Chambers see hope for clout, aid in merger

By James O'Brien
Globe Correspondent / December 11, 2008
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Two regional chambers of commerce, including one headquartered in Franklin, have merged and are trying to increase membership by offering business owners a chance to learn new skills and join forces in coping with tough economic times.

The president of the newly formed United Regional Chamber of Commerce, which covers 14 communities largely along Interstate 495, hopes the larger organization will offer greater resources to help its roughly 800 members make it through the recession.

"This will give us more clout," said Jack Lank, who ran the Attleboro Area Chamber of Commerce before its merger last month with Franklin's United Chamber of Commerce. "It will give us a louder voice in the Legislature."

The leaders of the new organization are also trying to convince business owners and others that it will not fit the classic, misconceived view of chambers of commerce as involving dreary meetings attended mostly by men.

Judy McKenna, a consultant for Seekonk's Seraphim restaurant, was pleasantly surprised by the scene at Attleboro Jewelry as she attended her first meeting of the new chamber last week.

"I was thinking it would be old men getting together, the old boys' club kind of thing," McKenna said. "But it's not like that at all."

Instead, some 50 well-dressed professionals clustered in conversation, sipping red wine, trading business cards.

If there were any old boys looking for a club that night, they were not out in force. The gathering was more than 50 percent female, and Seraphim executive chef and co-owner Cheryl Laverty said she had signed up for the chamber's women-in-business workshop.

Paul Rao, a broker and owner at Prudential Page Realty in Medway, didn't make the meeting, but said the merger was welcome news for his firm, which also has offices in Medfield and Wrentham.

"The United Chamber was very much involved in trying to encourage networking," Rao said. "This is an opportunity to avail itself even more so . . . for members to have even greater reach with the addition of Attleboro."

Rao said he planned to be at a gathering Tuesday night in Milford.

Nathaniel Cooper of Benemax, a benefits management firm in Medfield, was pleased with the merger for a decidedly practical reason.

"I think the merger's a great thing," said Cooper. "This makes the chamber closer to my home."

When talking about the benefits offered by the chamber, Lank pointed to the organization's connection to financing in a credit-tight world, as well as to insurance assistance, tax consulting, and human resources advisers.

"We're a total resource for any information they need," Lank said.

Business specialists said they believe the approach of the new chamber reflects an important development for small businesses, which can often get lost amid their larger counterparts.

"I have seen a big difference in leadership," said Scott Latham, assistant professor of strategy at Bentley University. Noting their lingering image problems, he said many chambers of commerce "are reacting to that sentiment with monthly breakfasts with someone who can speak to the economic times, with monthly meetings on how to leverage Google. It has changed."

Mark Allio, regional director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, sees the consolidation in the area surrounding Franklin as an important step in bolstering the influence of local businesses.

"In smaller communities, it requires strength in numbers to accomplish goals and objectives that benefit the whole of the business community," Allio said. "It makes a lot of sense."

Lank said he came up with the idea of a merger two months ago. His organization was facing dwindling membership, and the United Chamber had been without a president for months, after it could no longer afford to keep Thomas J. Fleming III in the position. The negotiations led to the United Regional Chamber of Commerce's formal launch on Nov. 20.

Amy Lewis, owner of optical shop Eyeworks of Millis, said she was encouraged by the merger and hopes to see renewed activity among the chamber's local members.

To be relevant to her business, however, she said, the United Regional Chamber should offer a more varied meeting schedule, which for her means mornings or weekends.

"For a sole proprietor, I don't want to shut down my store and lose customers" in order to attend an evening meeting, Lewis said. "It seems most of the business after-hours meetings have been from 5 to 7, which is next to impossible."

Daniel P. Genannt, business development manager at TD Banknorth's Wrentham branch, said chamber meetings are a "very valuable opportunity" for community relations.

But when it came to winning new business, Genannt said, the chamber tended to collect all of his competitors in one place around a single pool of potential clients. He expects the merger would amplify that scenario.

"The geographical expansion doesn't really help me so much, because there's a great deal of competition between branches, and with other banks," said Genannt.

For referrals, Genannt said, he relies instead on local chapters of a global networking group, BNI.

Lank said that as he builds the newly merged chamber, he'll be listening to all points of view.

"We'll get some bumps and bruises," Lank said. "But both boards agree there are enormous opportunities . . . most business is done through relationships. People do business with people they know and trust. Relationships are built through the chamber."

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