106 prospective new companies, the organization said.

But World Business Chicago also has drawn accusations of conflicts of interest. Last year, city of Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson said the nonprofit pushed for $50 million in tax increment financing for two companies represented on its board, CME Group and United Airlines’ parent United Continental Holdings Inc. Ferguson recommended the adoption of a rigorous ethics policy. Soon after, the board adopted an ethics policy that requires that the organization not advocate economic incentives for a particular company.

Athas said she’s most proud of the companies she has helped recruit to Chicago, the World Business Chicago staff that has been put in place in research and business outreach, the transition that the organization has made from the Daley administration to the Emanuel administration and the plan for Economic Growth and Jobs developed for the city at the request of Emanuel.

“Rita’s counsel and guidance has been invaluable to me,” said Sacks, who also is chief executive officer of Grosvenor Capital Management L.P. and an investor in and board member of Wrapports LLC, which owns the Sun-Times.

“This is a great opportunity for World Business Chicago to bring on another outstanding economic development professional to lead our organization and work closely with the Mayor and his economic development team,” he added in a statement.

Contributing: David Roeder

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