Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Selling Windy to the World

Rita Athas '76 works to convince international business leaders and investors that they'll lose the blues in Chicago.

It’s the start of another gray, late-winter workday in the Loop, and Rita Athas is telling me about the joys of Chicago living.

Athas is executive director of World Business Chicago, the economic development group that promotes the city to the world’s business leaders and investors; so it’s part of her job to sell the wonders of living and working in the Windy City. But on a morning as grim as this one, with the pedestrians on State Street beneath Athas’s office leaning into a freezing rain off the lake, is anybody really in the mood for civic boosterism?

Athas doesn’t seem to mind. “The weather can sometimes be a bit of a challenge for us,” she concedes brightly when I mention the conditions. “But I think we have the greatest product in the world to sell. We sell the energy of the city.”

If she is chronically and unabashedly upbeat about her hometown, Athas has had good reasons to feel optimistic lately. Despite worldwide financial misfortune, Chicago has managed to score some impressive coups over the past year. In 2008, both the London-based Aviva, the insurance powerhouse, and the French firm Veolia, the world’s largest environmental services company, picked Chicago as the site for their new North American headquarters. Among domestic firms, the newly formed brewing giant MillerCoors placed its corporate headquarters in the city. Its o≈ces on South Wacker Drive employ some 400 people in executive and management positions.

Landing MillerCoors was an especially sweet victory for the city and for Athas. When the company announced that it was searching for a home, Chicago and Dallas quickly emerged as the top candidates. Its lower property taxes and business-friendly environment made Dallas the early favorite. But Chicago offered a strong package of financial incentives, and Athas and her staff of fifteen lobbied hard. The book they assembled for MillerCoors was thick with talking points. It pitched Chicago as a global city alive with arts and culture and able to oΩer a competitive cost of living. Athas says they hit especially hard on the strength of the city’s youthful workforce: Chicago could boast more young adults and a greater pool of well-educated talent. The pitch found its target. When MillerCoors announced its move, it specifically cited Chicago’s “vibrant twenty-four-hour central business district” and its “attractive talent pool.”

It was to help bring big businesses like MillerCoors to Chicago that Mayor Richard M. Daley launched World Business Chicago in 1999. The organization, which is funded jointly by the city and the private sector, coordinates local efforts to attract and retain businesses and promotes Chicago as an inter-national business center. Athas has been running the organization since 2007.

She came to the job by an unlikely route. Athas had been deputy chief of staff to Mayor Daley and was leading a search for a new executive director of World Business Chicago. One day, in the middle of the search process, the mayor called Athas into his fifth-floor o≈ce at City Hall. “He said, ‘I think you should do this job,’” Athas recalls. “Of course, I said yes.
I thought it was a great opportunity. It was a chance to help get the word out about Chicago. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Her affection for Chicago and her affinity for politics run deep in Athas’s background. She grew up on the South Side, the third of four children in an Irish Catholic family. “Politics has always been a big part of my life,” she says, a topic of regular, heated conversations at home. While still a schoolgirl, Athas made it her mission to play the liberal counterpoint to her more conservative older brothers. She was attending Mother McAuley High School when John F. Kennedy was elected president, an event that Athas says had “a huge impact” on her. Heeding Kennedy’s call to service, she volunteered to tutor disadvantaged children and traveled to register voters in Appalachia.

Athas married her husband, Greg, while she was attending Saint Xavier University, near her high school. She delayed finishing her education to raise their son Greg and daughter Heather, but was soon eager to complete her college degree. She chose Elmhurst because she had heard about the quality of its evening programs, which make college more accessible to working adults.

 “I was as nervous as could be. I had been out of school and I had two little kids. I was wondering what I was doing there,” she remembers. It took earning an A+ on a paper for a political science class to restore her confidence. “That’s when I said, ‘I can do this.’ As it turned out,” she adds, “Elmhurst was a really encouraging environment for someone following a nontraditional route.”

Athas’s family was duly impressed. One day her daughter announced to her that someday she would grow up, get married and go to college, just like her mother. “I thought she had the order a little wrong,” says Athas, “but I suppose I’m to thank for that.”

She had settled on majoring in political science before she met Professor Andrew Prinz, who directed Elmhurst’s program in urban studies. Prinz had a legendary talent for selling students on his program; Athas was among his many converts. She ended up combining political science with Prinz’s urban studies courses. “It was the best combination,” she says. “I had the theory and the practice. And Dr. Prinz made classes come alive.”

People who know Athas, with her twin passions for Chicago and politics, will sometimes ask her if she has ever considered running for office.

 “I never really wanted to do that,” she says. “I like that my job isn’t about me.”

Athas has made her mark in a series of positions that have allowed her to get things done without seeking the spotlight. At the same time, she has spent a good chunk of her career working for one of the nation’s most visible elected officials, a politician whose very name connotes Chicago politics.

Athas clearly admires Daley. “He’s a legend,” she says. “You travel with him and you see the way people all around the world react to him. It’s incredible. You can’t help but be a little in awe.”

In 1997, Daley hired Athas to help build relationships with the suburban governments that were warring with the mayor over noise generated by aircraft at O’Hare, and distressed by the city’s plans to expand the airport. Athas was a veteran of suburban affairs, having served for nine years as executive director of the Northwest Municipal Conference, a group that represents about fifty suburban cities, villages, and townships. Now, as a member of Daley’s staff, she would need to build bridges to suburban leaders. It wasn’t easy. “The airport was an extremely volatile issue,” she says. “But we found that there were enough issues that we could talk about constructively.”

One of Athas’s early priorities was to establish trust between Daley’s office and suburban leaders. Arlene Mulder, the village president of Arlington Heights, worked with Athas on airport-related issues. They agreed to a “no surprises” rule. Mulder says they invested time in consulting with and updating each other by phone. “She’s such a consensus builder,” Mulder says of Athas. “She has a talent for helping people who come to the table with different perspectives find common ground. It was a stroke of genius for Mayor Daley to hire her. She understood what a suburban mayor valued and what a suburban mayor wouldn’t tolerate.”

For Athas, her experience before and after her stint in the mayor’s o≈ce provided a deep education in local government. “The first stop newly elected suburban mayors make is here in Chicago,” she says. “I know, because I scheduled them. They want to meet the mayor, to learn how he does it. They want to know how you run a city like Chicago.”

Now, at World Business Chicago, she advances a vision of Chicago as a global city. That’s a job that involves challenging some perceptions that die hard. “I love when people visit Chicago for the first time,” she says. “They’re always so surprised. They think they’re going to find a gray, industrial city. Then they see Michigan Avenue.

 “It’s a matter of getting the word out,” she adds. World Business Chicago’s recent “We=Business” marketing campaign—the slogan appeared everywhere from ads in business magazines to signs atop taxis—was part of the effort to get the word out. It also was an example of Athas’s determination to get the most out of a tight budget. The marketing campaign was executed for just $60,000. “We have to be extremely creative, and we’re not above begging. We get a lot of pro bono help from local companies.”

Helping the city to thrive, relatively speaking, amid the international economic crisis has been a particular challenge.“Things are slower,” Athas admits. Her organization has responded by staying on the lookout for consolidating companies that might be considering a relocation. Chicago’s low cost of living relative to other international cities has become a favorite selling point. The election of a Chicagoan to the White House hasn’t hurt. “The way President Obama talks about the city,” she says, “we couldn’t pay for that kind of marketing.”

Athas loves making the case for the city she loves, and expects the need for the role to continue for a while. For all the selling points she can muster—for all the reasons she believes the world’s businesses should want to land in her hometown—there is one thing she would like to change about Chicago, and it has nothing to do with the weather. “We’re too much of a secret,” she says.

By Andrew Santella

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