When the longtime president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce leadership team left, the organization faced a difficult challenge to build on its statewide and national successes.
Under the six-year leadership of Jack Hess, who stepped down last year to head the newly created Institute for Coalition Building, the Columbus chamber was named state chamber of the year in 2008 and the National Chamber of the Year in 2009 by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives.
“There’s big shoes to fill. There’s no doubt about it,” board chairman Charlie Farber said.
Now the business organization is shuffling some assignments as it begins a new phase in its transition, including the expected announcement of a new chamber president within the next three weeks.
Farber said a committee has selected three finalists from among 12 candidates. Four community leaders, including some non-chamber members, are expected to choose the new leader.
He said the chamber is looking for a candidate with at least seven years experience in business, the nonprofit sector or in chamber leadership. He said the next leader must have collaboration- and coalition-building skills, be highly self-motivated and entrepreneurial.
Since Hess’ Oct. 31 departure, Farber said the chamber’s other employees, interim President Tim Cooney, the chamber board and the chamber’s members have stepped in to keep the momentum going.
Cooney will become membership director when the new president is hired. During his interim leadership at the chamber, Cooney, president of Advantage One Color Lab Inc., has worked half days to focus on member recruitment and retention.
He said that, as a business owner and longtime chamber member, he can effectively convey the advantages of chamber membership to attract new members and get existing members more involved.
He also said that his membership experience will allow him to help local businesses that are seeking help to overcome particular challenges or to point them to someone else who can help.
“We’re going to be big connectors,” he said.
Cooney said he will pay particular attention to how many chamber members attend events such as the annual meeting or networking sessions to try to gauge how those events can better serve members. But he also will talk to businesses that do not attend those events to determine how they might be persuaded to participate.
“Members stay engaged if the quality of the programming is good, if the events they go to are stimulating and fun,” he said.
Cooney said he will measure his performance in part on member retention and recruitment. He hopes to retain at least 95 percent of the chamber’s members each year, while continually working to add new members. Membership, at about 600, has fallen about 9 percent from 2009 but has held essentially steady in the past two years.
Farber said the membership decline was a result of the recession.
Cooney said he hopes to have close to 700 members by the end of the year, primarily by doing a lot of leg work and talking to members. Cooney said he wants to encourage active members to become even more connected and to find ways to engage members who tend to stay away from most of the programming.
Farber said that thanks to Cooney, the other chamber employees and input from the board, the chamber’s initiatives have prevented the transition from degenerating into a period of stagnation.
“The staff (of four) here has really stepped up,” he said.
Carolyn Behrman, a chamber member since she opened her natural foods store Natural Choices in 1996, said the chamber’s programs have continued to keep her interested during the organization’s transition.
“The execution of the plan has continued,” she said.
Behrman, whose store is at 1825 Central Ave., said she initially joined the chamber to meet other business owners and discovered a lot of businesses she did not know existed. She said she enjoys the networking meetings and learning from a diverse group of business owners.
“I personally wouldn’t dream of not being a member,” she said.
Those kinds of comments will help attract additional members, Cooney said, because the chamber can find no greater advocates than small-business owners who are members of the chamber and who are happy with the services. The chamber is banking on that strategy: It is producing a video with membership testimonials to attract more members, which the chamber plans to show at its annual meeting.