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On the Hot Seat

Giving businesses a voice

(Globe Staff Photo / Pat Greenhouse)
By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / May 17, 2009
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The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding on Tuesday. Chamber president Paul Guzzi recently spoke with Globe reporter Robert Gavin about the organization's role in the business community, region, and the local economy.

How did it all start 100 years ago?

Two business organizations, the then-Boston Chamber and the Boston Merchants Association, merged to provide voice for the business community, obviously a different community, a different society than now.

Has the role of the chamber changed?

On the one hand, there has been a constant: providing voice for business. On the other hand, there has been an evolution as well. We're both a chamber of commerce and a chamber of community.

What do you mean by chamber of community?

We are part of the community. We have developed leadership programs, both for the business community and the not-for-profit community. We have a very active women's network program, and we've also started an executive leadership institute. We also have been focusing on talent and talent retention. Leadership and talent retention initiatives go beyond business, to building a strong community.

We've seen corporate headquarters move out of Boston in recent years. Is the chamber still relevant?

We still have a core of Boston-based companies, but welcoming and working with national or international companies that have a major presence here is important. The initiatives I mentioned earlier are relevant for home-based companies and out-of-state companies. Competitiveness issues are relevant for any business.

What's attractive about doing business in Boston?

Great colleges and universities that produce outstanding talent, and innovation that comes from the research done here. That drives the economy and drives companies. Also, independent of the winters, there is a high quality of life here, including major cultural and artistic venues, great sports teams.

What's bad? What needs to be improved?

Cost competitiveness has always been challenging. We're in the Northeast, we're at the end of the energy supply line, so business cost issues are very challenging. In addition, the region and the state should be more welcoming to business.

How could we be more welcoming?

What the governor has done in terms of having business development teams that go out of state - much as many of our competitor states come here - is a start. The regulatory maze that companies go through at times is very burdensome, so we need to look at the regulatory maze and the bureaucracy that companies are put through here.

Looking back at the last hundred years, can you point to a few accomplishments?

The creation and development of the Boston Convention Center. We worked actively on it. The healthcare reform legislation that we were very much a part of. Attracting federal research funding. We created a coalition of regional chambers to make the case for the importance of research funding.

When the Federal Reserve was created in 1913, there was a major debate whether there should be just a Federal Reserve Bank in New York for basically the East Coast, with branches, including in Boston, reporting to New York. The chamber made a strong case for a separate Federal Reserve Bank here in Boston.

What are your top priorities now?

Leadership development. Talent development and retention, with a focus on K-12 education, including charter schools, on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. Competitiveness issues: healthcare costs and affordability, a major challenge.

Obviously, we're in a recession right now. But what's your view of where the Boston economy is going when we come out of this?

I'm optimistic to a large degree due to the intellectual capital and major assets we have. The world has changed into a knowledge-based economy and we have all of the underpinnings to compete successfully.

What's the next 100 years going to look like for Boston and the chamber?

I honestly don't know where we'll be. But we know where the building blocks are for that future. If we keep focused on the building blocks - the talent, the universities, the research institutions, competitiveness - then the future will be positive, even though we don't know where the journey will take us.