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Tim Murray’s Worcester Chamber of Commerce Gets Aggressive

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

 

Tim Murray wants to play hardball to bring the Worcester Regional Chamber back into fighting shape.

One man’s softball is another’s hardball. Tim Murray learned that valuable lesson the old-fashioned way. He earned it.

Murray is the new president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. On June 3, he replaced Dick Kennedy, who had held those posts for the past nine years. Murray is being paid $200,000 a year – much more than the $125,000 annual paycheck he received as second-in-command to Deval Patrick for the past six- and-a-half years.

Job One for Murray: To establish the Chamber as the economic-development catalyst for Greater Worcester – especially, the hub of the region, Worcester. That undertaking will be as daunting a mission as it is long overdue.

In the three years since the demise of Choose Worcester, which was formed in 2005, Worcester has not spent one red cent on marketing itself to the rest of the world. No, we’re not talking about coffee mugs, t-shirts, baseball caps and billboards along 290 telling us what we already know: There’s this asset-rich place called Worcester, Massachusetts.

Instead, Worcester business, political, academic and community leaders need to jump on Jet Blue – once it begins service here in November – and go to where the business opportunities are. Namely, the large clusters of medical-device, life-science, health-care and high-tech manufacturing businesses in places like North Carolina’s Research Triangle and California’s Silicon Valley and, yes, even Boston’s High Tech Belt that are in the market for places to expand or relocate.

They need to act like real-city leaders, not backwoods burghers. And anybody who gets in the way – in negative, destructive way – needs to know they’re going to get steamrollered over.

Back to the future

Today, the Chamber has 2,300 members, which includes the head counts of all its affiliates, plus annual revenue of more than $1.2 million. Proclaiming itself to be “the largest Chamber in New England,” Worcester Regional states a dedication to “enhancing the region’s economic prosperity and the vitality of its business community.

According to the Chamber, its mission is “to support existing businesses and promote economic development in the Worcester region by being a bold, strong, articulate and effective advocate.” Yet these are challenging times for the more than 5,000 other Chambers nationwide - as they are for most other businesses and organization across America. More than a year ago, for example, the Wachusett Chamber of Commerce shut down because of financial troubles.

Following are edited highlights of an interview with Murray. The full interview will air on Sunday, July 14 at 10 p.m. (ET) on The Business Beat on 90.5 WICN and in streaming audio atWICN.org.

With your background and experience in politics and government, will the Worcester Regional Chamber now become more political in nature?

Politics is inherent in all human endeavors, so I find that question interesting – and it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. We’re going to make decisions that are in the best interests of the members of the Chamber of Commerce. Sometimes, politics is part of that – listening to all sides. Even among our membership of 2,300 people, there are varying viewpoints.

Let me qualify my question: How about hardball politics?

That’s a term that can mean different things to different people. We’re going to push to get things done. We’re going to be a leader [and] a collaborator. We want to see more economic-development activity and growth in the Central Mass. region.

So my hardball might be your softball.

Right. It’s all relative. [laughs]

Do you expect a certain number of Chamber members to leave the Chamber because of fear that the Chamber is going to become more political or hardball?

Other than a couple of people who commented publicly [by saying that sort of thing], we’re seeing people joining the Chamber since we made the announcement [to be the region’s economic-development catalyst]. And so we are going to work aggressively to grow membership, which is a part of what Chambers are all about not only here in Worcester but across the country, and make the case that this is an organization that provides an array of benefits [for people] who are interested in growing and expanding a business.

Back in the ‘90s, the Worcester Regional Chamber had about 4,400 members, including the membership of its affiliate Chambers, and now it’s down to around 2,300. That’s quite a big drop and it’s not unique – it’s been happening to Chambers around the country. What do you want to build membership numbers back up to? And are you just looking to increase membership, or are you going to do something with that membership and for that membership that’s different, or of more [value], than in the past?

… Ten-plus years ago, a number of people and businesses joined the Chamber to get reduced costs on health insurance. With advent of Romneycare and Obamacare, there’s less incentive for small businesses, in particular, and medium-sized businesses to join the Chamber [in order] to access group health insurance.

There are a lot of micro-businesses that have fewer than 20 employees and can’t take advantage of Romneycare and Obamacare, so they may still need the advantages of an organization such as the Chamber that can get them a bulk rate on group health insurance.

So [yes], there’s a certain migration of [businesses out the Worcester Regional Chamber] because of [the lack of group health insurance]. There was one Chamber affiliate back two Chamber president/CEOs ago, the Corridor Nine [Area Chamber], which went out on its own [in 2003].

They took about 600 members with them.

Right. Since that time, the [Worcester Regional Chamber’s membership] number has remained fairly constant at about 2,300. I think that speaks to the enduring value that many businesses see by being a member of [the Worcester Regional] Chamber. Our hope is to not only reinforce that [membership number] but also to grow [it] in terms of being an effective advocate on issues, adding more benefits in terms of programming or advocacy [and] leading new economic-development initiatives that grow the pie and create more direct investments in the region. So that’s really what we’re going to be focusing on.

By the end of calendar year 2014, what would you like to see as the membership number: 3,000, 4,000?

That’s pretty aggressive, but I want to see an upward trajectory. I think we’re seeing that in the short time [I’ve been Chamber president and CEO]. We want to be adding members not just in Worcester but [also] with our affiliates. This is about partnering because, as you know and your [readers] know, regions compete, not just by city and town geographical boundaries but [also] by regions.

What’s that practical limit of how much your Chamber can grow? How many businesses are actually qualified to become a member of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce?

As we develop our strategy, part of it is going to be doing an inventory of the number of businesses that exist in each one of the cities and towns that are in our jurisdiction.

In a few short years, could you get back up to 4,400 members?

That could be the case, but we want to make sure we’re providing value [to our members] as well. So we’re going to have an aggressive, targeted approach, and we’re developing that strategy [now].

What do you plan to do to enhance those values in a significant way so that it’s even more attractive to be a Chamber member?

As it currently stands, there’s no better networking entity or organization [than the Worcester Regional Chamber]. The Chamber is the premier networking opportunity for businesses of all different sizes.

But if I pay for a Chamber membership, which is a few hundred dollars a year, and I go to only two networking events, I might as well pay the premium for the networking events that I do attend and save a couple of hundred bucks by doing that.

Some people might choose to do that, but I think there is a whole lot more [people who wouldn’t choose to do that.] Beyond the networking, there’s a whole host of programs that can help businesses to grow and expand. [They include] Business Owners Dialog, access to [the Service Corp of Retired Executives], which is housed at the Chamber, [and] the Women’s Information Network. We’ve got a whole range of programs that can help business to grow and expand that people do take advantage of. So that’s value added.

There’s [also] advocacy [that we provide] on issues that the Chamber is involved in. Recently, we took a survey of our members about increases in water and sewer rates and what that means for businesses large and small. Traditionally, there have been issues that the Chamber has advocated on, [and] that will continue and, in maybe some cases, expand not only with respect the cities and towns in [our] region and state but [also] down in Washington as well.

About a decade ago, the Chamber altered its mission somewhat to add advocacy. Did that include lobbying?

There are legal connotations to both. One of the members of the Chamber staff, [both ] prior to my coming [aboard] and currently, is a registered lobbyist. We use an abundance of caution. We want to make sure that anyone who is lobbying [under] the statutory requirements are meeting those [requirements].

But does the Chamber want to do advocacy, lobbying, or both, when appropriate?

I think for most people, common sense [says] they’re one in the same. … Lobbying, is when you spend a defined number of hours on an issue [with legislators]. … It’s a very broad and amorphous definition.

I’m talking about the legal definition.

We’re going to comply with the law, but we’re going to be doing both [lobbying and advocacy].

What is your vision for the Chamber, three years from now, if you and your team are relatively successful between now and then?

When the Executive Board of the Chamber approached me about taking the job - [whether] I [was] interested in it and pitching me on it – they had [already] surveyed their members and business leaders in Central Mass. The refrain that consistently came back was that [those members and leaders] wanted the Chamber to lead more aggressively on economic development.

And that doesn’t mean building new buildings.

It means part of that.

Well, the Worcester Business Development Corp. is doing that. We’ve got to fill the buildings that are being built.

[Economic development] can mean a variety of things - “economic development’ means different things to different people. But the lead issue that we defined [while] working with our partners, whether it be the WBDC [or] other institutional partners, is [the need for the Chamber] to be the voice that’s going out and advocating [on issues] and recruiting businesses within various sectors of the economy that play to Central Mass.’ strengths and that will logically grow here.

So we’re going to be leading a lot of the [business-]recruitment efforts, but it will also be [our job to figure out] how to work with the WBDC and the City [of Worcester] on [economic-development] projects, and how do we work them on identifying the next priorities on the [region’s economic-development] punch list, which might include specific buildings or geographic boundaries. We’re going to be engaged in that [sort of activity], but primarily we’re going to be working with [the WBDC and City Hall] on focusing on [business] recruitment [by] telling the Central Mass. value proposition to businesses, companies and trade associations in Massachusetts, in New England, across the nation – where we have good information – and maybe even across the globe.

That’s what the Chamber did when the late Bill Short headed it until the late ‘90s. Are we going back to the future, with the Chamber becoming what it was during the ‘80s and ‘90s, for example? 

I worked in the Chamber mailroom when I was in high school … and I read [in the then-named Evening Gazette, which I delivered before I went to work for the Chamber] about the role that the [then-named] Worcester Chamber played. The Worcester Chamber birthed the Worcester Business Development Corp. to build the Biotech Park [along Plantation Street] - which ironically, when I became mayor [in 2001], was one of the largest taxpayers in the city – [as well as Higgins Industrial Park in Worcester and] Centech [Park] in [Shrewsbury and] Grafton. The Chamber led the fight on behalf of the business community [in the ‘70s] to create the Centrum – [now, the DCU Center].

So I saw Bill Short’s model and I think it was generally a pretty good one, and so we’re going to get back to some of that advocacy around economic development – whether it be project-based or [business] recruitment or [legislative] advocacy. But the implementation of [economic-development projects] will fall to the [WBDC], the City of Worcester, the [Worcester Redevelopment Authority], where appropriate, and [to] some other partners [as well]. So we want to be a partner - but also a leader - on certain aspects of [economic-development projects].

Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production.

 

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