Winding Path Leads Tennille To State’s Top Jobs Post

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 111 views 

As a kid and young adult, Grant Tennille lived in a lot of different places, but for the better part of the last decade, he’s called Arkansas home.

Tennille, 43, was appointed as executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission in March 2012. He was appointed after a stint as interim director following the untimely death of previous director Maria Haley.

“I grew up in a lot of different places, my dad moved us around a lot, but I moved to Arkansas straight out of college and absolutely fell in love,” Tennille said.

His first post-college job was in 1992 as a cub reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette covering the State Senate, where he met Gov. Mike Beebe and his chief of staff Morril Harriman in their Senate glory days. Tennille was later plucked by Gov. Mike Huckabee’s communications director Rex Nelson to serve on that staff. The thought of a move that didn’t require packing to another state was an easy one for Tennille to accept.

“When the opportunity arose to provide some service to the place that had kind of taken me in and for the first time in my life gave me some place that made me feel like I had roots, I jumped at it,” said Tennille.

He handled several communications duties in the Huckabee administration, including as a liaison between the Governor’s office and the State Senate, an exercise that cemented a bond with his future gubernatorial employer. One of his most prominent roles for Huckabee was heading up the “Hooked on Fishing, Not on Drugs” initiative, a Game and Fish Commission program that steered at-risk youth into a more productive recreational hobby.

Now, Tennille is trying to hook bigger fish — as in major businesses — for Arkansas.

Tennille considers himself a native of Florida despite the frequent moves of his childhood. His father was a bond trader whose work took the family from Tampa to Miami, Mississippi, Connecticut, and New York.

Tennille finished high school in Virginia and graduated from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He and his wife Rebecca, a public relations executive, have three children.

Despite the stability he found in Arkansas in his early career, he wasn’t done moving.

In 1998, Tennille joined The Thompson Group, a Little Rock-based  telecommunications consulting firm. With Thompson, he moved to Denver, Colo., to head the office’s operations tied closely with Qwest Communications. Three years later, Qwest hired Tennille as senior director of public policy planning and advocacy, a position that added to his travel itinerary. In 2004, Tennille was named vice president of a start-up company, The Distribution Point, in Birmingham, Ala.

When Beebe was elected as Governor in 2006 and with a pining to return to Arkansas, an opportunity arose.

“When the Governor and Morril called and said, ‘We need you,’ it was a no-brainer,” Tennille said.

He settled in the administration as deputy chief of staff and communications director, a job that included a wide variety of responsibilities across the entire state government footprint.

Tennille’s bio notes that he has provided business and strategic counsel to companies of all sizes — from Fortune 500 corporations to small start-ups. Now, he’s working to create a business climate conducive to those types of companies locating and growing in Arkansas.

As head of the AEDC, he oversees a state agency with approximately 100 employees and a budget of $12 million.

For a person with no formal training in economic development, Tennille’s appointment makes a lot of sense at several levels. He has a varied business background that provided a lot of experience in the private sector. He understands the politics of the state and its relationship to public policy. And, he provides continuity for the economic development game plan devised by Beebe and Maria Haley.

“He had more knowledge of the inner workings of the agency and the potential economic development projects that were ongoing than anyone else since he was the direct liaison to the agency itself,” said Beebe chief-of-staff Morril Harriman.

He noted that Tennille talked frequently with agency chiefs and project managers on prospects to keep the Governor in the loop on progress being made.

Harriman cites other skills that Tennille brings to the table in his new role.

“Grant has a high degree of business acumen and entrepreneurial skills himself,” he said. “And the Governor and I have a heck of a lot of trust in his judgment.”

He’s already led Beebe on a trade mission to China and a subsequent trip to France could be in the works. Daily, Tennille is working with AEDC staff to advance Arkansas’ economic interests inside and outside of the state’s borders.

“Grant is very perceptive,” said Mike Malone, director of the influential Northwest Arkansas Council. “He can see larger trends at work and is already moving to help position Arkansas and AEDC to be in the right position to capitalize on the trends. He also understands that what works in one region may not be the tonic for growing the economy in another area. Grant’s knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of each region will serve him well in his new role.”

Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and a former deputy director at AEDC, compliments Tennille’s listening skills and steady demeanor.

“He gets to the bottom of issues pretty quickly and efficiently,” Zook says. “I have a lot of respect for him and he’s one of Beebe’s most trusted advisors.”

Zook also said Tennille’s work background in the public and private sectors is a strong asset.

“He has a good understanding of business and what motivates business decision makers in terms of how government can facilitate business investment and expansion,” said Zook. “It really is amazing for a guy without any formal training or background in the field. He really gets it.”

Tennille’s career spans both a Republican and Democratic Governor in a state that infrequently sees personnel moves across party lines. He says it’s never been about politics for him.

“For me, it’s much more about service than it is about politics,” Tennille said. “For me, it’s about the policy.”