Working together, taking risks focus of Portland chamber’s annual dinner

Posted Sept. 27, 2012, at 10:49 p.m.

The themes of the Portland Regional Chamber’s 158th annual Dinner and Community Leadership Awards, held Thursday night in Portland, were the power of community and the importance of risk-taking.

The event also offered the chamber an opportunity to honor several members of Greater Portland’s business community and welcome its board of directors’ incoming volunteer leadership.

Kicking off the evening, Godfrey Wood, the chamber’s CEO, set the evening’s tone by talking about the importance of working together as a community, because “all of us are smarter than any one of us.”

He then unveiled what he called a response to Forbes magazine, which last year ranked Maine dead last in a list of the worst states in which to do business.

The chamber enlisted Willa Kammerer, a local documentarian, to produce six multimedia presentations about local businesspeople and why they chose Portland as a place to do business. The six audio slideshows make up the “Why Portland” series and allow Portland to “articulate to the world” why the city is, in fact, a good place to do business, Wood said.

One audio slideshow introduced the audience to Fred Thomas and his wife, Laongdao “Tak” Suppasettawat. The couple traveled the world, but settled in Maine, where Thomas founded Frame and Wheel, a Web marketing firm that caters to the cycling industry, and his wife found work as a financial advisor.

“Jakarta and Singapore are glamourous and exotic, but Portland is a lot more fulfilling and safe and appealing when you have a family,” Thomas says. “Maine represents our desire to transition to something different, a different way of life, and for me it’s setting up my own company and running it.”

All six audio slideshows are available on Kammerer’s website, and will be posted on the chamber’s website, according to Wood.

The event also was an opportunity for Anne Gauthier, public affairs manager for Texas Instruments in South Portland and outgoing chair of the chamber’s regional board, to officially “pass the baton” to Jim Cohen. But before she did, she offered a few bright spots for Portland, including a percentage of people who hold at least a bachelor’s degree in the Portland area (33.4 percent) that is higher than the regional average and a 1 percent growth in patent applications, which may not sound like much, but occurred as other areas in the region saw a decrease in that metric.

“With some good leadership in the the community and businesses, I think we can begin to grow to greater heights,” Gauthier said.

Cohen, a former Portland mayor and a partner at law firm Verrill Dana, looked to the future and voiced his belief that the organization “has, will and must” play a major role in growing the region. “There’s much to be done, but together we’re up for the task,” he said.

Michael Bourque of MEMIC and Al Swallow of Maine Medical Center are the incoming vice chair and treasurer, respectively.

The award winners were then announced and praised in turn.

While most of the award winners were known ahead of time, the one surprise of the evening was the Volunteer of the Year award. It went to Jack Lufkin, a vice president and senior business officer at Gorham Savings Bank.

Receiving the President’s Award was Bill Green, the TV personality and well-known cheerleader for all those quality-of-life things that bring people to Maine. Green thanked the audience, but said his “only lament is I’ve never created a job.” He made a promise that if the audience kept creating jobs, he’d keep telling their stories.

The Henri Benoit Award for Leadership in the Private Sector went to Sappi Fine Paper, which operates a paper mill in Westbrook. Donna Cassese, the mill’s manager, accepted the award and explained that after several years of interior focus as the company transitioned its mill to prepare for the future, the company had made over the last few years a concerted effort to give back to the community. She thanked the chamber and audience for recognizing that commitment.

On the eve of her departure from the Senate after nearly 40 years of public service, Sen. Olympia Snowe was presented with the Neal Allen Award for Leadership in the Public Sector. She did not attend the event, but accepted the honor in a pretaped video address.

Neal Pratt, a partner at Portland law firm Preti Flaherty, received the Robert Masterton Award for Leadership in Economic Development. As chair of the Cumberland County Civic Center Board of Trustees, Pratt was instrumental in the $33 million renovation of the civic center.

To close the evening, John Coleman, founder and CEO of the Portland ad firm The VIA Agency, gave an upbeat keynote address, in which he discussed his love of Portland and how the company uses its home as a competitive advantage when it competes with ad firms around the world. “We’re every bit as good, and better on most days,” he said of Portland.

He also talked about the importance of taking risks. As an example, he discussed his company’s risky decision to purchase Portland’s old Baxter Library in the depths of the recession and renovate it into the company’s new headquarters. He said you have to be a bit “touched” to take on projects like that, but those risky ideas are what great things are made of.

He challenged the audience to take risks and “speak up,” because “you all have great ideas, and nothing great happens unless you speak up,” and left people with a bit of advice he hoped people would use to meet that challenge: “You’re head’s a dork. You’re heart’s a sap,” he said. “So trust your gut.”

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