Going green in the Gateway City
What can chambers of commerce do to get local businesses serious about going green? For Andrew Smith, vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation at the St. Louis Regional Chamber, the answer is surprisingly simple: challenge them.
It all started back in 2010, when the chamber teamed up with the Missouri Botanical Garden to introduce the Green Business Challenge, a competition that encourages organizations to draw up measurable road maps toward achieving sustainability.
“The Challenge works with companies to help integrate sustainability into the kinds of day-to-day operations common to every business,” explains Smith, who oversees the program on behalf of the chamber. “Our aim is to make sustainability work in accord with each company’s unique goals and culture.”
By leveraging corporate competition and public recognition, the chamber encourages businesses to adopt sustainable policies and implement green practices.
“The global marketplace increasingly demands sustainability measuring, goal-setting and reporting up and down supply chains,” says Smith. “As companies engage locally with the basics of this range of accountability, they build resources needed to globally compete.”
Participating firms sign up for one of four program levels, ranging from “apprentice” to “champion.” They use a points-based scorecard to track progress, which gives businesses an efficient structure to plan and schedule work on a wide range of sustainable practice options.
“Each company determines its own strategy,” says Jean Ponzi who oversees the program at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “The categorized scorecard offers a comprehensive list of best practices to reduce waste, conserve energy and water, implement green purchasing and more.”
Companies are encouraged to assemble “green teams,” or groups of employees responsible for coordinating green strategy. Green teams collaborate with Garden staff, including Ponzi, who personally visits offices, plants and business campuses to advise firms on working with scorecard items that fit the company’s culture and capabilities.
“During site visits, we check out the supply closet, the break room, their parking lot and their dumpsters on the dock to get a sense of how green is working in each company,” says Ponzi. “Our customized coaching aims to improve financial performance, while reducing environmental impacts and engaging employees.”
Now going on eight years, the Challenge has achieved impressive results. Of the 65 organizations that took part last year, 98 percent formed a green team, 97 percent established a corporate sustainability policy and 86 percent implemented a green purchasing policy.
One standout from last year was Hunter Engineering Co., a Branson, Mo.-based manufacturer of auto service equipment. Through the Challenge, Hunter installed equipment to reduce stormwater runoff, committed to purchasing environmentally friendly print materials and made the switch to more efficient, fluorescent lighting.
“The Green Business Challenge enabled Hunter to take a close look at a number of our business practices,” says Chip Hiemienz, director of business development at Hunter Engineering Co. “While converting to more environmentally friendly products, we were also able to experience big cost savings, too.”
At the chamber, Andrew Smith is hopeful that the initiative will pay off in the long run, by enhancing the region’s reputation as a leader in sustainability.
“Our achievements are still a pretty local story, but we have world-class players on our green business team who have had real success through the Challenge,” he says, adding: “We’d like to continue to foster successes like these—and we plan to.”
New soft skills resource page added
Employers are finding that the arriving workforce has a shortage of soft skills—traits like communication, problem-solving and teamwork. That said, ACCE has just launched a new resource page with tools designed to help your chamber of commerce support the competent, well-adjusted workforce that business needs to thrive.
From case studies about chamber-led soft skills campaigns to deep-diving scholarly articles about character development, we've got you covered. These resources guide chambers as they work to instill strong character and build work ethic among the next generation of leaders.
Finding a seat at the table
Candace Boothby, CCE, president and CEO at the Newnan-Coweta Chamber in Georgia, likes to think of herself as a straight-shooter. At her job interview, she asked a roomful of board members a straightforward question: “In what ways is the chamber respected, and does it have a seat at the table?”
It was a question that no one wanted to answer. After a long pause, a board member finally spoke up: “Well, we’re at the table alright, but it’s the kiddie table,” he remarked to laughter from the rest of the room.
Boothby was undeterred, and her resolve to cultivate a new voice for the chamber has paid dividends. Since she took over the helm back in 2003, the chamber has nearly doubled its membership base from 550 to more than 1,000, and grown its annual budget from $281,000 to $825,000.
When discussing the chamber’s impressive numbers, Boothby answers matter-of-factly: “There’s no magic to this stuff,” she says. “Our chamber’s story is about understanding who we were, identifying our weaknesses and creating a culture that people want to be a part of.”
One of the first moves Boothby took as CEO was to unload some of the chamber’s events and programs, freeing up precious resources to focus on its core mission. The chamber gifted these away to other groups in the community, like the rotary club and the adult literacy program.
“Our new mission was to champion economic prosperity for our members, and these programs no longer fit the mission,” Boothby says.
The chamber reinvented its culture by promoting innovation and learning by trial and error. Boothby set the new tone by instituting a monthly “strategy week,” producing a comprehensive staff process handbook and encouraging employees to work remotely and hold meetings outside the office, in coffee shops or their own homes.
“We used the environment of the chamber as a laboratory to try stuff, and to have the freedom to make mistakes,” says Boothby. “Giving people more liberty to create their work environment has worked wonders for us.”
One of the biggest changes Boothby oversaw was revamping the chamber’s sales culture. She assembled a new sales team and hired a member retention specialist to spend 20 hours each week visiting members and collecting data. She also set an ambitious target to reach out to members 12 times each year, through a combination of phone calls, emails, written letters and social media.
Boothby advises her staff to keep all communications personal when reaching out to members.
“We send out handwritten thank you notes to all new and renewing members,” she says. “The key is to always add a personal touch.”
In 2006, the chamber began the accreditation process with the U.S. Chamber, not so much because it actually thought it could earn accreditation, but rather to use the process as a guide toward “closing the gaps,” says Boothby.
Boothby was in a meeting when she missed the call from the U.S. Chamber. “When I got out and listened to the message, I broke down in tears,” she recalls. “After seven years of hard work, it was the biggest reward to hear we had gotten the five-star.”
Another proud moment for Boothby was winning the ACCE’s Chamber of the Year award in 2015. She says the process of pursuing the award helped the chamber identify its weaknesses.
“I would highly encourage everybody to go through the process, because it’s a great way to learn about yourself,” she says. “It’s helps you gain self-awareness and figure out where to go next.”
Reflecting on the chamber’s turnaround, Boothby says her most important advice is “you’ve got to be willing to blow things up.” She encourages staff to ask the hard questions, like what would happen to the community if the chamber went away.
“You’ve got to have the courage to ask that question—to kill the sacred cow,” she says, adding: “the moment we get comfortable is the moment we take our eye off the ball. In this profession, we can’t afford to become complacent.”
Candace Boothby was recently featured as part of the ACCE’s Tales of Renewal webinar.
A chamber without members
Since the very beginning, the chamber of commerce business model has revolved around membership. At the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry, that conventional wisdom is now being turned on its head.
Earlier this Spring, the Lancaster Chamber became the first in the nation to abandon the traditional membership dues structure—a bold move that upends more than a century of chamber orthodoxy.
The chamber hopes that by getting rid of dues, it will reduce barriers that prevent smaller or growing businesses from joining.
“Our mission is to have Lancaster County recognized as a model for prosperity,” said CEO Tom Baldrige, adding: “if we really mean it, we need to make sure that we’re offering our services to all businesses in a way that is welcoming and non-restrictive.”
Historically, the chamber has had about 2,200 members at any given time. There are more than 13,000 businesses in the chamber’s home county of Lancaster, though like other chambers, members come from other geographic areas.
“The fact that we were only dealing with those that joined and were ignoring opportunities with 11,000 other businesses led us to conclude that the traditional model was stressed,” recounted Baldrige. “We wanted to create a structure that was engaging of all businesses in the county.”
But what about the revenue? To support itself financially, the chamber devised a dual business structure consisting of two components: a “business success hub” that offers customized services on a fee-for-service basis, and a “community prosperity hub,” which seeks investments from businesses to finance the chamber’s agenda to enhance the community as a better place to live, work and do business.
“We call them investors, because they’re investing in the agenda and priorities,” said Cheryl Irwin-Bass, vice president and COO at the chamber. “It’s about being at the table and part of the discussions that influence the future of Lancaster County.”
The investors are sorted into ten different levels, consisting of three tiers with three levels each and a Chairman’s Circle tier for the largest investors. “Other chambers often ask why we didn’t just go to a tiered dues system,” shared Irwin-Bass. “This is very different, because it’s not about bundling things—it’s about unbundling. There’s not a lot of extras that come along with it.”
The chamber pitches the new model to members as they approach renewal time. “Before, if they dropped membership, it was a mark in the loss column,” recalled Irwin-Bass. “Now, we can tell them about the programs and services they may still be interested in, and steer their dollars into another business unit,” she added.
At the chamber’s annual dinner last year, acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell used a sports analogy to describe the changes underway in the chamber profession. Gladwell compared soccer to basketball, noting that the key to improving a soccer team is to build up the worst players, whereas the key to improving a basketball team is to make the best players even better, so they can dominate the court.
“In decades past, we were playing basketball,” said Irwin-Bass. “It was all about the biggest businesses, and we made our decisions around what was good for those companies.”
“Now, we’re playing soccer,” she continued. “The only way we can realize our mission is if every business and individual can reach their full potential. The better the individual does, the better the community will do, and that’s what we’re ultimately trying to achieve.”
The Lancaster Chamber will participate in a panel on the topic at ACCE’s annual convention, hosted this Summer in Nashville.
Building the Lodi Jobs Academy
As Baby Boomers near retirement, employers are scrambling to find skilled workers to fill a raft of new vacancies. Among the hardest to fill are so-called “middle skills” jobs, which require more education than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree.
At the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, CEO Pat Patrick partnered with the local school district to create the Jobs Academy, which strives to equip students with the skills and education that employers seek. The academy stems from Patrick’s experience at the ACCE Fellowship for Education Attainment, a one-year program that challenges chamber execs to dream up regional action plans that address education needs in their communities.
Patrick says the academy will lower dropout rates in Lodi and prepare students for high-paying local careers. “Our goals are to reduce dropouts between ninth and tenth grade, to increase community college attendance and to help students find work here in the community,” said Patrick.
The academy was born out of a partnership between the local school district, the chamber and its industrial business group, a group of area manufacturers. To develop the curriculum, the chamber formed a series of “skills panels,” which consist of representatives from local industries like health, manufacturing and IT.
“We are bringing business together with educators to make sure the schools are teaching what businesses need them to,” explained Patrick. “The state of California is finally waking up and putting money into the system for this type of thing, so we really hit it at just the right time.”
In addition to building a skilled workforce, the academy focuses on teaching “soft skills,” the kinds of personal attributes that employers look for in workers, like responsibility, timeliness and communication. The academy, which offers a professional certification, will serve as a filter for employers to find students who are committed to working in the community.
“The idea is that employers will meet students and say, ‘this is someone we would like to have join us when they graduate,’” said Patrick. “It acts as a filter to find serious future employees and prepares them for a job that is far beyond minimum wage.”
The academy also contains an adult school, which caters mainly to young adults ages 18-24, although there is no official age limit. The adult school holds class during night hours, while the campus is reserved for middle and high school students during the day. Many of the adult students never finished high school and are looking for middle skills jobs that don’t require a college degree.
To promote the academy, the chamber used social media and robocalls to reach out to students and parents in the community. The chamber also plans to produce a series of promotional videos that will be shown in schools and online. Students will have the opportunity to attend a business fair and tour local plants to learn about the kinds of jobs that exist in the community.
Patrick credits the ACCE Fellowship for provided him with the resources and inspiration to pursue the initiative. “The Fellowship was invaluable to me, because I was exposed to a lot of ideas that expanded my thinking,” said Patrick. “The exposure to corporations like the Lumina Foundation and the research they’ve done helped me understand how to sell our program to the manufacturers back home.”
Looking ahead, Patrick is hopeful that the Jobs Academy will expand into neighboring North Stockton, a city of 300,000 just north of Lodi. “My hope is that we’ll be able to pull students from Stockton into an expanded campus and form a partnership with the Stockton district,” said Patrick. “I would love to see this move from a small community to a regional effort.”