Chambers of Commerce — Varied Focus, Allied Interests
There is no template for a chamber of commerce. “If you’ve see one, you’ve seen one.” Meet the myriad grass roots of Alabama’s business communities.
Chambers touch every facet of the community, says Jim Page, 2014 chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. Photo by Cary Norton
Alabama has 120 chambers of commerce serving as business advocates within their communities. Yet the size, structure and focus among these chambers can vary widely.
“No two are alike,” says Jeremy Arthur, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama. “There’s no template. There’s no blueprint.”
In fact, Arthur likens the variety to a common saying in his line of work: “If you’ve seen one Chamber of Commerce, you’ve seen one Chamber of Commerce.”
The focus of a chamber’s work could range from business advocacy, business networking and educational programs for members to workforce training, economic development and tourism promotion within its region.
Even among the differences, however, the common trait is clear. “They’re responding to the needs they find in their local community,” Arthur says.
“Chambers play a very unique role in every community in this state because we touch every facet of the community,” says Jim Page, who has served as 2014 Chairman of the CCAA. “Every chamber is closely tied to business, education, nonprofit, service providers. The Chamber is really in the middle of every activity going on in that community.”
The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama places significant emphasis on workforce development. Page, who is president and CEO for West Alabama’s chamber, says, “We pride ourselves on our workforce development model — being business and industry led.”
The chamber’s designation last spring as the fiscal and managing agent of the Region 3 Workforce Development Council prompted West Alabama officials to restructure their format and hire a full-time director for this area. Under the auspices of the Alabama Community College System, the Workforce Development Council of Alabama is divided into 10 regions that provide a direct link to the workforce needs of business and industry at the local level.
To foster links, the West Alabama chamber brings together business and industry, along with educators and service providers. “We feel like our role is a convener to bring those groups together,” Page says.
The chamber also has connected employers with prospective employees, particularly through an affiliated organization, West Alabama Works. In September, for example, West Alabama Works and the chamber assisted with an automotive job fair sponsored by Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. that attracted more than 2,000 people. More than 1,600 interviews took place that day, leading to job offers for 590 individuals.
In addition, those that did not qualify for positions were guided to G.E.D. and Ready-to-Work programs to build their skills for future employment. “We’re trying to create a pipeline of skilled workers, pools of applicants for employers to draw from,” Page says.
Businesses, employees and tourists don’t recognize county lines — a truism that has led many chambers to form regional alliances. That’s the premise behind “Connecting Our Greater
Communities,” a partnership of chambers of commerce in East Central Alabama.
“We see this as an opportunity to extend everybody’s market,” says Linda Hearn, manager of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, a member of this alliance that reaches across Calhoun, Cleburne, Cherokee, Etowah, Randolph and Talladega counties. The partnership kicked off in 2013 with a Chairman’s Gala at the Talladega Superspeedway that drew about 700 people from all parts of the region.
Together, the chambers supported a “shop local” retail campaign. They created a “Connecting our Great Communities” Facebook page. They are cross-promoting business, tourism and community events. In some cases, they share members, staff and resources. “It’s incredible how we all work together,” Hearn says.
Even as chambers reach across county lines, they also keep their focus on their own members. Morri Yancy, president of the Lake Guntersville Chamber of Commerce, says that her organization hosts at least 30 member events a year — primarily aimed at networking. “I think it’s our job to connect our members and help them build their business and prosper in our community,” Yancy says.
These events include business breakfasts where business leaders can receive updates on the state of the city, or such areas as health care, law enforcement and the school system, as well as a series of “Good Morning Guntersville” coffee breaks at local businesses. The chamber also hosts a series of Business After Hours events, which provide a relaxed networking opportunity, and it provides seminars to educate members about running their businesses.
Perhaps the highlight of the chamber’s events, however, is the annual member appreciation tailgating cookout. “We have it the same day as our biggest football rivalry,” Yancy says. Members gather in the chamber parking lot for lunch as they prepare for the matchup between Guntersville High School and Albertville High School later in the day.
Growing Small Businesses
Across the state, small businesses receive significant attention from their chambers of commerce. “They are really the backbone in most communities,” says Darrell Randle, vice president for small business development with the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce. “They create more jobs in our community and in most communities.”
Randle notes that of the seven departments that make up Mobile’s chamber, his may be the only one with “small business” in the title, but that’s not where the focus ends. “All our departments are geared to helping small business,” he says. This emphasis makes sense, considering that most chamber members are small businesses.
For Mobile, the definition of a small business is 100 workers or fewer. By that measure, Randle says, “More than 94 percent of our members are small businesses.” As those numbers are broken down further, 89 percent of the Mobile chamber members have fewer than 50 employees, and 79 percent have fewer than 25.
Among the variety of educational, networking and professional development opportunities geared to small businesses, the chamber hosted a Business Expo in August that drew more than 200 exhibitors and more than 2,000 attendees. The exhibitors included local, state and federal resource partners to assist small business owners with management, financial, procurement, marketing and technical assistance. “Woven in is an opportunity to go face to face with small business providers,” Randle says.
Understandably, many members are interested in doing business with large manufacturers in the area, and the chamber helps make those connections happen. “Being a Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce member wins you an extra point or two in the RFP process,” he says.
Those interested in launching a new business will find helpful information on the chamber’s website.
“Some are really testing the waters. They have an idea. They want to see what it would cost,” Randle says. “Basically we give them a checklist to see what it would take to start a small business.” After that process, the chamber connects the entrepreneurs with customized, tailored resources that fit their needs.
“It’s our job to make sure you know you’re not out there on an island,” Randle says. “There’s help for you.”
Economic development also is very important to local chambers, but, again, each community has its own emphasis.
“How communities define economic development varies from place to place,” says Brian Hilson, president and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance.
Some chambers have economic development departments. Other communities have separate organizations. Even within the Birmingham Business Alliance, there are local economic development organizations within the seven counties that make up the region.
Learning from Each Other
Whatever the size or structure, as local chamber officials respond to the concerns central to their own communities, they have a common avenue for learning from each other through the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama, and nearly all belong to the association.
Hilson has been selected chairman of CCAA in 2015. “CCAA is our professional membership organization for chamber of commerce executives and directors,” he says. “That includes any chamber large or small.”
Through the CCAA’s programs, chamber officials can engage, share ideas and network with peers.
Partnering for Greater Strength
The Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama’s office in Montgomery shares an office with the Business Council of Alabama. In 2003, the two business organizations formed a partnership — the first of its kind in the United States.
“It was an opportunity to use the BCA statewide platform to unite the voices of these 120 chambers for the business community,” says William J. Canary, president and chief executive officer of the BCA.
“We remain the model that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce touts as a link between the state and the local business community,” says Arthur, a chamber professional who heads the CCAA full-time.
With the combined membership of the CCAA and the BCA, Canary says the partnership represents more than 1 million working Alabamians. “Each chamber has a voice. Put together, we have the largest shout,” Canary says.
As local chambers advocate for business interests in their communities, through the BCA-CCAA Partnership, they are able to expand their voice to influence larger issues.
This is a process of impact, Canary says, citing factors important to chambers — job creation, quality of life and education reform. When addressing community issues, Canary says, “Chambers have a huge amount of credibility. Their voice is going to have significance.”
The partnership works for chambers large and small, Canary says. “By being a part of that smaller chamber, being a part of the CCAA, by being integrated into the partnership, they become a first among equals. Everyone has equal value.”
Minnie Lamberth is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Montgomery.