Since 1995, Lisa Paxton has been a driving force advocating for the lakes area at the helm of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber.
Thursday, Paxton announced she was resigning as chamber CEO and will leave the post in early December.
“It was a very difficult decision because I am so invested in the organization and in the team,” Paxton said Thursday. “It has been my passion for 18 years.”
Paxton, 52, is leaving the job to focus on family and her own business, Ultra Paws. The dog products business was started by her mother in 1972. Paxton took over ownership of the business 10 years ago.
“It was very difficult to make a decision to change,” Paxton said. She was in a job that one couldn’t leave at the office. “It was time to reprioritize.”
Kevin Thesing, Lakes Printing owner, encouraged Paxton to apply for the chamber opening when she was the regional manager for the Minnesota Office of Tourism. The office was going to be relocated to Bemidji and Paxton wanted to stay in the Brainerd area. “Kevin called me and I remember him saying ‘I think you should apply. You’ll be good for the chamber and I think the chamber will be good for you.’ So I called him today and said you were so right.”
Paxton said moving to the chamber was the best thing, career wise, she’s ever done.
“I think I made an impact,” she said. The goal was to build a better Brainerd lakes area for today and the future. Before Paxton took the helm, the chamber had seven directors in 11 years. There was uncertainty about the organization.
Paxton said much of the work goes on behind the scenes whether it’s recruiting a new air carrier or advocating for transportation.
“It’s all about building community and building economic vitality and that doesn’t happen by accident,” Paxton said.
Paxton enjoyed the ability to gather diverse viewpoints to come up with better solutions when a need or a need for change was identified.
“I was able to make a direct impact,” she said. “That, for me, is what’s always been so rewarding. What we are doing is building a community and making a difference.”
Now Paxton will focus on family and the Ultra Paws business. Paxton’s father was a full-time school teacher and professional sled-dog driver. Her mom made gear for the sled dogs.
“We learned to be entrepreneurs at a young age selling gear out of a truck at sled-dog races,” Paxton said.
In the last few years, the dog products business has taken off and is growing. Ultra Paws sells product worldwide. Putting a full-time effort into the business will mean more options for growth, she said.
“I’m proud to have accomplished what we have,” she said of the chamber. “I’m honored to have served the business community. It’s nice to leave on a high note. ...Whoever takes over will be very fortunate to have this great team.”
Now Paxton is ready to put her energies in a new direction.
“It will just be different challenges,” she said. “I’ve never shied away from a challenge.” Brainerd Lakes Chamber Board Chair Kim Ellingson, president and CEO of Bremer Bank, said the word “legacy” may be applied to Paxton. Ellingson said Paxton’s qualities — an ability to pull people together — are revealed in the team she created at the chamber. The chamber employs 13 and brings together hundreds of volunteers in Brainerd, Crosslake and Pequot Lakes. The Brainerd Lakes Chamber represents more than 1,000 businesses.
The search for a new CEO will be done in collaboration with Dowell Management of St. Paul and an executive committee. Ellingson said the chamber is fortunate to have Paxton’s expertise during the following months of transition.
Ellingson said the chamber will be looking for an individual with a strong connection to the business community who is also well-versed in the tourism component of the lakes area. Paxton has served as a longtime member of the Explore Minnesota Tourism Council Public Policy Committee.
“Tourism is a huge part of our state’s economy, especially in the Brainerd lakes area,” stated John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota. “Lisa has been a tireless worker to help promote, support and grow tourism in Minnesota and has been a tremendous asset to the entire state. We will miss her drive and energy for tourism and economic development, but I am confident Lisa will continue to be a strong advocate for the region and state for many years to come.”
Beyond tourism expertise, Ellingson said they’ll want an individual who continues Paxton’s advocacy and her work with the state Legislature. David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said the Brainerd chamber with Paxton’s leadership set a high bar for advocacy at the state and local levels.
“Lisa represents her members’ interests with passion, professionalism and integrity, and her voice will be missed,” Olson said in a news release.
“I can’t truly say enough about Lisa just from the perspective of her experience,” Ellingson said from her office late Thursday afternoon. ”I know she is leaving the chamber in a really good spot.”
Ellingson said Paxton did an outstanding job of focusing on building and sustaining a healthy business community.
Among the accomplishments the chamber listed during Paxton’s leadership included: construction of the Highway 371 Welcome Center, which serves more than 200,000 people each year; leading the statewide effort to increase Minnesota tourism funding for competitive marketing; growing members from 500 to nearly 1,000, merging with Crosslake and Pequot Lakes chambers; creating partnerships such as the one with the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp.; creating the Bridges Workplace Connection for work-based learning experiences for Minnesota high school students.
In written comments, Ellingson said, “The Brainerd Lakes Chamber will miss the strong and steady leadership Lisa has provided us for 18 years. We are thankful she has positioned our chamber to where it is today. Our chamber is looked upon as one of the strongest, and most admired, in Minnesota. Lisa is an innovator. Her wealth of knowledge and new ideas will be missed. She excellently represented our business community and our region with skill and distinction. We wish her well.”