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Worcester Chamber of Commerce Gets Chance To Reinvent Under Murray

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

 

Will newly hired Tim Murray bring the archaic Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce into modern times?

The good news for the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce is that Tim Murray is about to become its new leader. The bad news: The struggling Chamber has way too many networking-event candles in its cake as it celebrate its 100th anniversary.

In the immediate wake of Murray’s hiring by the Chamber’s Board of Directors, Board members heaped mountains of praise on Murray, who will replace Dick Kennedy. Last year, Kennedy announced his retirement after serving as president and CEO for the past nine years. Murray will reportedly be paid $200,000 a year – much more than the $125,000 annual paycheck he’s been getting as lieutenant governor.

The Chamber’s current chairman is Richard Burke, president of Senior Care Services and government programs and chief compliance officer of Worcester-based of Fallon Community Health Plan. He predicts the Worcester ex-mayor/soon-to-be former lieutenant governor will be “a strong leader of the business community, providing a keen focus on economic development. Tim Murray is a proven leader with a passion for economic development and the ability to lead the business community.”

Ralph D. Crowley Jr., president and CEO of Worcester-based Polar Beverages, noted that Murray’s accomplishments as lieutenant governor and mayor of Worcester “are already exceedingly visible in the revitalization of our city. He has an outstanding relationship with the business community as well as the City Council and City Manager Mike O’Brien. I think Tim’s leadership of the business community will provide a unique opportunity for all three of these vital constituencies to take Worcester into a brighter future.”

And Fred Eppinger, president and CEO of Worcester-based The Hanover Insurance Group Inc., expressed excitement at Murray’s appointment, calling it “great news for the Chamber and for the region. He is the perfect person to lead the organization at this pivotal point in time, with so much positive momentum on the economic-development front across the region and, with the potential for so much more. Tim has great vision, is a strong and tireless advocate for the region, knows how to bring people and organizations together, and has the drive and commitment necessary to make good things happen.”

The key question remains to be answered. Does Murray have the right stuff to remake Worcester’s long-ailing Chamber into a healthy, sustainable organization that truly reflects the interests and serves the needs of today’s business community? This sort of question is as relevant in present-day America as it was in 16th-century France, when the very first chamber of commerce was founded in Marseilles.

Worcester’s chamber needs to bolster membership

The Worcester Regional Chamber traces its roots back a century and a half, when a group of prominent businessmen established the Worcester Business Exchange in 1873. It was the first business organization in Massachusetts.

Two years later, the state officially recognized the organization, which was renamed the Worcester Board of Trade. In 1913, the organization merged with the Merchant’s Association to become the Worcester Chamber of Commerce - adding “Regional” to its name more than a decade ago.

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. A year ago this month, for example, the Wachusett Chamber of Commerce got wiped out in an avalanche of money woes.

Jeannie Hebert, president and CEO of the 500-member Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, thinks Murray’s appointment is “positive.” As she sees it, officials of the Worcester Regional Chamber, with which the mostly-independent Blackstone Chamber is affiliated, “really need to work on membership. I think he can really bolster them to the point where people will start joining the Chamber again. And I’m hoping we can ride that coattail, which would be nice.”

Collaboration is key

Following are edited highlights of an interview with Hebert, whose own Chamber has an annual budget of $300,000 and one other full-time-equivalent staff member besides herself.

Nationally and locally, what are Chambers doing these days to become more healthy and sustainable?

If you’re going to be a [healthy and] sustainable Chamber, it’s been my experience that you really have to listen to your members, see what their needs are and provide value for them because, like with everyone else, their time is extremely valuable. If you’re not going to offer something that they can take away and use, they won’t have time for you.

At the Blackstone Valley Chamber, we do listen to our members and provide myriad services. It’s not just the [networking opportunities]; it’s much, much more than that. We have a Center for Business and Enterprise, we provide all kinds of services for businesses, and I represent them. In the Blackstone Valley, the majority of our businesses are small – and that’s 10 or less employees – so I have to represent them. I sit on the Governor’s Roundtable for Small Business and bring questions to the State House, I lobby legislators when there’s a law that’s been put into effect that pertains mainly to large businesses but could cause a hardship for a small business that didn’t even occur to the legislators when they put it into effect.

You really have to go the extra mile now. It’s not like it was when [the ‘50s TV character] Jim Anderson with “Father Knows Best” was all excited to go to the Chamber meeting at night and it was a social event. I mean, we have those, too, and those are fun … but you [also] really have to be there and offer myriad services – online, print and face-to-face – as well as counseling and giving value for your dollar because everyone is vying for somebody’s dollar … .

So a Chamber can’t just do networking. If I’m paying, say, $300 a year to belong to a Chamber and then attending only a couple of networking events that year, I could save money by not joining and instead paying the non-member fee for the events that I do attend?

Yes, exactly. For instance, we just had Ken Brown, [until recently the executive director] of the Mass. Office of International Trade and Investment, come out and meet with some of our business owners that actually export. There’s a grant that’s available [for businesses that export] and no one [among those business owners] knew about it. The Commonwealth has wonderful programs but they don’t market them, so I’m kind of the middleman to let our members know what’s going on. So we had Ken Brown [told] our members and their representatives about how to apply for this grant – they could get $10,000 [each], which is a lot for a small business, to help them. … [Our members] find out so much [during such informational meetings] - and I learn, too – about what’s available and it helps them do better business.

We even have grant writers on staff that will meet with business owners and write grant [proposals] for them. We just wrote a grant proposal for one of our members, to help them to get a leg up on growing their business. You really, really do have to go the extra mile. You’ve got to really put your think cap on, see what your members need and meet those needs. [Otherwise,] as you said, they’re going to put their dollars somewhere else and there won’t be a Chamber. A lot of business owners have no idea what a Chamber is - they think we’re a Rotary Club.

With numerous business-networking organizations out there such Business Networking Institute, Local First, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club and Quota Club, what are the key factors that distinguish a well-run Chamber of Commerce from them?

First of all, [many of] those organizations that you mentioned are members of our Chamber. So I can meet with them, find out what they do, and help promote what they do to our members … . f you’re not going to collaborate with other organizations and even other Chambers, then I don’t think you really are fulfilling the mission of a Chamber of Commerce – especially, in an area that’s as diverse as [the Blackstone Valley]. I mean, we have areas that are more urban and we have areas that are very rural – and I love it that way – [so] we really have to collaborate. We even cross state lines.

So I think that’s the only way a Chamber can survive now. You have to be very diverse, you have to collaborate, and you have to really listen and not just talk. It’s good to tell the story but if you don’t meet the needs, you’re dead in the water.

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

 

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