Established before World War I, the Executives’ Club of Chicago has witnessed this Midwest city’s rise as a magnet for global businesses over the past 100+ years.
Today, members acknowledge the Exec Club as one of America’s top business forums where they:
Discover how the Exec Club came to be the premier business forum it is today.
Distinguished by its sandy brick façade and the elegant white mantle of its top floors, the Hotel Sherman stood on the site that now holds the Thompson Center. Throughout the 1910s and roaring ‘20s, the hotel was one of Chicago’s premier nightspots. In the evenings, live jazz wafted through the College Inn restaurant and attracted celebrities, tourists, and members of high society. In the day though, members of the Executives’ Club met each week in a small banquet room.
In its early years, the Exec Club’s core members discussed among themselves the affairs of the day and the business impact. In sharing their experiences, they sought ways to learn from one another and work with each other on the business front. Perhaps they discussed new ventures that could benefit from the success of Chicago’s retail companies. Or maybe they examined the strategies that enabled utilities magnate, Samuel Insull, to expand Commonwealth Edison’s hold on electric power in the Midwest under his leadership.
Like many other Chicagoans, their attention in 1914 surely turned to how the U.S. decision to enter World War I in support of Great Britain, France, and Russia affected the city. With many of the area’s young men sent overseas after training at Fort Sheridan and the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of the city, employment opportunities emerged for women and African Americans. The Great Migration of African Americans from the South to industrial cities like Chicago continued after the war ended in 1918.
Harold O. McLain, President of Railways Ice Co, became President of the Exec Club in June 1940 and brought with him a sense of openness about the future. This served him and the Exec Club well. It was during his two-year term that the country adjusted to another war and the Exec Club’s programming a platform for the conversations surrounding it.
While more politicians, journalists, and military leaders would be added to its slate of active leaders and business supporters, the Exec Club had already become a campaign stop for Midwest politicos like Everett M. Dirksen. Dirksen represented the 16th Congressional District of Illinois when he outlined the priorities of Congress at the Exec Club in February 1940. He would later become a U.S. Senator and, among other accomplishments, help write the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It’s hard to believe that before John F. Kennedy was elected President, The Executives’ Club of Chicago had already celebrated 50 years of success. The Exec Club marked the milestone with a Golden Anniversary meeting on March 10, 1961, at the Hotel Sherman.
“I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate your officers and Executive Director, Art Stewart, for their effort in maintaining this noteworthy 50-year tradition of bringing busy executives together to partake of food for thought and nourishment through the medium of the luncheon forum,” said Otto Kerner Jr., the new governor of Illinois at the time and the day’s featured speaker. Mayor Richard J. Daley, among the dignitaries who welcomed Kerner and the well-dressed crowd that filled the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, also served as official cutter of the anniversary cake.
The celebration came in the midst of a season that had begun with a roundtable presentation by foreign correspondents of NBC News on troubled hotspots in the world. The Exec Club would soon welcome the popular mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, for a high-profile visit. The eclectic mix of speakers in 1961 ranged from former Vice President Richard Nixon to comedians Joey Bishop and Bob Newhart.
While humor had its place in the culture, the decade would ultimately be dominated by politics and peace marches, conflict and tragedy. On Nov. 22, 1963, the audience that had gathered to applaud the return of a noted Ohio congressman heard the stunning news that seeped through the Grand Ballroom as he spoke. The Exec Club’s newsletter recounted the unfolding episode a week later.
When Jane Byrne took over the Mayor’s office from Michael Bilandic in 1979, one of her first stops as the city’s first female mayor was to the Executives’ Club of Chicago. After all, the Exec Club’s long and harmonious relationship with Richard J. Daley had fortified its role in fostering cooperation between city government and the business community. A year after outlining her optimistic plans, the new mayor returned to the Exec Club and delivered a State of the City address. She acknowledged the thorny challenges that come with the job and accentuated the importance of working together.
“What is Chicago?” Mayor Byrne posited to the lunch gathering on May 2, 1980. “It’s a town that won’t let you down, and it never has. It’s got everything for the suburbanites, for world travelers, for conventioneers, for business. It’s a great city. . . . I’d like to see the cooperation of everybody in this room to help us make this city the greatest city in the world, an international gem; and I believe it can be done. But I believe it can be done only with your help.”
That cooperative spirit endured but was tested in the economic sluggishness of the early 1980s. Among other challenges during her term, Mayor Byrne confronted issues with the local school board and a strike by the city’s firefighters. Despite the advent of another milestone for the city—the election of its first African American mayor—in 1983, the “council wars” that greeted Mayor Harold Washington shortly after his swearing-in ceremony kept the city’s government leaders locked in a struggle for power until 1986.
On the cusp of a new century, the Executives’ Club re-emerged as a critical cog in the evolving business landscape.
Looking to build a stronger future, the Exec Club found another important focus: developing the potential of young leaders via the Leadership Circle. Through its own advisory board, committees, group mentorship and quarterly leadership development programs, the Leadership Circle helps grow Chicago’s talent into strong, committed messengers and leaders.
The Exec Club also launched a Chicago CEO Breakfast Series dedicated to exploring strategies to better compete in the global marketplace.
In 2011, the Exec Club celebrated its 100th birthday with four centennial summits, which included nearly 100 national and international speakers.
Today, the companies and members of the Executives’ Club are joining forces to build more than just great ideas. They are building energy, boosting momentum and vitality. And fortifying a city that, quite simply, works.
As Chicago continues its march forward, so too does the Executives’ Club of Chicago. Exec Club members connect with like-minded professionals in a constructive, sociable environment to enrich relationships, share ideas, and create new business opportunities.
The Exec Club remains committed to its mission of bringing together Chicago’s “best in class” executives with the most influential global leaders to inspire new ideas and encourage growth right here in Chicago.
At the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 forced the world to pivot and change. The Executives’ Club of Chicago dove head first into the world of virtual programming and will continue to evolve as the needs of our members and the larger business community shift.
It’s not just a membership, it’s an opportunity.