VOL. 7 | NO. 9 | Saturday, February 22, 2014
Women & Business
Shockey ‘Ideal Fit’ as Chamber Chair
By Don Wade
Leigh Shockey had gone to Memphis International Airport in her role as an executive for the family business – Drexel Chemical Co.
She was meeting a client from Argentina and had told him to look for a short, blonde woman who would be wearing blue.
Leigh Shockey on her farm with Peanut and Bruno.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
This was maybe 12 to 15 years ago. She went to the appropriate gate and waited … and waited. Finally, she went in search of the man. He had walked right past her.
His explanation: She wasn’t married, she wasn’t a nun, and she was running a company.
“We thought you must be ugly,” he said.
“It was a slap in the face and slap on the back at the same time,” Shockey said, laughing.
Today, not only is Shockey CEO of the company that her father, Robert Drexel Shockey, started in 1972, she is serving as the second female chairman in the history of the Greater Memphis Chamber.
Growing up in the manufacturing industry, she speaks easily of the need for the city’s education and economy to intersect whenever and wherever possible.
“We’ve got a lot of jobs in manufacturing and transportation that need to be filled,” she said. “You are what you focus on. We know there are issues here. Every city has them.”
The chamber supported the sales tax referendum to expand a preschool training program for 4-year-olds and help reduce the property tax, but last November Memphis voters resoundingly defeated it.
“It’s an issue of trust,” Shockey said. “If we find a way to ease people’s minds that it won’t get messed up,” perhaps a future measure will pass. “If young people don’t succeed, they’ll be a burden on all of us.”
Dexter Muller, interim president at the Greater Memphis Chamber, called Shockey “dedicated” and “laser-focused,” adding, “I think that comes from her passion for Memphis.”
Shockey did not originally envision herself running a chemical company. She left Memphis to attend the University of Tennessee-Martin with the dream of becoming a doctor. But volunteering at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital changed her plans.
“I came home and cried every afternoon,” she said. “I couldn’t do it. I could do it now, but that’s 30 years later.”
Shockey had her own trade business for a few years and was back to work within four days of the birth of her son, Drexel Membreno.
“I didn’t have the luxury of taking several months off,” she said. “He slept all the time at first. So I changed diapers between phone calls.”
She was divorced by the time he was 4 and soon back at the family business; she still lives on the family’s 2,000-acre cattle farm in Fayette County.
When Drexel was around 10, she would go play paintball with him and his friends. And usually win, she says. She takes out her phone to show a recent picture of her with her boyfriend and a target-shooting trip, each of them holding the targets in front of them. Judging by the tight pattern on her target, she won that competition, too.
“I’ve had the opportunity to visit with them on the farm and Leigh can wear the latest and greatest fashion, but she can get down home,” said Calvin Anderson, vice chair of the Greater Memphis Chamber and an executive at BlueCross BlueShield Tennessee.
More important, Anderson said, “She’s an ideal fit (for the Chamber). She understands the operations of business and the selling of a product. She’s tough enough for this.”
“Her experienced leadership running an international company has helped us in our goal to make Memphis a globally recognized economic leader,” he said.
By her own admission, she came into the family business somewhat by default.
“My father didn’t have any sons. We (she and her sister) were it,” Shockey said.
She still enjoys the business, and living on the cattle farm, but her passion for Downtown has her forever looking for a second place to call home – especially now that she has the additional duties as Chamber chairman.
She and her parents, in fact, have season tickets to the Grizzlies and her mother is known to get on the officials. One time, Wanda, became rather upset with an official when a call went against the home team. As Leigh remembers it, her mom took off her glasses and offered them to the official, saying, “Here, you need these more than I do.”
Shockey laughs as she tells this story – and others about her folks – and notes that they both still come into the office on Presidents Island, both have survived cancer, and that they show no signs of slowing down.
“They are hardy stock,” said the daughter, whose life offers further proof.