February 22, 2018
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Columnist: Coastal chambers would benefit from combining efforts sooner

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By: John Burgess

Out of the chute, let me say I am a proponent of a regional Chamber of Commerce. The existing coastal chamber business model does not work in this day and age. Everyone needs to wake up to that fact. Change or die could easily be the reality. Belfast has a chance to look south to Camden and Rockland or north along the Penobscot River and inland, but let me explore the idea of “branch management” looking south.

Progress in the direction of combining efforts between coastal chambers has been too slow. All talk and no action — of which I admit I am a part. It is a subject that has been in discussion since the 1990s and stalled for any number of reasons. Paralysis of analysis is one reason; group-think, turnover at the operations level, the revolving doors of chamber executive directors are other examples. The lack of continuity of board leadership speaks to other reasons. The list goes on and on. Combined, these reasons have crippled an obvious, necessary and importantly sound business decision from going forward.

What could work very simply? There is an opportunity from Rockland to Belfast, points between, and points beyond to have “branch offices” with local junior management staffing branch offices. On top of such a structure would be a single, smart, savvy, well paid chief executive officer leading the organization. A single executive would manage the big picture, interact across numerous communities and economies, plan, organize and eliminate the expensive unproductive duplication. What is needed is a chief executive who directs efforts at meaningful results, not an events planner or cheerleader.

The salaries of three or four coastal executive directors might total $200,000.

Rather than paying four people a modest salary, the suggestion would be to pay one chief executive a competitive salary to run the combined organization. An attractive salary and an interesting opportunity, I contend, would keep a key executive in place and refreshingly challenged. The position is loaded with opportunity. It can be a great job. The savings from such consolidation could go toward branch manager’s salaries and marketing.

The concept of branch management develops people in the pipeline. It creates upward mobility and opportunity. If there is turnover, there is a system and structure in place that is developing local talent as backup.
Chamber organizations are fragile and tied to the strength of a single individual, which is an organizational weakness in the system. I can attest to that from my experience in Belfast or having witnessed no less than six executive directors in Camden and so on down the coast over my years. The concept of branches provides a depth of management talent that is easily cross trained, integrated in effort and ready to step in where needed. It provides improved smart staffing models and added human resource — one of which exists at present.

Delay, delay, delay. Everyone talks about “the concern to protect local identities.” It is a nonissue. Local identities will carry on just fine driven by the character of the individual community. Local groups will still organize, celebrate and promote their passions town by town, organization by organization, business group by business group. Most of that activity is outside the scope of work of the chamber anyway.

What can be accomplished by moving forward is to reorganize around each chamber’s individual strengths and assets. Camden, for example, excels at travel marketing services. It is a well-respected destination with a great history. Rockland excels at membership services and provides a model for economic development. And the Belfast area provides new economic development opportunities with multidestination marketplace diversity and room to grow.

I really have heard all the arguments to go slow. I understand them, but while we delay an executive director leaves and the new person needs the time to get a handle on his or her responsibilities before they entertain a regional concept. The organization and the idea go backward. On the board level, there is a new president every year who wants time to think about combining chambers in more depth. The year ends, so does his or her term. Next batter. And on the board level (15 directors per individual chamber board) there are no less than 45 people (who also turnover) who lack the cohesive ability to make the decision.

A suggested modest “first step” would be to combine the 3 boards of 45 people into one single board of 15, consisting of five directors from each area chamber. Let the consolidated board of directors oversee each chamber and experience first-hand the duplication and wasted effort. They can target change and combined opportunity. They can guide the regional efforts from a whole new perspective. The potential is there to provide greater value to a larger audience if done right under a management model that matches the times.

2010 would be the perfect time to go back to the future.
John Burgess is executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce. E-mail info@belfastmaine.org to obtain more information.