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.
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