Ascending Rock City’s Summit

UTC alumna Susan Harris is the first woman and non-member of the founding family to serve as Rock City’s Chief Executive Officer. 

Susan Harris admits her career path was not exactly a straight shot from the beginning to the present. “I’m not one of those people who has had a very well-defined, mapped-out career plan. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to tell people or not,” she says with a smile. Still, her non-plan led to her new job as CEO of Rock City, Inc., so in the end, it was an excellent path to follow.  

She is the first person in 90 years to hold the position of CEO at Rock City who is not a member of the Chapin family. The Chapins founded the tourist attraction in 1932. Harris also is the first woman to lead the company. “In each case when I’ve changed jobs, it’s not been critical, time-sensitive, a have-to,” Harris says. “I’ve been able to really kind of take my time and try to find a place I felt like was a good fit.”  

Harris grew up in Hixson, Tennessee, and received an MBA from the University of Chattanooga at Tennessee in 2005. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Berry College in Rome, Georgia in 1990. She says that Rock City Inc., is a perfect fit for her because she has spent her career in human resources departments at companies both in Chattanooga and Atlanta. What she learned in those jobs built the critical rungs as she climbed the corporate ladder. “The business of the company is the people,” she says, “so if the HR team doesn’t understand the business and isn’t working in a solution-oriented way to support the operational leaders, then you’re just missing an incredible opportunity,” Harris says. “HR has to add value in the business by having the business be a well-functioning, sustainable organization, right? So there’s not any kind of separation where you just do the cool, fun, fluffy stuff. HR should never be simply a siloed function unto itself.” 

Her extensive background brought her to Rock City Inc. in 2008 as director of human resources and organizational development. “They said, ‘We want you to take a leadership role in the organization, and we’re going to put all our eggs in the basket of organizational culture and leadership development. Are you interested?’  My reply was heck, yeah. When can I start?” 

Five years after being hired, she was given the job of chief operating officer and, in 2016, was promoted to president and chief operating officer. In July, she was promoted to CEO. Bill Chapin, who bought the attraction in 1984 with a group of other investors said, in a statement, that Harris “has earned this opportunity.” 

The courses she took during the pursuit of her MBA at UTC, especially those in accounting and leadership, provided invaluable lessons for her new role, Harris says.  

For instance, the numbers and day-to-day functions of accounting—balancing the books, profit-and-loss statements, etc.—were a whole new world for her. She recalls an accounting class that gave her a philosophy she still uses today. She parrots the professor saying, ‘You have to have accountants who are knowledgeable enough to tell you about your business, but you can’t let the accountants run your business.’ “I think of that often,” Harris says.  

She calls the leadership course, taught by Mark Mendenhall, the Burton Frierson Chair of Excellence in Business Leadership, as “the single-best class that I took in my MBA program. It was not just the leadership principles, but the thoughtfulness around knowing yourself, being critical with yourself, understanding what that means in how you lead, how you interact with others.” 

“(It was) the single-best class that I took in my MBA program. It was not just the leadership principles, but the thoughtfulness around knowing yourself, being critical with yourself, understanding what that means in how you lead, how you interact with others.” 

Being an effective leader was crucial when Harris stepped into her role as CEO only two months after COVID-19 spread its unwelcome blanket over the world. Tourist attractions have been among the hardest-hit businesses. “I am confident Susan, with the responsibilities of president and chief executive officer, will lead SRC through the COVID-19 crisis and into the future with excellence,” Chapin says.  

After being closed for two months, Rock City reopened in May with limits on the number of guests at any given time, social distancing, face mask wearing and more rigorous cleaning. Preparation in the early days of the virus helped Rock City weather the reopening and the reality of being a tourist destination in a COVID-19 world, but like the attraction itself, the work was a family effort, Harris says. “We dug in together to figure out what needed to happen and to lay out those steps,” she says. “I was sharing with somebody the other day that our foundation and values, all of the work we’ve done in our organizational culture, all of the work that we have done on leadership, really has paid dividends for us through this time. 

“I can’t imagine trying to build the strength of the organization at the same time you were trying to react to the changing dynamics.” 

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