Cecil County Chamber of Commerce: Working to help businesses grow
Jan 07, 2015 07:04PM
By Kerigan Butt
By Steven Hoffman
When Bonnie Grady joined the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce as its president and CEO in June of 2013, two of the immediate goals were to promote the value of membership and to increase the chamber’s visibility in the community.
A year later, those efforts are producing results: The Cecil County Chamber of Commerce has expanded its offerings to members and as a result membership has increased by about 30 percent in the last year.
“The Cecil County Chamber is excited about the recent increase in the number of new members,” said Grady. “We have worked hard to enhance the value of chamber membership. We're being louder and prouder than we've been in recent years.”
Part of being “louder and prouder” is the chamber positioning itself in the center of more programs and activities in Cecil County. Businesspeople in the area have been very responsive.
“Our members are definitely becoming more engaged,” Grady said. “They want to be part of the excitement. The Chamber is more active than we have been. We’re presenting more programs. We’ve worked hard to enhance our visibility in the community.”
According to Grady, there is an old saying in the chamber of commerce business that strong chambers make for strong communities. If businesses are working together and collaborating, there is a greater chance that they will all be more successful as a result. Belonging to a chamber of commerce can boost the image of a business in the community and can increase sales. One national survey has shown that consumers are 63 percent more likely to do business with chamber members.
“Chambers exist to accomplish what any one business cannot accomplish on its own,” Grady said. “Together, we grow.”
The Cecil County Chamber of Commerce has been advocating for a strong economic environment in the area for more than 25 years. Initially, the Cecil County Chamber was a subsidiary of the New Castle County, Delaware Chamber of Commerce. In 1987, the board of directors of the Cecil County Chamber decided to become an independent chamber. Since then, it has been the most efficient and effective networking system in Cecil County.
The Cecil County Chamber of Commerce is led by a 13-member board of directors and four standing committees. There are two full-time and two-part time employees who work at the chamber to serve the members. For the small staff, it is a tireless effort to promote the members.
“We try, as a chamber of commerce, to meet the needs of the business community,” explained Jeanne Parry, the current chairman of the chamber’s board of directors. Parry joined the chamber of commerce in 2000 and was soon regularly attending the chamber’s meetings and events. Six years ago she joined the board of directors. She said that she is pleased with some of the efforts that have taken place in the last year.
“We have increased the number of events that we have,” Parry explained. “We have excellent turnout at our events.”
“We are offering programs that are more relevant to our members,” Grady said.
Business card exchanges are organized regularly and are good ways to network and share information with other business people in the community.
“These are always well-attended,” Grady said. “It's an informal setting to socialize and collaborate.”
Chamber 101 is a program that the chamber started for prospective members. It is an opportunity to learn about the chamber’s offerings and to get information about how to grow a business. There is no cost for this program, which is held in the chamber’s offices.
The lunch & learn events are presented by members for members. A member who is an expert on a topic will present a short talk while members eat bag lunches during the informative, multitasking event. Recently, Lynne Robinson, the executive director of PAWS for People, gave a talk about the program.
“Lynne brought along a therapy dog,” Grady explained. “She talked about how beneficial the pets can be with people.”
The chamber also holds regular breakfast meetings and luncheons where information and news is shared about a variety of topics.
At the May luncheon, for instance, the topic addressed what is being done to prevent substance abuse problems in the area.
A recent breakfast speaker was Dr. Ken Lewis, the president of Union Hospital. He made a presentation about recent activities at the hospital and shared information about how the Affordable Care Act is impacting hospitals.
The chamber’s government relations committee also holds meet-the-candidate forums and other events related to the operations of government.
“It’s not the expectation that every member will take part in every event,” Grady explained. “Each member’s needs and availability are different.”
According to Grady, the chamber has been using every available tool to get information out to members, including Facebook, Twitter, bi-weekly newsletters, and eBlasts.
Grady credited Katie Lewis, the chamber's director of events and communication, with expanding and improving the methods of getting information out.
“She has done a phenomenal job of getting timely information out to our members,” Grady said.
Some chamber members have utilized these tools to offer tips to other members. An accounting firm and an IT firm have both offered tips that other business people would find useful.
“There are opportunities for other members to do that as well,” Grady said.
She added that, “Another way of communicating with our member and about our members is the new website that launched in January. There are so many things that our members can do. It has really become a great tool.”
The website has an interactive online directory-- “a great tool for our members,” Grady said. Each member gets a page on the website to promote the business with all the information that might be useful to a customer.
The chamber promotes all its events on the website. There is also an events tab for people to view upcoming events in the community. This has been particularly useful for non-profits in the area. Grady said that after meeting with some of the leaders of these non-profits, one of the things that they kept telling her was that it would be helpful if there was a centralized location that promoted all community events.
Businesses can post job openings, prospective members can join the chamber, and members can register for events on the website. There’s even a “hot deals” section where members can spread the word about a special sale that is going on. Kate DePew, the chamber's office manager, is responsible for keeping the information up to date on the website.
“She's also our director of smiles and she's been doing a great job of it,” Grady explained.
Rounding out the Cecil County Chamber’s team is Michael Garrity, who is the member services manager and is the go-to person for members.
In the last year, the chamber has worked to reach out to non-profits in the area. The chamber has been waiving the application fee for non-profits to join, and it now hosts a quarterly roundtable for non-profits.
“We bring them together to help them collaborate, share information, and promote what they do to the community,” Grady said. “We're always looking at low-cost or no-cost ways to help these non-profits promote what they do.”
Grady came to the Cecil County Chamber with 15 years of experience working in the chamber business. She had stops at chambers in West Virginia, North Carolina, Carroll County Maryland. While her experience in the business certainly helps, chambers of commerce are as diverse as the business communities that they serve—and no two are identical.
“There's an old expression in the chamber business that if you've seen one chamber, then you've seen one chamber,” Grady said. “But coming here, I saw some real opportunities.”
She said that chambers, like the business communities they serve, have their natural ups and downs.
“Everything is cyclical,” Grady said. “Any community needs change and the chamber has to change with it. The survival rate for new, small businesses is not great, but a chamber can always make it better.”
Grady sees many reasons to be optimistic about the business environment in Cecil County. She pointed to the switch to a charter form of government, exciting new developments in education and work-training programs, and a renewed focus on economic development opportunities as reasons to believe that Cecil County businesses will thrive in the future.
“This area is ready for something great to happen,” Grady said. “All the pieces are coming together.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.
What’s in a NAMES?
Bonnie Grady said that chambers of commerce can assist businesses as they work to build name recognition. The acronym NAMES outlines some of the methods that a chamber can provide value to members.
Networking: “It’s a big piece of what we do,” Grady said.
Advocacy: Chambers advocate for a strong business environment at the county and state level.
Marketing: “We help members market in all kinds of ways,” Grady said.
Education: The chamber provides information on all kinds of topics through full-day and half-day seminars, meetings, and presentations.
Savings: Members of the Cecil County Chamber can save on office supplies, get better rates through an electricity cooperative, and other savings.
Cecil County Chamber of Commerce
106 E. Main Street, Suite 101A, Elkton, MD 21921
2013-14 Executive Committee
Chairman of the Board
North East Enterprises, LLC
1st Vice Chair
2nd Vice Chair
Artesian Water Co., Inc.
CORE - Design Group, LLC
Cecil Business Leaders
APG Federal Credit Union
Union Hospital of Cecil County
Baker, Thomey, and Emrey