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Cindy Frey marked her ninth month as president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce on Christmas Day, but she’s already looking ahead to the new year with a goal of boosting services for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Frey, 51, was named head of the chamber in March after Jack Hess left his six-year post as president of the 600-member business group to head the newly created Institute for Coalition Building.
The first few months on the job were a whirlwind for Frey, who recruited two senior staff members to fill key roles:
Tim Cooney, an entrepreneur who filled in as interim chamber president when Hess left in October 2012, became membership director.
Brennan Rotert, who holds an MBA from Indiana University and worked in private industry before joining the chamber, became director of small business programs.
“As we enter 2014, I feel like we’re on really solid ground,” Frey said in an interview two days before the dawn of the new year.
One goal for the next 12 months is to increase the Chamber’s membership by 10 percent, building upon a solid core of existing members, Frey said.
At this stage, the lion’s share of Chamber members come from five leading categories: business and professional services (lawyers, accountants, staffing companies and others); health care (home health and physical therapy businesses are recent additions); finance and insurance; manufacturers; and other civic and nonprofit organizations.
About the Chamber
Where: 500 Franklin St.
President: Cindy Frey
Membership director: Tim Cooney
Director of small business programs: Brennan Rotert
Marketing and events director: Kami Adams
Administrative coordinator: Sherrie Grable
Frey said a major goal for 2014 is to boost services for small businesses and find novel ways to support innovation and the Columbus creative business class.
One new initiative kicking off as a pilot project Wednesday has been lightheartedly dubbed “The Fish Tank.”
Simply put, the tank will be a once-a-week gathering place and shared work space at the Indiana University Center for Art and Design in the 300 block of Jackson Street. On Wednesdays, Chamber members with innovative start-up companies (or just the idea for one) will gather together for a few hours once a week.
“The Fish Tank is patterned after a number of other co-working sites — including places like The Bureau, Developer Town or The Speak Easy in Indianapolis and Gangplank in Chandler, Ariz.,” Frey said.
The idea is to get business owners and would-be owners all in the same space working to build their companies or fine-tune concepts that haven’t fully blossomed yet.
Frey said The Fish Tank will start as a once-a-week gathering of seven or eight professionals with a variety of companies or projects on the drawing board. The hope is that the participants will brainstorm together, learn from each other and help advance a few of their ideas to the next level.
At first, the small group will roost at the IU Art and Design Center’s studio space, but Frey said the long-range goal “is to find a more permanent space to host this activity.”
One of the participants likely will be Brian Beach, who now works with Backblaze, a digital storage company based in San Mateo, Calif. Beach, who lives in Columbus, was vice president of research and development and a principal engineer with TiVo for 15 years. He helped develop the technology that lets TiVo stream entertainment programs when a consumer wants to view them.
Frey said the Fish Tank’s free workspace will be open only to Chamber members.
“We have some entry-level, low-cost memberships that will allow us to work with people who are interested in the concept but new to the Chamber,” Frey said.
Another goal is to build upon a web-based small business tutorial site that offers how-to courses for a variety of enterprises.
The so-called SmallBizU — a Web training portal with roughly 50 online classes — will be updated with more information and coursework on technology issues in the months ahead, Frey said.
The courses generally are sold to small-business development centers in Indiana and around the U.S. At least one bank has purchased the rights to use the material with its in-house small-business clients. The Chamber’s customers pay $200 to $300 per month to tap into the online instructional materials.
One shortcoming in the course offerings is that the site hasn’t been fully updated to keep pace with fast-changing technology, the Chamber president said. A Chamber technology committee is about to be charged with the task of overseeing key updates to the information presented online, she said.
Frey said SmallBizU brings in six figures in revenue a year for the Chamber already, and she believes it has the potential to grow as a money-maker.
Tweaking past events
Frey said a couple of special events will be altered in the year ahead in a bid to keep things fresh.
In years past, the Chamber has hosted a daylong Women’s Professional Development Conference, but this year that event will morph into a luncheon designed to draw female business owners and managers. Awards will be given to five women business leaders who have made an impact on their companies and the community.
“The luncheon is a way to engage people and shine a spotlight on people who have made contributions,” Frey said. The luncheon likely will take place in early May.
In late summer, the Chamber plans to stage another awards ceremony. This one will be a dinner event with awards handed out to “innovators in our midst,” Frey said.
A similar event held in years past has been called the Maverick Awards, but Frey said that name will be ditched in favor of a new moniker that puts a clearer emphasis on honoring entrepreneurs.
Later in the year, in October or November, Frey said the Chamber will stage a Business Marketplace event at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center. In years past, it has been more of a business-to-business trade show. But 2014 will see a shift in emphasis giving it more of a business-to-consumer bent, Frey said.
Starting this month, the Chamber once again will sponsor its long-running Third House Sessions, which give Bartholomew County voters a chance to interact directly with area legislators as the General Assembly meets in Indianapolis.
The first Third House will take place from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Jan. 27 in a City Hall meeting room, 123 Washington St. The once-a-week gatherings will continue on Monday mornings through March 10.
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