Leaders praise Bill Thornton’s legacy of growth at helm of Fort Worth Chamber

June 29,2020

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Bryan Mena here.

In 1989, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce didn’t hire a business tycoon with years of corporate experience as its director of local business development — it hired a football coach instead.

That same football coach ran the right plays at the Chamber, so he successfully moved up to vice president of economic development in 1992. Eight years later, this coach ran another series of successful plays, so he moved up again, this time taking the helm as president in October 2000.

The name of this football coach? It’s William J. Thornton, but his colleagues simply call him “Bill.”

Thornton is officially set to conclude a decades-long career as president of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce on July 7 after announcing his retirement about a year ago.

From overseeing the significant growth of the AllianceTexas business park to handling the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Thornton’s presidency was marked by major milestones.

During his presidency, between 2001 and 2019, Fort Worth saw a 43% increase in the number of jobs and a 44.75% increase in household income, according to data the Chamber provided the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

But before calling the shots at the Chamber, Thornton called the shots on the football field for 16 years.

Thornton served as offensive coordinator for Southwest Texas State University — now known as Texas State University — which won the NCAA Division II National Championship back-to-back in 1981 and 1982.

He then followed Head Coach Jim Wacker to Texas Christian University where he continued to work as offensive coordinator for a few more years.

Coaching was his passion, but Thornton said he’s always had an affinity for economic development too.

The stars aligned in his favor one day in 1989 when former Fort Worth Mayor Bob Bolen connected him to former Chamber President Terry Ryan when a director job at the Chamber became available.

“And the rest was history,” Thornton said.

Instead of having to figure out running plays for football players, Thornton had to figure out ways to stimulate local business growth in one of the largest cities in Texas, but strategizing was nothing new for him.

Some business leaders say that his experience in coaching was exactly what set him apart.

“Bill came from a coaching background, so he’s always had a unique set of leadership skills that you don’t typically see in a businessperson,” said Mike Berry, president of the developer company Hillwood.

“He was able to utilize those skills from coaching to recruit local companies into the Chamber and then partner with them. He used those skills in a variety of ways, but he was particularly effective in partnering with real estate developers like Hillwood and then helping them put together sales strategies.”

Berry says that was one Thornton’s biggest strengths — his collaborative nature.

“He was a bridge builder, a person that builds relationships,” Berry said. “He built regional partnerships so rather than just a focusing on Fort Worth, he reached out across county lines and built partnerships with the Dallas Chamber for instance.”

Berry says that he saw Thornton’s collaborative skills in full bloom when he worked with other economic development leaders and legislators to push the Texas Economic Development Act, or Chapter 313, through the Texas legislature in the early 2000s — what Berry pegs as one of Thornton’s biggest accomplishments.

After Intel Corporation halted construction of a billion-dollar manufacturing plant near Fort Worth in the late 1990s because it faced a hefty property tax bill, Berry said Thornton and other economic development leaders jumped into action to find a legislative solution.

Thus came Chapter 313, a useful tool for capital intensive projects because of its property tax abatement provision, which helped lure the Facebook data center project to the Fort Worth area, Berry told the Star-Telegram.

“That was a collective effort with the Arlington Chamber, the Dallas Chamber, the City of Fort Worth and others to push for relief from the legislature,” Thornton said. “All of us had seen the challenges for capital intensive projects and so this was a collective effort I was glad to be a part of.”

That piece of legislation was first introduced as House Bill 1200 by former State Rep. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, and it has been reauthorized by the legislature ever since. The program is set to expire in late 2022.

In an email to the Star-Telegram, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price praised Thornton’s “contagious” passion for Fort Worth and his effort in further developing the AllianceTexas business park.

“Bill Thornton has been a true champion for Fort Worth and the entire business community. Under Bill’s leadership Fort Worth saw unprecedented growth and major developments such as the Alliance corridor,” Price said.

“His commitment and passion for Fort Worth is contagious and resulted in the Chamber being recognized as a top economic development organization. Bill’s thoughtful leadership will be missed, but he leaves the city well positioned to move forward.”

AllianceTexas was in the works well before the Thornton era, even during his football days.

But Wes Turner, vice president of strategic planning at Advance Newspapers and former Star-Telegram publisher, says that Thornton’s leadership at the Chamber played a significant role in catalyzing the growth of the business park.

“The economic development efforts that Bill led helped speed that process to the incredible level that it is today. If I had to point to just one thing, I would say that increasing the development of the Alliance corridor is his biggest accomplishment,” Turner said. “I mean, we have a whole city north of Fort Worth. It’s the number one growth generator for the city, at least in my opinion.”

As a former chairman of the Fort Worth Chamber himself, Turner says Thornton has been “the most connected chamber leader in Fort Worth’s history.”

“No one knows more business leaders than Bill Thornton. No one. That’s leadership. That’s what makes the Chamber relevant,” Turner said.

Aside from all of the Chamber’s successes, both Berry and Turner agree that the COVID-19 pandemic is the toughest battle the Chamber has ever fought, but they both agree that Thornton successfully rose to the occasion.

Thornton also believes the pandemic is “the single largest challenge” that he’s ever faced but either way, he rolled his sleeves up and went straight to work to help battered small businesses with grants, personal protective equipment and informative webinars through collaborations with other economic development groups.

Even after dealing with the worst economic crisis the Metroplex has ever seen in at least a century, Thornton says he is still proud of accomplishing one of his biggest goals — selecting his successor Brandom Gengelbach.

“Fortunately, three years ago, I hired a guy who I hoped would eventually become my successor and now he actually will be my successor. Brandom will be taking over the reins and that was my goal,” Thornton said.

“He’s a very bright guy, very gregarious. I’ve had a chance to observe the way he manages people, the kind of leader that he can be, and I think that has convinced me as well as our leadership that he’s a great candidate for this position. The Chamber is in safe hands.”

“I have been so lucky to have had the opportunity to wake up every day and get to sell and promote the city that I love. I had the great opportunity to work with so many fabulous business leaders and five exceptional mayors. This has just been a great 31-year run,” Thornton said.