They’re providing owners of small- and medium-sized companies with training and education they otherwise couldn’t afford.
In some cases, chamber officials host leadership seminars for the next generation of community and civic activists. In addition, chamber executives lobby lawmakers at city, state and federal levels so pro-business reforms can be implemented.
Roy Williams, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, says his organization helps provide “the economic intelligence [business owners] look to us for. We can connect them to the technical expertise they need while also providing them with resources to continue operations or expand.”
The assistance doesn’t stop there. The Oklahoma City Chamber is about service, he says, which is why it initiates education and training programs for obtaining government contracts and developing business plans. It’s also the reason it hosts regular breakfasts where small business owners and Mayor Mick Cornett can talk one-on-one about critical issues.
“We’re about building the Central Oklahoma economy as opposed to building a chamber of commerce,” Williams says.
It hasn’t always been that way, however.
Prior to 2000, the Oklahoma City Chamber served only OKC. Since then, through its many new programs and initiatives, it has solidified itself as the region’s “chief economic mover” to a 10-county region, Williams says.
“We changed that because that’s not how companies decide where they will grow and expand,” he says. “They look at regions. So, we redefined what our product is.”
In the last 12 years, its economic-development efforts have helped land major companies in the area, including Dell, Hertz, Quad Graphics and Boeing.
However, those efforts don’t always focus on the big firms. With 95% of all companies considered small- or medium-sized, Williams says more attention is given to their needs and continued operations.
John Woods, president and chief executive officer of the Norman Chamber of Commerce, says his organization tries to stay relevant to small businesses by providing “market awareness through chamber activities.”
The Norman chamber offers “Lunch and Learn” seminars that help business owners understand government regulations, human resources, loan options, legal and insurance issues, the federal government’s Small Business Administration and more.
“These help small business owners because, more than likely, these companies don’t have an HR person, a marketing director or attorney on staff,” Woods says.
One major benefit now offered to many metro-area chamber members is health insurance through Chamber Choice, a program initiated and developed by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Developing young leaders also has become a priority.
“Who is going to be the next Ray Ackerman of Oklahoma City in 15 or 20 years? This is a great mechanism to get them going,” Woods says of Norman’s “Norman’s Next” program. “They don’t have to wait until they’re 55 to have an impact on their community. Some are stepping into real community leadership roles right now.”
In Edmond, a similar group has been designed for 20- and 30-somethings.
“[They] don’t even have to be chamber members. Anyone can participate,” says Ken Moore, president and CEO of the Edmond Area Chamber of Commerce. “We want to keep the best and brightest in Oklahoma, and stop the brain drain to other places.”
Like OKC, the Norman and Edmond chambers often find themselves in the middle of political battles on business development and reforms.
“We take up issues all the time on behalf of our businesses, such as workers’ comp reform, to local issues, such as parking for retail merchants. We look at issues that range from being very big to something that hits them right at home,” Woods says.
Officials understand business owners want something of value in return for their annual dues.
“There has to be a return on investment for the local businesses,” Moore says.
Adds Woods, “With anything else, you get what you put into it. It falls onto the business owners to pursue these opportunities.”
Edmond has enjoyed a high level of business success because of the cooperation among the city’s major entities.
“The colleges, the business community, city government and the chamber all work from the same page in terms of making Edmond a better place to live,” Moore says. “The community works well together, and I don’t think that happens in every city or town.”
By Tim Farley