Chamber could be ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ or ‘right’!

Business relationships. Touchstone of the Barrie business community. Friends. Involvement. A voice for business. When Debbie DeCaire joined the Barrie Chamber of Commerce in 2002, those were her reasons.

A particularly active business group, the Barrie Chamber has always ridden the waves of its membership. Strong leadership, exciting programs, lots of activity brings out the same… strong, exciting, active members.

A few years ago, the Chamber membership began to recede. Where a monthly business breakfast would attract 135 business members in 2009, a mere 35 were turning out in 2010. Membership had dropped from 1200 to 800. The Chamber had lost its leadership and began to flounder.

It was an amazing mentor with the Toronto Board of Trade who gave Debbie a strong sense of what a Chamber of Commerce should be doing. And that’s when she ran for the board. Then she was elected to the vice president’s position.

As a new board member, Debbie started to investigate her liability and board members’ insurance–a common practice with any board of directors. When she became president (in 2011) she began to work with her board team to develop a business plan for the Chamber.

“We had to change our structure,” she said, and in assessing current operational problems, it was decided to do a forensic financial audit.

Now, for most folks, at this juncture, they would have begged off due to business, or resigned for family reasons. It’s tough to become president of a group that needs a ton of work. And, in the process, it’s even tougher because you know you won’t come through it with all your friendships intact.

So this is a column about a group of people who joined forces for the business good in Barrie, who took the difficult, high road and who stayed focussed on principles, not personalities, to heal an organization that had developed a major virus.

Debbie pays homage to Stella Millas, a conscientious accountant who volunteered literally hundreds of hours of her time to get answers to questions as the forensic audit began. Stella was one of several believers in the viability of a healthy Chamber of Commerce but many people dug in to do the hard work of identifying the illness, prescribing the antidote for recovery and doing the hard work of healing.

“As the chaos started, we got feedback that people wanted to wait until things were ‘cleaned up’ but we needed people to believe, to pay their memberships, and to participate right then. We needed people to believe things would get better.”

Volunteer leadership requires everyone to have a common goal and the leadership team did just that. Former president Todd Tuckey stepped up to offer the day-to-day leadership in the office. Vice President Dr Doug Jernigan helped identify character strengths, keep people in the roles best suited to their skills.

The entire volunteer leadership team changed the committee structure. Special Events, Membership, Marketing & Promotions, Governance, Monthly Events and Strategic Planning are the new committees, each lead by a Chamber Board Member and each needing volunteer business members.

A new executive director, Gerald Meenye, who comes from the telecommunications industry, is in place and office staff are focussed on increasing membership and member services.

Todd Armstrong of Freedom 55 is heading up Membership. Kris Hughston of Hughston Insurance is chair of Monthly Events. Business After Five has been re-shaped and the sales team has been beefed up to 3 1/2 people. Todd Tuckey is handling Special Events. Henry Legg and John Thom are handling Government Relations while Examiner Publisher Sandy Davies is heading up Promotions and Marketing. Stella Millis is heading up Governance and Srategic Planning.

The Chamber is now working with the City of Barrie on a business ambassadors program (thank you Steve Blanchet), on a manufacturers group, and to present the Santa Claus parade. Can you imagine this city without a Santa Claus parade?

When Debbie’s term as president concludes next month, she has every right to look back at an enormous volume of work and feel proud of the entire team. She says she feels best about the now-open communications lines between the board, Chamber members and staff. She also feels really good about the fully clear and fully disclosed financial picture and its accountability. The Chamber AGM will now be held at Georgian College. There’s a strong strategic plan and cohesive board in place, and membership is up!

“I’ve always wanted to be part of a solution, not part of a problem,” says Debbie and she mentions the tremendous number of people who just jumped in and offered to help. The college, the city, the police, the hospital, Doug Bingley of Rock 95–all amazing supporters.

And so, Debbie and your whole team, all of you deserve our thanks. A strong business community is the backbone of any city. Without it, little else functions. And a Chamber of Commerce is the core of that strong business community.

Thank you!