Renee Earls confronts an almost bewildering spate of problems as president-CEO of the Odessa Chamber of Commerce, but the preternaturally optimistic Odessa native is undismayed by the city’s boom-driven angst over high rent and housing costs, child care availability, transportation dilemmas and other vexations of prosperity.
She says the chamber is the best organizer of entities to resolve those issues, and she is moving to unite them with the confidence that she says has always powered the City of Contrasts.
Noting that the executive committees of the Odessa and Midland chambers held a joint meeting May 8 to discuss housing for teachers, law officers and others who don’t make big money, Earls said, “Our chairman, Roy Gillean, said, ‘We need to show that we are a big deal.’
“We are a big deal from Odessa and Midland to Fort Stockton, Pecos, Andrews, Stanton and San Angelo,” she said. “We’re making all the money for the country, so we need to do a better job of putting the spotlight on our region and telling our story to state and federal officials: This is what we have to offer and you need to pay attention to us.”
Explaining that a local day care center has a waiting list of 500 children, Earls said Permian Basin Workforce Development CEO Willie Taylor is seeking a federal grant to hire more child care workers.
Born Lisa Renee Henderson, Earls graduated from Permian High School in 1985, attended Odessa College and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Texas Tech University before working four years as a weekend reporter and morning anchor at KMID Channel 2, then the area’s No. 1 TV news team.
Earls had always been encouraged to practice a robust work ethic, but her years at Channel 2 were formative.
“Our general manager was John Foster, and I worked with Horace Brown, Becky Neighbors, J. Gordon Lunn, Mike Barker, Mary Catherine Matthews and Mike Emanuel, who now covers the White House for FOX,” she said. “It was not 8 to 5. We had deadlines and an incredible work ethic.”
She was a marketer for the Permian Basin Blood Center for two years and for Medical Center Hospital for 14, then took a few years “to do the mom thing,” she says, and buy Odessan Magazine with her husband Rich, a medical supplies salesman. The couple has three children and two grandchildren.
Asked how the Basin shaped her personality, Earls said, “We have a lot of people who have been successful by working hard and doing the right thing.”
“Hard work is an expectation. It’s demanding and you need to be committed. If you don’t have a good attitude, we don’t have much use for you. I’m like a tornado, running all the time and juggling projects.”
She said her parents Tommy, a retired oilfield production foreman for Enron and other companies, and Barbara, who worked at the ECISD tax office, were the primary influences on her and her older sister, Denise Bell of Farmers Branch, with teachings about industry, integrity and selflessness.
“Daddy lost a significant amount of money when Enron went down, but he said, ‘Renee, it’s just money. It could be our health,’” she said. “That was an incredible lesson.”
Succeeding Mike George, who retired two years ago after serving 24 years as head of the chamber, Earls watched and waited for a year and then implemented her own programs, installing an “Our Odessa” phone app, increasing the number of seminars for the chamber’s 800-plus members on customer service and other topics and getting 15 CEOs together for an hour and a half to two-hour roundtable discussion each month.
“I sit in as a listener rather than a participant,” she said. “They didn’t know one another. They represent different companies, but they all face personnel issues. It’s hard to find workers and they’re having difficulties with housing costs and retaining employees. They’re often conversing before and after meetings.”
Earls was elated to become the Odessa Chamber’s first woman CEO, which she said “was breaking the glass ceiling somewhat.
“I’m honored that they had the confidence in me to hire me,” she said. “I’d volunteered for decades and was board chairman in 2009-10. My husband and I have had many opportunities to move, but we stayed because Odessa has the greatest people. If there is a need, they roll up their sleeves and figure out a way to get it done.”
She wants to boost the chamber’s membership, which costs from $295 to $8,000 a year depending on a business’s number of employees. “When the economy is doing well, people sometimes think they don’t need to be a member, but that’s when they should be a member to make Odessa better,” she said.
“One of the first places people cut their budgets is advertising or marketing, but they should always be doing that if business is good or bad.”
With 17 employees in the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the operations and economic development departments, Earls oversees budgets of $2.8 million.
Asked if she is ever dismayed by pessimistic people, she said it rarely happens at the office because she has surrounded herself with upbeat personalities. “I have high expectations for myself and the people around me,” said Earls, 51.
“My poor family gets the brunt of my frustrations or stress because I always have a long list of things to do. I often pray that I will have a day where I get things accomplished and make a difference. I have a constant conversation going on all day with God, and he walks along with me every single step I take.”
Earls grew up attending Tanglewood Church of Christ, where her parents still go, and after college she went to numerous churches until settling on the First Christian Church, now Connection Christian. “Rich has gone to CrossRoads Fellowship for the last five years,” she said.
“I wish we could be at the same church, but I understand and respect that he is fulfilled there and I’m fulfilled at mine. We always share what’s happening at church.”
Stefanie Schiesser of Austin met Earls in the seventh grade at Nimitz Middle School and was a Tech roommate. “Renee can find common ground with anyone and make them feel special,” said Schiesser.
“Based on her history in Odessa, she instinctively knows what needs there are and draws on that history to make sound decisions. It doesn’t seem like she ever drops any of the plates she is spinning. She has served Odessa in so many ways and was just as good of a mother. She’s a person with great integrity and an excellent moral compass.”
Mayor David Turner has known Earls since third grade at Gonzales Elementary and was a fellow Odessa College cheerleader. “Renee loves Odessa and is a natural-born leader,” Turner said.
“Some leaders push people away, but she has always brought them together. The chamber is a team that will pay dividends for the future.”
Turner said Earls and the chamber’s transportation committee are helping the city get the Texas Department of Transportation funding for the five overpasses it wants to build in the next 10 years.
Medical Center Hospital surgical assistant Robbie Reeves said Earls “is the type of person who thinks about everybody but herself.”
“She volunteers for all kinds of things and doesn’t look for recognition,” Reeves said. “Her parents are genuine, honest, caring people and I’m sure she gets that straight from them. Everybody knows Renee and she knows everybody. Whatever you tell her, she remembers. She has no biases or prejudices. She loves everybody regardless of social status.”
A lifelong Democrat, Earls has succeeded while going against the political grain in the heavily Republican Basin.
Referring to her husband’s Republican Party membership, she said, “Rich and I have heated discussions, but that’s how I was raised.”
“My parents are yellow dog Dem
ocrats, though I have voted in the Republican primary because there were candidates I wanted to vote for. Some people are shocked to find out I’m a Democrat, but I keep my politics out of my business world.”