Jun. 11—As someone began to announce the new chief executive officer of the Washington State Fair at a board meeting June 8, Renee McClain frantically looked around the room.
McClain, the fair’s longtime chief financial officer, had interviewed for the position the previous Friday.
“I was actually looking around when they said’The new CEO [is]’to see if there was anyone in the room I didn’t recognize, “McClain said.
She didn’t see any unfamiliar faces, and a board member finished the sentence with her name.
“They gave me a standing ovation, we had a toast, we made some speeches, and then it was back to business,” McClain said. “It was a total surprise.”
McClain, who has worked for the fair for the past 26 years, will become the organization’s first female CEO in its 122-year history when she starts Oct. 1. She will take over when Kent Hojem, her boss of 17 years, retires at the end of September.
Having worked with Hojem throughout the entire of her fair career, McClain equates their relationship to that of an older brother and younger sister. As she has in the past, she said she plans to look to Hojem for guidance in her new position.
“I’m constantly pushing him and pestering him, but in our entire 26 years we’ve only had about two times where we have really disagreed with each other,” McClain said. “He has allowed me opportunities to test my leadership skills,” to grow. He is a person of integrity, so the respect I have for him is great. “
‘No better place to work’
When McClain started at the fair in the 1990s, most of her work centered around the organization’s finances. But as her tenure extended, she found opportunities to showcase her creativity.
Recently, she had a large role in creating Holiday Magic, a program that displays a variety of festive winter lights throughout the fairgrounds. The event has expanded to include ice skating and a night market, but the original program was constrained by social distancing measures put in place during the pandemic.
According to McClain, she and Hojem were eager to find safe ways to engage Washingtonians that winter.
“We always wanted to do a Christmas event, but we never had the pause, the moment to do it,” she said. “… That event was pulled off by our staff literally in about two months.”
The next four months will be busy for the incoming CEO. McClain is tasked with hiring someone to fill her old position and an empty chief operating officer role, preparing for The Taste Northwest July event, and developing a plan for the fair’s future for board members and other stakeholders.
McClain expects the coming months to be chaotic and productive. When it’s over and she begins as the organization’s leader, she said she’s confident her love of the fair will translate into meaningful experiences for guests.
“Our core purpose is to celebrate life in Washington,” McClain said. “I wholeheartedly feel that there’s just no better place to work if you like to see people create traditions and memories, and you value that part of life.”
(c) 2022 the Puyallup Herald (Puyallup, Wash.)
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