Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Jim Maran, president and CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber, announced his plans to retire at the end of the year. Maran, who has served as president for nearly a decade, discusses the acheivements of the Chamber during his tenure.
DULUTH -- It's a story that every school teacher and parent tells, but for Jim Maran, it is true: The best decision he ever made was to go to college.
Growing up in the inner city of Detroit, Maran seemed destined for the assembly line.
But encouraged by his mother and his sister, he started taking classes at a community college, a path that took him all over the world and eventually to led the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.
Maran will retire -- for the second time in his career -- at the end of the year, after transforming the Chamber from a cheerleader for the construction industry to an economic development powerhouse recognized across the globe.
"I see how my life could have been," Maran said, counting his blessings.
After getting a degree at Eastern Michigan, Maran became a salesman for Motorola, handling the government market in Ohio.
But from there he bounced around the United States, then ended up as head of operations in Singapore before moving to Europe and finally Latin America.
"I saw the world on a first-class airline ticket," he said. "It was so exciting, international, to see the world mature."
After coming to Atlanta for a special project, the so-called technology bubble burst in the economy in 2001, and Maran decided to retire instead of returning to Motorola's home office.
In between projects on an advisory board for Georgia Tech and other ventures, Maran kept doing what he loved: seeing the world with his wife Jane.
By September of 2003, Gwinnett leaders began to seek out Maran's help. The Chamber wanted to expand, and they needed a person with international experience to do it.
"The greatest strength that Jim brought to his role as CEO/President of the Chamber was the experience he gained through a long career within the business sector, much of it with an international company in areas of the world other than the USA," Commissioner Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. "In my opinion, his greatest accomplishment with the Chamber has been the development of a global outlook and outreach among its members. His knowledge of international business has been valuable in helping Gwinnett broaden the focus of its economic development activities and recognize its need and ability to compete on the international level."
In a short time, Maran broadened the Chamber to lead in regional Atlanta issues. He pushed for diversification. And while it has taken some recent heat, he brought organizations, governments and business leaders together with the Partnership Gwinnett initiative, expanding the county's appeal to companies from Germany to Korea.
"I think the most proud I am is of the brand of the Chamber is strong locally, regionally, nationally and internationally," Maran said. "That's what I've done the last 40 years is build organizations."
While Gwinnett was not at all immune to the Great Recession in the past several years, the Partnership program has been credited with keeping the county competitive in a global marketplace, drawing thousands of jobs to the community.
"We are the prototype chamber that others want to replicate across the U.S.," Maran said.
The success has made Maran the face of business in Gwinnett.
"When I go to the mall, I always catch people staring at me," he said with a laugh. "They ask me if I'm on television or something."
In recent years, the organization has not only played a hand in business deals, but it has taken a step out into the political arena, lobbying and even campaigning for issues that could help in economic development.
With a public policy division, the Chamber made headlines in 2012 for its support of a regional sales tax to fund road and transit projects, and for its withdrawn campaign against a charter school amendment. The group was on the losing end of both propositions, although Maran said he has no regrets.
"You have to be able to provide value to the people to belong to the Chamber," he said. "When you step into public policy, you try your best to stand behind your beliefs. Sometimes you win and sometimes you aren't so successful."
In fact, while he isn't ready for another fight, Maran said the group should continue to support transportation and transit solutions. And he also encourages the group to work on diversity amongst its membership, to better reflect the community.
Maran said this retirement -- like the last one -- will not relegate him to the golf course. He plans to stay involved, retaining a seat on the Chamber board, and finding another business venture to get involved in.
But first, of course, he and Jane will take a trip to some exotic locale to celebrate.