The Frank Bernard era at the Greater Smithfield-Selma Area Chamber of Commerce lasted less than a month.
The former Walmart executive announced his immediate resignation last month as president of the chamber. And while calling the decision “personal,” Bernard suggested he favored a return to larger corporate opportunities.
“I made a personal decision that I wanted to pursue a different opportunity,” Bernard said. “It was not anything the chamber did and is not anything the community did. I just woke up one morning and made a personal decision.”
Coming to Johnston County had been something of a homecoming for Bernard and his family; he grew up in nearby Fayetteville and his wife is from Kenly. Bernard said he doesn’t expect to stay in the area and that he plans to make a return to management at a larger institution or Fortune 500 company. Bernard came to the Smithfield chamber from a career in compliance management with Walmart and the federal government.
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“Nothing changed except I just made a personal decision,” Bernard said. “Things were going absolutely fantastic.”
Bernard had been visible at meetings in and around Smithfield and Selma in his time, introducing himself to local boards and organizations. His departure is in contrast to his predecessor Rick Childrey’s 30 years with the chamber.
By both Bernard’s account and that of chamber board chairwoman Corina Knott, everyone was enthusiastic about the promise Bernard had shown in his first few weeks on the job.
“It was rather sudden; things were going well, and we seemed to be off to a strong start with Frank,” Knott said. “He basically expressed the fact that he enjoyed working with the chamber but that it didn’t seem like it was going to be the right fit.”
Knott said she was taken aback initially by the resignation. But the chamber has accepted its new reality and is restarting its search for a leader. An interim director will be named soon, Knott said.
“There’s no back story, no bad blood, it was just all rather sudden,” Knott said. “That’s the most dramatic part about it. We didn’t really get a reason, but things like this happen.”
In filling the role, Knott doesn’t expect to reach out to the runners-up for the job. The chamber will reactivate the search committee and work with a recruiter.
“We are very disappointed Frank didn’t work out,” Knott said. “We would have loved for his ideas and experience to have made their way into our chamber. He was our first choice, and even in the short amount of time here, he put forward some really great ideas. We’ll use this as a learning experience.”
It seems to be an important time for Johnston County’s largest towns, and Smithfield and Clayton seem to be mirroring one another. Just last fall Clayton changed its chamber leadership, hiring Dana Wooten to replace Jim Godfrey. Also, each town has hired a new town manager in the last 12 months, and while Smithfield has a new police chief, Clayton is deep into its search for one.
Clayton and western Johnston County area driving the area’s growth, but Knott sees opportunity in Smithfield and Selma to build on that growth. She thinks the chamber job is an exciting one.
“This area has so much going on, so much infrastructure; we’re at the head of so many highways and byways,” Knott said. “With so much growth in the Clayton area, we’re excited for our neighbors, but we want that growth to come to the Smithfield-Selma area. This is an opportunity for true leadership, to make some of those great things happen in our area. What an exciting time to be part of the chamber.”
The loss of Bernard seems to sting, but the chamber is confident the president’s job is an attractive one, and Knott said the search will be very thoughtful.
“While this is not the outcome we would have hoped, we’re excited and anxious to get somebody in that role, someone that is excited about the opportunity that’s out there and excited about the things that are about to happen to the area,” Knott said.