Sammons elected chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority
January 20, 2013
By Wayne Risher
Thursday, January 17, 2013
New Airport Authority chairman Jack Sammons is experiencing a bit of déjà vu coming into a public office facing a term limit.
Early in a 30-year career in the public arena, as a freshman City Council member, Sammons decried a tendency for Memphis political leaders to outstay their welcome and stifle creative change. He took the novel step of self-imposing a term limit and keeping his word.
By the time former mayor W.W. Herenton's abrupt resignation in 2009 threw City Hall into turmoil, the straight-shooting Sammons was held in such esteem that he was named chief administrative officer to steer city government through the turbulent time.
So it was fitting on Thursday for Sammons to win election, unanimously and without debate, moments after the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority put a term limit on its next chairman. And in a parallel to his stint as CAO under former interim Mayor Myron Lowery in 2009, Sammons jumped into the line of fire on a board that has drawn considerable heat for air service problems at Memphis International Airport.
Sammons became the volunteer, unpaid airport board's fourth chairman since 1970. The 57-year-old president of hair care product maker AMPRO Industries, Sammons is the newest and youngest board member and perhaps the most well-traveled.
It doesn't hurt that he's connected by marriage to Frederick W. Smith, his wife's uncle and founder of FedEx Corp., the airport's No. 1 customer.
His "road warrior" status — he logged 197,000 miles on Delta last year — makes him appreciate what the airport does well, and he has strong ambitions to meet challenges of diminishing air service and high airfares, Sammons said. He called for creation of a new strategic plan for the airport that respects its diverse constituency, including people who have been torching the Airport Authority on social media over the past year.
Sammons is active in Republican politics and helped save the FedEx St. Jude Classic golf tournament after it lost title sponsorship in the Stanford Financial collapse of 2009. He is volunteer general chairman of the tournament.
Board member Jon Thompson nominated Sammons to succeed attorney Arnold Perl, who resigned after 16 years as chairman. John W. Stokes then nominated vice chairman Herbert Hilliard, but Hilliard declined.
The election came after Hilliard won approval of a board bylaws amendment preventing a chairman from serving two consecutive terms. The change allows a chairman to serve a partial term, followed by a full term.
"In the interest of good government, I think this is something we need to do," Hilliard said. "While longevity is good, I think diversity is even better."
That's kind of what Sammons said back in 1989, when he pledged to leave the council after two terms. He ended up serving 16 years total, but took a four-year breather in the middle of it.
His selection drew praise from city leaders and airport critics.
"He works well in heat, under pressure," said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. "I have every confidence he'll do well."
"He has been there long enough that he has familiarity with the airport, its operations and its challenges. Yet, he's still fresh enough that he will be open to every possible opportunity or the need to change. This is a critical moment for the Airport Authority, and he's right at a critical time in his tenure."
Sammons "almost single-handedly rescued the St. Jude golf tournament," Wharton said, and the airport demands similar abilities. "The key thing there was selling to the local market and the national market how important the tournament was. Communication, communication, communication. It's critical, and Jack is a master at that."
Tom Jones, a founder of Delta Does Memphis, a Facebook movement demanding better service and lower fares, said, "Mr. Sammons appears to have the qualifications and the qualities to be the agent for change that the airport has needed, and his comments about greater transparency, listening to customers even when they are disagree with you, and his sense of urgency are just the right notes for the change in direction that so many of us have been asking for at the airport."
Jones believes airport governance needs further reform, such as shortening seven-year terms of board members.
Sammons grew up in a politically connected world revolving around family-owned restaurants and a jukebox and vending machine business. He attended Christian Brothers High School and University of Alabama and graduated from then-Memphis State University. His wife, Jennifer, a lawyer, is a daughter of Richard West, a brother of the FedEx founder.
Sammons said in an interview that he didn't expect the connection to Smith to cause any conflict.
"Certainly I have a relationship with Fred and we talk. I served on the council 20 years, and not once did he call me and say, 'I need you to do this for FedEx.' Now if I call him and ask his opinion, he'll opine on it."
That said, "We need to do everything we can to make sure we create an environment over there that allows FedEx to continue to grow and prosper. They are the sole reason for much of our success in the last generation in this town," Sammons said.
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