Daniel J. Kaufman, President of Georgia Gwinnett College, is interviewed Thursday. Classes begin on Monday at GGC.
DULUTH — If Dan Kaufman can sell a college that didn’t exist, he can sell anything.
The man who built Georgia Gwinnett College from nothing to a campus of nearly 10,000 students in just seven years is switching roles, taking the lead of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.
“The Chamber really is the ultimate platform to bring together all the important aspects of our community,” Kaufman said shortly after the organization’s board of directors hired him as president and CEO. He officially takes the $335,000-a-year job July 1.
“When I first thought about would I want to apply for this job, the answer was no because of how important I felt what GGC was doing and it still is, but there are just some things you can’t do from that perspective and that platform that I believe we can do here for the entire community.”
The Brunswick native said he has been “privileged” to have been in positions of leadership since the age of 22, beginning as a platoon leader in the Army. The recipient of a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, Kaufman said the presidency of Georgia Gwinnett College was the first job he had longer than two years, after a military career that brought him to the National Security Council in the White House and to serve as the special assistant to three Army Chiefs of Staff. He retired as a brigadier general, serving as the chief academic officer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
But he said there is little difference in his job building the “campus of tomorrow,” as GGC is termed, to bolstering the “community of tomorrow” he sees in Gwinnett.
“I’m passionate about this. That’s why I made this decision,” Kaufman, 66, said. “I’m convinced that Gwinnett County is not just the future for Georgia but for America’s third century.”
Phil Wolfe, the CEO of Gwinnett Medical Center who is the Chamber’s board chairman, said the group used a search team that scoured the country for a new leader, compiling 250 resumes for the job.
It wasn’t until after four finalists were interviewed that he realized the best person for the job was his friend and neighbor.
“We’ve seen Dan in action during his years of service to our community and we know him to be an outstanding local leader,” Wolfe said, joking later that Kaufman had been interviewing for the job for the past seven years but no one knew it. “We now know unequivocally that he is one the nation’s premier executives who possesses the business acumen and strategic visioning to successfully position this organization for future growth.”
County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, who serves on the board, said she was thrilled with the pick.
“I firmly believe that the Chamber Board of Directors has selected the right person to lead the Chamber during the next chapter in Gwinnett’s history,” she said. “He is a dynamic leader with a great set of leadership experiences and skills, and he knows and understands Gwinnett from his time with Georgia Gwinnett College. I look forward to working with Dr. Kaufman in his new role.”
While Kaufman has little private sector experience — a stint as one of the founding directors of a small bank is the only line on his long resume — he said the Chamber of Commerce’s job is more about public service than making a profit.
“My job is to sell people on things. ... My job is to convince (business owners) there are strategic advantages to being here,” he said of the Chamber’s role in economic development. “I started selling a product that didn’t exist,” he said, relating the experience of opening the first brand-new public university in Georgia in more than 100 years. “I’d say we did pretty well.”
Wolfe agreed, saying the success of the college has exceeded expectations.
“We are just as much a public service as the U.S. Army; we just don’t wear uniforms,” he said, adding that Kaufman has proven he has skills at critical thinking. “We thought his past was perfect. ... I think leadership is leadership.”