Magazine Article Archive
The Buffalo Niagara Partnership convenes 300 stakeholders and helps generate $1.1 billion in economic development resources that will “Accelerate Upstate” New York.
After attending ACCE’s Annual Convention in Louisville, Ky., last August, I was back home in Florida, going through a few hundred emails when I spotted one from LinkedIn with the subject line “favor.” I didn’t know the sender, but after congratulating me for being a Lifetime Sales Achievement Award winner, he said he was “curious as to some of the ‘secrets’ of your success.”
What do Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Lindberg, John Dillinger, “The Music Man” and “The Day the Music Died” have in common?
Mason City, Iowa, population 28,000.
I visited a North Carolina town recently and I had a free evening to wander. Many of my trips involve 20 or 30 hours on the ground, spent largely in hotel meeting rooms and airport lounges. I seldom get the chance to stroll, observe, taste and talk. On my self-guided tour, it was fun to speculate about where the local chamber’s influence may have played a role. Let’s see . . .
How to Hand Over the Reins with No Regrets
As I begin my first column, I want to express my thanks to the ACCE Board and membership for the opportunity to serve as your 2012-2013 Chairman. I’d also like to thank everyone who attended the convention in Louisville. It was an outstanding conference, made all the better by the incredible hospitality of Greater Louisville Inc. For those who did not attend, you will not want to miss next year’s conference, as I can promise you will find that same hospitality and substance in Oklahoma City!
One of the most interesting and inspirational aspects of this year’s conference was hearing about so many chambers that are leading education reform efforts in their communities. Preparing our students has never been more important. The ability of our member companies to be successful in the future hinges on finding and retaining a quality workforce. Without talented and dedicated employees, our businesses cannot succeed and our cities cannot thrive.
A more immediate source of tomorrow’s talent can be found in our nation’s colleges and universities. Today, college graduates can pursue jobs all over the country and around the world. By offering or promoting quality internship programs, we can give these talented and results-oriented future workers the opportunity to experience the workplace, while helping them learn about their future careers and the city where they will live and work after graduation.
I’ve seen how an internship program can impact a business community. In Greater Oklahoma City, our summer internship program recently completed its seventh year of operation, and we’re proud of the results we’ve achieved. Participation by local companies has increased, and most importantly, retention rates of local graduates increase each year. In fact, a recent survey by Thumbtack.com noted a steady increase in the percentage of college students staying in Oklahoma City over the past decade, with 81 percent of those earning bachelor’s degrees remaining in our region after graduation.
We are all passionate about our cities and communities. We would not be able to do the work we do if we were not. But it’s essential that we ensure that our efforts include the individuals who will one day make up our business communities and lead our economies. Support the internships and intern programs taking place in your community. If your community lacks one, create one.
Someday, when you hand over the reins to the next generation, I’m certain you won’t regret it.
How chambers and business coalitions can lead education initiatives.
At this year's annual convention, about 100 of ACCE's most prominent member chambers met to focus on an issue that impacts every region in the country: education.
It's a topic so broad that it can consume years of work, so what could we hope to accomplish in four hours of discussion?
An afternoon is not long enough to catalog the successful innovations happening in dozens of metro regions across the country. We could dig deep on one aspect of education reform—3rd grade reading proficiency, for example—but chambers of commerce are involved in education transformation from early childhood through college completion and workforce re-training.
For the chamber CEOs and senior staff assembled in Louisville, almost every conceivable education issue had been worked on by someone in the room at some point in his or her career. The most valuable use of our time was to aggregate everyone's successes and failures, and distill those experiences into core principles for business leadership in the education space.
The goal was to create a common starting point to help chambers and business coalitions avoid pitfalls and be more productive in their education-related work, regardless of where in the education pipeline they choose to engage. Read on to see what the group-think produced.
Principles for Engagement
Channeling ZZ Top, Joe Reagan from the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association said, "Education can feel like a 'world of swirl' to business leaders." There are hordes of stakeholders, competing plans, entrenched interests, and unclear accountability. Not exactly a linear pathway to success, but that doesn't mean you throw up your hands and turn your back.
Whether you are just getting started on education attainment in your region or have been working on it for years, the collective experience shared in our Louisville meeting revealed eight principles to help you lead through the "world of swirl."
Education transformation is often measured in decades, not quarters. Progress will feel glacial and setbacks are inevitable. If you choose to engage in this tough issue, make sure it is a top priority for your organization and that your leaders are committed for the long haul.
There is always a new initiative in the education realm looking for a champion, and your chamber can easily fall victim to "flavor of the month" syndrome. Set ambitious, measurable outcomes that fit your organization and then stick with them. Resist the temptation to chase the latest education fad. However, your sharp focus will also help you spot innovative approaches and projects which can help you leapfrog ahead on the issues you previously indentified.
Someone has to send a clear signal to parents, teachers and students about the skills employers will need and about the shortfalls in performance. A trusted source has to publicly acknowledge victory and failure. Someone must be willing to say when outcomes are unacceptable and celebrate success as we would any grand endeavor. The business community is the credible voice to articulate whether graduates are ready to work! Get agreement on the facts and create a shared view of reality before everyone launches into policy or program debate. Be careful of introducing new sets of facts which cloud the clarity of knowing your numbers. Understand where your community stands on key education indicators and communicate hard facts to members and the larger community. Push for data-driven decisions.
Businesses leaders understand that the education system is a problem we can't afford not to solve. Continue to beat the drum, but remember that awareness alone is not enough. You must move quickly to action that produces outcomes. Shared accountability across all stakeholders, including the business community, is critical so that we don't get lost in activity rather than achieving results.
We don't want to do to educators what government sometimes does to us: "Hi, we're from the business community and we're here to help you teach." The educators are on the scene. They are the experts. Business leaders know how to ask tough but thoughtful questions and we know how to focus on outcomes. The combination of roles can be powerful. We can help educators get clarity, cut across silos, think differently. They can help us understand the real facts, the best practices and the daunting challenges facing kids and parents today.
The chamber is uniquely positioned to bring diverse interests together. You have the asking rights to invite administrators, parents, union bosses, community foundations, charter school principals, clergy, elected officials and business leaders to the same table. Partner with other credible, change-oriented groups. The business community's power to convene is limited though. We are not elected or authorized to drive education change. For successful change, there will be many "tables" in the community discussion, so we need be good hosts and good guests.
It's fine to begin your education-related initiative with programs and awareness, but if you aspire to real transformation, you'll have to shape public policy, probably at the state level. You don't have to tackle the toughest legislation first, but dive into the policy questions that matter.
Whether it's voting out an obstructionist school board member or giving cover to a bold superintendent, at some point your work in education will become controversial and, unfortunately, personal. Timidity doesn't work any better in education politics than it does in municipal politics.
Finally a BONUS principle that is more warning than guide:
If You Don’t Lead on Education, Expect Someone Else Will
Strategies to Consider
Some common themes on how to work effectively for education transformation emerged from our meeting. Unlike the core principles, not all of these are applicable to every chamber, community or situation. As you develop your strategies, some of these may be important to consider in your toolkit.
|Involve Community Foundations.
They want to move the needle on this issue too, but often lack the network and political strength to lead on their own. Often they are also spread too thin and need your help to justify a tighter focus. Chambers and community foundations can be powerful allies in education transformation
|Create a Common Lexicon.
Business and education leaders seem to speak different languages. It's tough to solve a problem together when you're talking past each other. But with repetition over time, you can help build a shared vocabulary.
|Reshape your School Board.
School boards will have a profound impact on your community's success, but too few are populated by business-minded people. Consider recruiting and supporting candidates part of your education strategy.
|Re-engage with Your Workforce Investment Boards.
Play an active role and learn how to be effective in influencing and guiding your workforce development boards and systems. Yes, it can be thankless, but many WIBs are in transition now.
|Include Parents as Stakeholders in your Communications Plan.
Community support is key to long term system transformation. Parents need to see that business leaders are an ally in the fight for their children's futures.
|Help Education Leaders Understand Workforce and Economic Development.
There is a serious disconnection between educators and employers. Chambers can help define and communicate what makes someone "employable" and explain how talent drives growth and why growth is good.
|Nurture and Scale Innovative Ideas.
Whether its project-based learning, dual enrollment, internships, or career academies, support the programs and ideas that are working and help take them to scale.
|Support Rational Education Funding.
When education funding is drawn from balanced sources and tied to measurable outcomes you can trust, support those funding streams.
|Focus on State-Level Policy.
For most, state level public policy has the greatest impact on the education system. Big changes in local school performance may well be driven by action at the state capital rather than program ideas at home.
Corporate and small employers have long believed that the American education system isn’t meeting the needs of our society and economy. And everyone now realizes that a rising tide will not lift all boats. Dramatic variations in regional economic performance are inevitable, and education attainment is one of the top predictors of future competitiveness. The competition for talent is global.
The business community’s desire for better educational outcomes has never been more intense. Yet a single company or business owner, no matter how large or rich, can do little working alone on a complex challenge like this. Collective action is required, and chambers of commerce can be the mechanism for collective business action.
It’s been an ongoing discussion in the chamber world for decades: What makes this issue worthy of top tier status today?
We have a rare opportunity with the introduction of common core standards into 45 of our states in 2014. These standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, and they provide the business community an opportunity to:
- influence the creation of new 21st century assessments that require students to apply knowledge, get things done and demonstrate the ability to solve complex problems
- recommend clear alignment of high school exit requirements with postsecondary entry requirements.
Another reason is demographics. Baby boomer retirements are already creating a skills gap that our education system isn’t able to fill. Only with our students fully prepared for colleges and careers will we be positioned to compete successfully in the global economy. Most importantly, even though education transformation is extremely tough, it is in our core mission. We can’t stop trying to improve the economic vitality of our communities. Better education outcomes are critical to economic vitality.
Funding this Work
There are numerous benefits for chambers who engage in education and workforce development efforts, including the opportunity to increase both traditional and non-traditional revenue. This work allows chambers to attract new members and increase current members’ investments.
Furthermore, companies will often invest extra resources in this work and want to be involved to enhance relationships, build political capital, and increase their exposure. For example, a year-long calendar of education events provides media opportunities, and systems reform successes will gain coverage. There are additional opportunities for media attention in policy work, plus there are opportunities to develop relationships with reporters based on stories that are beyond the boundaries of typical business coverage.
Your “asking rights” for investments above the rate card will almost certainly be more credible if you are tackling education. Additionally, there are non-traditional revenue sources for this work, including attracting non-traditional members, building relationships with foundations and major events, all of which help transform this work from a cost center to a profit center, or at least not a resource drain.
How ACCE Can Help
A new partnership leveraging the powerful network of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives’ membership with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce’s expertise in strengthening education systems, policy, and programs is expected to dramatically enhance business involvement in education and workforce development issues at the regional, state, and national levels. Through convening and surveying chambers throughout the U.S., the partnership will determine capacity, aspirations, and perceived challenges to engagement on issues such as workforce development and education reform. The partnership is establishing a national network toolkit of leading practices to assist chambers and their members in engaging more deeply and effectively in educational outcomes.
ACCE plans to support chambers nationwide by:
- Helping chambers raise money, build resources, and enhance capacity to further engage in education and workforce development, whether they want to focus on programs, policy, systems reform, or messaging.
- Along with the Community Growth Education Foundation (CGEF), working with leading national education-focused foundations to bring resources and expertise to local communities through chambers of commerce.
- Identifying, collecting and assembling best practices, failed efforts, and lessons learned across the education continuum. We expect to have the resources to test these practices.
- Assembling a cohort of chamber CEOs and education and workforce development senior staff members to help build the resources and enhance our shared efforts.
- An academy model, similar to the Ford Foundation funded Regional Sustainable Development Fellowship, is expected to help maximize your capacity to lead education transformation.
This story was compiled from a discussion among 100 members of the Metro and Major Cities Councils at a meeting last August during ACCE’s convention in Louisville, Ky. Council members are CEOs of the country’s largest regional chambers. ACCE is actively recruiting key chamber staff members involved in education and workforce development. If you’re interested or know someone who might be, please contact Alysia Bell.
Brains aren't just born, they're also built.
Science tells us that our experiences as infants and toddlers greatly affect the quality of the structures in the brain. Up through age three, our minds grow more rapidly than at any other time, developing 700 new learning pathways each second. These neural connections serve as a springboard for success throughout life. The stronger and more plentiful they are, the better able we are to acquire skills, work with others and persist in the face of challenges.
Beginning at conception and through this "once in a lifetime" developmental period, our parents' actions (or inaction), and the environment they provide, shape the brain's fundamental capacity: our potential. The effects of early advantages—and disadvantages—accumulate quickly. How parents interact with their babies and use language in the home can contribute to disparities in children's attention and vocabulary skills that are detectable within the first year of life. By age three, children raised in a more diverse and rich language environment may know twice as many words as their less advantaged peers. A child's health at birth, which is influenced significantly by the mother's prenatal care and habits, can leave a lasting impact, too. Low birth-weight babies, for instance, are more likely to have poorer health later in life, difficulties in school and lower earnings as adults.
State and local chambers are responding to this substantial and growing body of evidence by backing policies and investments that help parents—especially those with fewer resources and certain risk factors—better understand and promote their baby's optimal development. Business leaders embrace this work because healthy families are integral to thriving communities and because it is sound fiscal policy.
Prompted by the research and the active support from businesses, states are developing programs to provide parents with the knowledge and tools to foster their newborn's mental and physical wellbeing. "We have made young children and their families a priority because it's the only way to ensure that we get the citizens and employees we need at the other end of the talent pipeline," says Varsovia Fernandez, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a member of Pennsylvania's governor-appointed Early Learning Investment Commission.
Advocacy for a voluntary, research-based, parent-coaching program called home visiting is one way Fernandez and like-minded chamber leaders have translated their goals for workforce development and quality of life in their communities into their public policy agendas. Lori Vetters, regional commercial executive at HSBC Bank USA and a member of the Greater Houston Partnership, says her colleagues "understand that investing in our young children now will yield the highest returns to society."
Voluntary home visiting programs pair expectant and new parents with a trained professional such as a nurse or social worker. Through regular meetings in the family's home, moms and dads get answers to the many questions that arrive with a baby, hands-on instruction in ways to support their child's cognitive, social and physical growth, and strategies for managing the stress of parenting. In many cases, home visitors work to ensure that mothers also receive proper prenatal care, and that families are connected with other programs, including mental health services, substance abuse counseling and GED or college courses when needed.
Rigorous research on home visiting has shown important gains in school achievement and large decreases in rates of low birth-weight births, child abuse and neglect, and involvement with the criminal justice system. A study examining a home visiting program showed it improved pediatric health and reduced child abuse and neglect. These programs return nearly $6 per taxpayer dollar invested by reducing the need for other costly social programs.
These remarkable results reflect the powerful relationship established between families and home visitors, which helps parents obtain not just information but the motivation and support to change their behavior.
Grand Rapids Chamber Promotes Early Childhood Investment
The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce has long been a leader in making the case for investments in early childhood as an important economic strategy. Vice President Andy Johnston says, "We became excited about early childhood because it is consistent with our philosophy of systems thinking.
A state's early childhood system affects everything—property values, workforce, education—and home visiting is an essential component, one that dramatically strengthens families and communities." Johnston works with the First Steps Commission, a public-private partnership to help the county's children, and CEO Rick Baker signed on as supporter of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan.
The Chamber's 2011-2012 legislative policy agenda stated members' intention to "advocate for legislation and initiatives that promote early childhood and youth development," and they followed through on that commitment during the debate on the legislation requiring the state to invest its home visiting funds in models proven to deliver results for children and families. Chamber staff testified before the legislature and talked to more than 20 legislators to help win passage of the law.
A 2010 inventory of state home visiting programs, assembled by the Pew Home Visiting Campaign, made clear that governors and legislatures have work to do to make the most of this proven strategy. Expanding access to these kinds of programs would yield greater returns, but states can improve outcomes with no additional funding by ensuring that existing funds are being spent on programs with the best evidence of success. While 46 states invested in home visiting programs in 2010, they frequently provided funding with few, if any, requirements that the dollars support home visiting models backed by solid evidence, nor did they adequately monitor program outcomes.
Iowa, Maryland and Michigan passed legislation this year to fix these shortcomings and ensure accountability to taxpayers. With bipartisan support, each enacted a law that directs its home visiting dollars toward models shown to produce child and family outcomes important to the state. And all three states complemented their data-driven investment policies with stronger systems to track program performance, affording policy makers vital data to refine their home visiting goals and funding in the future.
The Iowa Association of Business & Industry and Iowa Chamber of Commerce Executives endorsed the legislation taken up by lawmakers in Des Moines. Robin Anderson, president and CEO of the Mason City (Iowa) Chamber and the chair of the chamber executives group, says, "The evidence that home visiting works is what compels us to invest in this strategy, but the state's responsibility doesn't stop there. We've got to regularly and consistently measure how every program, even those with the best track record, is helping children and families."
Michigan's bill drew business community praise and support, too, and two leading voices were Rick Baker, CEO of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, and Steward Sandstrom, then-CEO of the Kalamazoo Chamber, and now CEO of the Springfield, Illinois Chamber. (See sidebar at left.)
These reforms create a strong foundation upon which states can grow their investments as fiscal conditions improve. To maximize home visiting's societal benefits and financial return, states will have to serve more families. Pew's 2010 analysis found that no state had sufficient funding and infrastructure to reach all of its highest-risk families. The full potential of these programs is yet to be tapped, giving policy makers the opportunity to support broader gains in child and family wellbeing and to reap more savings for taxpayers by reducing poor birth outcomes and child maltreatment on an even larger scale.
Chambers' knowledge of their communities and states, their passion for improving economic vitality and their policy and political savvy make them ideal partners for policy change initiatives. They can help promote pragmatic, cost-effective proposals and call attention to the hard data behind proven programs. Perhaps most importantly, they can make the case for reforms by clearly linking strong families and effective parenting to children's healthy brain development and improved academic achievement and, in turn, to the 21st-century labor force that is essential for a robust economy. As Bill Thornton, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber, says, "Proven early childhood programs like home visiting deliver well-prepared minds to our schools and eventually into the workforce, driving economic growth and prosperity."
Libby Doggett is the director of the Pew Home Visiting Campaign, a project of the Pew Center on the States. For more information about the campaign, visit www.pewstates.org/homevisiting. Pew's partner in engaging business leaders as champions for young children is ReadyNation, a project of America's Promise Alliance. More information on the business case for early childhood investments can be found at www.ReadyNation.org. Chamber staff who would like to become involved can email ReadyNation.
Women 4 Women
This large non-profit raises money to fund projects that improve the health and economic well-being of women and girls in Louisville, Ky. It was getting few benefits from its website and not doing much online marketing to promote it. They asked us to help them improve their online presence and encourage site visitors to make online donations, register for events, become a member and more. We put together a package that included the following:
- A new website using a content management system (CMS) for easy page creation and updating.
- An integrated fundraising software package allowing them to receive online donations, register members and handle event registrations.
- Videos for their target focus areas of financial and food literacy that are integrated with the website and posted on YouTube and Facebook.
- A social media campaign that drove people to the website and raised the profile of Women 4 Women.
- A mobile version of the website for visitors to access from any smart phone.
- An e-mail marketing platform with a custom newsletter template and website signup.
We worked closely with Women 4 Women staff on the layout functionality and implementation. The new website provided a much easier platform for staff to make updates, which has freed up several hours a month for a couple of staff members who can focus more on the organization’s core mission instead of website work.
The new site and e-mail marketing program was launched in mid-May. As of Aug. 1, website traffic had increased 543 percent and donations were up 17 percent. Gwen Cooper, executive director of Women 4 Women, said, “We were amazed at how much more powerful our web presence could be and at how much we could improve measureable results. And, the whole process was painless.”
Lesa Seibert is president of Xstreme Media, a web design and multimedia firm in Louisville, Ky., with clients in several states. Lesa will conduct a free communications webinar for ACCE members on Nov. 29, 2-3 p.m. EST.
Associated Oregon Industries
Associated Oregon Industries (AOI) is a non-profit organization that functions as a chamber. It was founded in 1895 as an advocacy group focused on gaining awareness of products developed in Oregon.
AOI’s five-year-old website was not fostering visitor interaction and may have hampered membership growth because of technological and design limitations. The site lacked design-friendly content such as photos and videos, and updating news pages was laborious. Since the homepage is the most viewed area of a website, it must be current and include information that visitors want and need. Additionally, calls to action such as registering for membership and viewing AOI’s major initiatives were not easily accessible, and user activity statistics were lacking
Our solution addressed all these needs and included strong design focused on drawing the eye to the most important areas of the site, such as calls to action and current topics. The site was built on our Accrisoft Freedom platform, which allows for easy content updates including all types of media such as images and video.
To stay on the cutting edge of technology and deliver information to visitors, the redesigned AOI site is responsive to mobile phones and tablets as well as PCs. Depending on which device visitors use to view the website, they will see it optimized for the dimensions of the device they use. This technology is becoming the industry standard due to the popularity of handheld devices.
Jeff Kline is founder, CEO and president of Accrinet Corporation which provides chambers of commerce with website design and digital marketing solutions, including blogging, social networking, email marketing and lead nurturing. Jeff writes weekly about digital strategies for chambers.
David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber, discusses downtown development, Olympic swimming, football, the red phone booth in his lobby, and more.
The five-star accredited Greater Omaha Chamber has more than 3,200 members ranging from Fortune 500 companies to family-owned shops. Its president and CEO, David Brown, also heads the Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership, called GO!, which has landed 346 projects resulting in 20,205 jobs and $3.51 billion in investments since 2004.
Brown began his 30-year career in Michigan as president of the Monroe County Industrial Development Corporation and director of the Port of Monroe. He served 10 years at the Greater Fort Wayne (IN) Chamber of Commerce as vice president of economic development and later president, and was president and CEO of the Greater Greenville (SC) Chamber of Commerce before assuming his current role in 2003. Brown also serves on the ACCE Board and the U.S. Chamber Committee of 100.
He was interviewed by Ian Scott, ACCE’s V.P. of communications and networks.
Question: In the past decade, downtown Omaha has seen construction of a 1.1 million square foot convention center, an 19,000-seat arena, a 24,000-seat baseball stadium, 1,100 new housing units and dozens of hotels, restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. I’d call that a downtown renaissance. What’s fueling that development, and who’s funding it?
Answer: A good bit of what’s happened downtown has resulted from some of our largest companies, like ConAgra and First National Bank [the largest privately owned bank in the U.S.], deciding to reinvest in new headquarter facilities downtown. These moves then led to a discussion about what else Omaha needed to improve our quality of life so we could attract really good people for the Fortune 500 companies that are here.
We realized we probably needed some additional entertainment venues as well as upgrades to the ones we already had. So, we focused on our riverfront, which had been a heavy industrial area with a lead refinery plant, a maintenance yard for the railroad as well as a scrap yard. It was all cleared to make way for a $300 million convention center and arena, along with a new convention center hotel. Next thing you know, the Gallup Corporation moves its headquarters from Lincoln to Omaha, Union Pacific announces its plan to build a new headquarters downtown, and several other buildings go up along the riverfront.
So a lot of what fueled the growth was corporate Omaha deciding to reinvest in the downtown, and the realization that if corporations were going to make that commitment, then the city and those corporations needed to work together to make sure the quality of life and entertainment venues were there as well.
Question: It sounds like a story of business leading the way—private investment before public investment.
Answer: Omaha is kind of unique that way. We’re fortunate that we have five Fortune 500s and another four or five Fortune 1000s headquartered here. They and some of the philanthropists in town have really led the charge about what Omaha could be and should be. So a new project often will become part of the discussion in the private sector before it becomes a discussion in the public sector. In virtually all of these projects that we talked about, like the baseball stadiums or the new performing arts center, the parks that are downtown, or even the renovation of the riverfront, the private sector put in millions and millions of their own dollars. For instance, of our $100 million performing arts center, $88 million was private money.
Even in the case of our $300 million convention center and arena, $75 million of that was private money. So, there’s always a significant chunk of private money that’s put into these projects. In some cases tax dollars do fill in the gap but they tend to be projects that have a nice nest egg in place already to make sure the project is successful. Private sector leads here, and that’s nice.
Question: You’ve described your chamber as a “catalyst organization that ensures Greater Omaha is a vibrant place to do business, work and live.” In fact, the word “catalyst” appears on your website 19 times. What does “catalyst organization” mean to you?
Answer: We think there needs to be an organization that is the catalyst for all of the development and change that is necessary to make sure Greater Omaha is vibrant. So, to us, “catalytic” and being a “catalyst,” means that sometimes we need to be the pointy end of the spear and cause changes to happen. Or, sometimes we’re a facilitator or a convener for new projects. In many cases, we are the ones that put not-for-profit infrastructure in place so that dollars can be funneled from the private sector into these public projects. We have a development foundation that can then go out and acquire property for these big projects.
In the case of ConAgra’s headquarters, we were actually the organization responsible for acquiring and demolishing a series of old warehouses that were on the current site. Or, in some cases, we’re the organization responsible for raising money and then making sure that money is funneled into purchased property that the city or a private entity might not otherwise be able to acquire. So, we try to play whatever role we can to make sure that these projects actually come to fruition.
Question: The importance of being a convener and problem solver and the value those roles bring to members’ individual businesses is one of the toughest things for any chamber to sell members, particularly small business members. Do you have some secret sauce for getting that message out?
Answer: I’m not sure we have a secret sauce, but when we surveyed our members two years ago, we asked them to describe the chamber in their own words, and identify what they thought were some of our key strengths. More than 65 percent of the responses listed the words “leader” and “collaborator.” Their expectations are that we’re going to be leading on some things as well as fostering collaboration to make things happen. So whether it’s making sure that a project occurs, or responding to a public policy issue, the chamber is considered to be the place where businesses go to get their voices heard and see things happen. It may just be part of the DNA here; the chamber is one of the lead agencies in making good things happen in Omaha.
Question: Omaha plays host to several high profile sporting events including the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and the College World Series. This summer, all eight nights of the swim trials were televised live from Omaha on NBC, and during the London Olympics, Omaha was mentioned more than 40 times live in primetime. How much did you all pay for that exposure?
Answer: Well, it’s worth millions. Take the College World Series, which has been here every year for 60 years, and it’s on ESPN 10 consecutive nights in prime time. The Olympic swim trials came here on the heels of the College World Series, and were on NBC in prime time 10 nights in a row. The exposure value is in the tens of millions of dollars. We obviously don’t pay for that. It’s a benefit of attracting these great big events.
But we’ve learned how to make the most out of those opportunities when they are here. When the College World Series is here, we bring economic development clients and site selection consultants to town. They come to see the community, but they also get to experience the College World Series. For ESPN, we provide them with bumper footage, so we pay to have new digital footage taken of all the cool stuff in Omaha. That way, when they do show scenes from Omaha, they’re showing the scenes we need them to show. You’re not necessarily paying for the advertising, but you’re paying to have the media tools developed to get the right message across. So, sometimes we do have to write a check.
Question: Omaha almost lost the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, and I heard that you played a significant role in keeping it there. What’s the backstory?
Answer: It was really interesting. The scheduling of the College World Series and the Swim Trials totally overlapped. We knew that we could not have two events of that magnitude at the same time, so it was decided that we just wouldn’t get the swim trials in 2012. Well, I had a conversation with our event chairman of the board, who is the CEO and chairman of Mutual of Omaha, and we wondered if we should just give up or give it another shot. Could we bring them back to the table and get them both to change their dates? Turns out we did, and after several weeks we were able to get them to move around their dates, with just one day of overlap. It was pretty spectacular, and I’m quite proud of that one because I think it made a huge impact on the community.
Question: Wow. I bet those hotels downtown had a bumper summer. I hope they’re investing at the top dues tier.
Answer: They were pretty happy, although they were about worn out after those two weeks. It was a wild June and July here, but we’re hoping to do it again sometime again in the future.
Question: You serve on more than a dozen local, state and national boards including the Nebraska P-16 Education Committee, Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, Nebraska Military Support Coalition, Omaha Sports Commission, and Boys Scouts of America. How do you find, and justify, time to devote to all those boards?
Answer: Well, the good news is, I think that virtually all the boards I serve on have something to do with the role the chamber plays in the community. All of them have some function related to something we’re trying to get done. My board really has looked at what they want me to be doing in town and suggested that engagement with these activities will help move our agenda forward.
Question: The ACCE board aside, of course, is there a board that matches where your heart is?
Answer: There’s a couple of them. The Sports Commission is a fun one because of all the cool stuff you get to do. The Nebraska Military Support Coalition may be, in the long run, one of the most important ones because we are continually working on securing more missions for Offutt Air Force Base and making sure there’s capital investment there.
You try and identify those leadership organizations that, if they collaborate well, will make sure the community continues to thrive. In Omaha, as in many other places, The United Way is one of those organizations. The chamber, of course, is one of those organizations. So are the Omaha Performing Arts Society and the Urban League. If you take those four and you look at the business people that are involved in all of those, there’s an awful lot of overlap. It’s consciously done that way, because if those four organizations can do their jobs well, then the community can resolve most of the issues that pop up.
Question: Private sector-led regional cooperation is something we’ve preached for a long time. Collaboration is better than having one dog in the fight.
Answer: Absolutely. And, we actually work across state lines, too. We’re working with Kansas City, Des Moines and St. Louis right now on some entrepreneurship goals. We’re working with those states on some power and transportation initiatives, too. From a Midwest perspective, I think we’ve got some cities and chambers in those cities that are working pretty well together. But we also work on the region here in Nebraska. Our economic development effort is a regional one, and a lot of our public policy work is at least region-wide, usually state-wide. Frankly, it’s one of the ways we get a lot of things done, so we can incorporate the entire state. Regional work is very important to us.
Question: You played on an Ivy League champion football team during your college days at Dartmouth. I happen to work for an Ivy League football champ. Has football influenced your leadership style?
Answer: There are several things that I took away from my short-lived, yet exciting football career. First off, the achiever in me likes to set goals, and I like to get them done. I think any chamber worth its salt needs to be very explicit about the goals they’re trying to hit and then show the path forward toward accomplishing them—and don’t give up. There’s also some of that competitiveness, I suppose, that comes from being on a sports team. I love to win, but I think in the end, teamwork is also probably one of the most important things that I’ve been able to bring to the chamber world. You don’t get anything done by yourself. We need to have effective collaboration and teamwork to be able to achieve some of those great goals we are setting.
Question: Tell me about the phone booth in your lobby.
Answer: Because the Olympic Swim Trials were going to London next, the Omaha Sports Commission purchased two London phone booths and painted them red. The athletes who made the Olympic swim trials signed their names on one of the phone booths, and the other one was put down on what’s called the Aqua Zone where fans could buy stuff around the swim trials. More than 10,000 people signed that phone booth. It was then given to us by the Omaha Sports Commission because of the role we played in getting the swim trials here. So now there’s a London-style phone booth sitting in our lobby, and people come in and get their picture taken with it every day. It’s pretty cool.
Question: I’ve heard there’s serious vocal talent in the Brown household.
Answer: My youngest son, Elijah, is a freshman this year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the school of music. He’s enjoyed singing since he was a little kid, but when he hit high school, all of a sudden his voice just took on some serious quality. At our chamber’s annual meeting every year, we bring in some kind of an ensemble to sing patriotic songs. About two years ago, we invited Elijah’s high school to provide us with a choir to sing the national anthem. Elijah happened to be in that choir, so it was going to be an opportunity for him and 12 other kids to sing in front of about 1,200 people at our annual meeting. Well, it snowed that day and school was closed, so they couldn’t get all the kids there. So, Elijah’s voice coach called and said “Guess what, Elijah, you are Plan B. Let’s get your dad to take you to the luncheon and you can sing the national anthem by yourself.”
I don’t know if he’s a chip off the old block or if he’s just a ham by nature, but he said, “Sure I’ll do it.” He belted out a great rendition of the national anthem and made us all proud. Since then he’s also sung the National Anthem at one the College World Series’ opening games this past summer. Hopefully he’s got a nice career in front of him, but if nothing else, he’s done his old man proud by being there when I needed him.
Question: Do you have any hidden talents your chamber colleagues should know about?
Answer: God, I hope not! I think all of us are skilled in checking our emotions and egos at the door and trying to do what’s best for the communities and the businesses that we support. If you learn how to do all of that and engage your community in the right stuff, I think you can make your chamber a critical and important part of your community. I can’t think of a better type of structure than representing lots of businesses who have the best interests of their community and their employees at heart. There’s no better organization than a chamber to make that kind of change happen.
Question: Amen! You just made the case for all of us. Finally, what’s the most important thing a chamber exec can do to be successful?
Answer: I keep thinking about chamber staff and the role they play in actually making all these things happen. We chamber execs get lots of kudos and get to do a lot of cool things, but in the end we have to create an organization where employees are engaged, where they feel challenged, where they feel as though their opinions count, and where they know they can make a difference in an ethical environment. In the end, if I don’t get the staffing part right, if we don’t get the culture right, and if staff isn’t engaged and passionate about accomplishing this mission, then we’re going to end up being paper tigers. I don’t think chambers can afford to do that. So, I would suggest that job No. 1 for all of us is making sure that we have an engaged group of employees who get credit where credit is due, and that they are encouraged to take risks and buy into the notion of being catalytic, and not only know the mission and vision, but live it every day. That’s the most important thing a chamber exec could do to be successful.