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Is There Really a “Business Community?”

By Mick Fleming

Fall 2012

Sitting in a cramped center seat on a flight from Wichita to D.C. by way of Chicago, I had too little space in which to type on my laptop. With elbows, feet and midriffs infringing from the right and left, a nap was out of the question and there was no movie, which left me two hours to reflect on my Kansas visit. What did I learn from the Jayhawk, Wildcat and Shocker fans?

Let me back up. During the ACCE Convention in August, I started asking questions like, “Is there any such thing as the ‘business community?” Or I would ask members to describe what they meant by the term “business community” when speaking to an editor, politician or potential investor? The first thing I learned was that nobody liked my questions. With time on the plane to think more about it, in the context of the difficult business-political scene in Kansas, I’ve decided that these are the right questions to ask.

All of you, and I, too, for that matter, make a living expounding on the importance, appeal and power of the business community. We tell marketers that we reach it. We write beautiful policy statements on behalf of it. We ask more people to connect to it through our many networks. And, importantly, we tell whoever will listen that we represent it—this thing, this business community.

And it’s true. To the extent that the business community exists, you represent it. The question is whether the term “community” actually applies to the fragmented, disparate, heterogeneous and often contentious bunch of characters who run business organizations.

The dictionary defines community as: “A group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually preceded by the ): the business community; the community of scholars.”

The part about sharing common interests throws me off, as does the likelihood that your members perceive themselves as distinct from the larger society. Though I’m sure you believe many of your members should be kept distinct from the larger society!

Not long ago in Kansas, one alliance of employer groups around the state, proclaiming itself to represent the business community, sent a letter to the governor calling for consideration of a tax increase if a hike was the only way to avoid school funding cuts. Meanwhile, another collection of business owners disavowed the other group’s letter and rejected any tax increase.

In liberal college towns like Chapel Hill and Ithaca, business owners join and support the Sierra Club as readily as the professors who live down the street. In fact, almost every businessperson I know insists that he or she is an environmentalist at heart, even though the community with which they self-identify—the business community—would likely oppose emissions reductions legislation.

The Tea Party, which positions itself as pro-business, is just as likely to attack economic development incentives for businesses as it is entitlements for the disadvantaged. So, with whom do your members perceive themselves sharing common interests?

Are the characteristics, motivations and interests of a retired civil servant running the rib shack he bought on Beale Street in Memphis the same as those of the single mom in senior management at FedEx on the other side of town? What connects the nun who is president of a Catholic hospital and a franchisee installing solar panels? And what validates the chamber as the organization that can speak for whatever community these characters populate?

I think there are two primary factors arguing that a business “community,” as defined in the dictionary, does indeed exist:

First, the folks mentioned above share the role of employer. They recognize, consciously or not, that the jobs they create are vitally important not just to the individuals they employ but also to their families and the whole town. Creating and maintaining jobs (along with revenue over expense, of course) constitute the “common characteristic” called for in the definition of community.

And second, the desire to self-identify and affiliate with the chamber, or at least to acquiesce to the chamber’s positions, actually creates a community—a business community. People inevitably want to align with others who attempt to work collectively to articulate interests and needs. The desire to have an entity with collective authority speaking their version of truth to those who must hear it creates a community. What truth? This town matters, this problem matters, this wonderful feature of our region should matter, we as employers matter.

Forging consensus in a toxic political environment is damned hard work. Frankly, it doesn’t happen very often. Sometimes, as Robert Grow of Envision Utah says, we have to settle for “consent” rather than “consensus.” The business community expresses itself and its varied positions the best it can, often communicating seemingly contradictory points of view. But even a pronounced and loud difference of business opinion on education policy in Topeka, Madison, or Sacramento can constitute a message from the business community: “This issue is a big deal to the people who employ people, and it deserves the serious attention, rather than avoidance, of those who deliver, regulate and fund education.”

Is the term “business community” meaningful and real? So far.

Mick Fleming is president of ACCE.

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