Local Chamber Leader Creates a New Agency for the Commonwealth
Deb Boronski says she started thinking about the concept a few years ago.
Through her involvement with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Northeast Board of Regents, she met and talked often with those directing statewide chambers, something Massachusetts has never had, and that Boronski started to think it could possibly use.
Over time, any doubts about such need, at least in her mind, were erased. And thus, after several months of planning, Boronski, long-time senior vice president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield (ACCGS), has launched something called the Mass. Chamber of Business & Industry Inc.
That’s the MassCBI, for short, a mostly Web-based organization that will be run out of an office Boronski is now leasing in East Longmeadow. But it will, she says, represent businesses across the state and, in essence, provide a louder, stronger voice than chambers representing individual cities (like Chicopee’s and Holyoke’s) and regions (like the ACCGS, which has seven chambers representing nearly 2,000 members).
“Our primary focus will be on state issues, those that affect every business in the Commonwealth — we’re going to inform, educate, and then advocate on behalf of businesses so we can affect positive change,” said Boronski, who described her start-up venture as a logical next step for the state — and for her from a professional-development standpoint.
“I’ve been in this position for 10 years now,” she said of her work with the ACCGS. “I’m ready for a new and bigger challenge.”
Jeffrey Albright believes that a state chamber can succeed in Massachusetts, primarily because he’s seen such an organization work effectively in another Northeast industrial state. He’s member executive of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry, an entity that has been in place since 1916, and currently represents members in all 67 of the state’s counties.
Albright told BusinessWest that while local and federal legislation certainly affects business owners, the most impactful proposals usually emerge on the state level. And the PA Chamber, as his agency is called, provides what he described as a “unified voice” on the ‘Hill.’
“The reason all organizations form is to take advantage of the collective power, strength, and unity of the group,” he said. “Numbers speak; this is clout, this is influence. When we go to the Hill we can tell legislators just how many people we have in each of those legislative districts that they represent — and we can tell them what these people are thinking about the issues they’re voting on.
“You might have some local chambers that have very close relationships with their legislators,” he continued, referring to his state. “But quite frankly, when you take that number to the Hill and try to get something passed, let’s see how well you do. Without the support of other legislators, you’re not going to get anything accomplished.”
Boronski, who will leave the ACCGS in early February, said she expects the MassCBI will provide a similar, unified voice. Explaining how such a statewide chamber operates, and how it works to complement smaller chambers, not compete with them, is part of a broad education process that she has already embarked on. This assignment will continue for some time, she told BusinessWest, and eventually take her from Williamstown to Nantucket.
“You eat an elephant one bite at a time,” she said of her plans to take the MassCBI to every corner of the state. “I’m going to take this one bite — one city or town or region — at a time.”
As he talked about the PA Chamber, what it does, and how it works, Albright made frequent use of that word ‘clout.’
He said that this is what his group provides to roughly 24,000 members (those who pay dues) and customers (those who don’t but participate in chamber-sponsored programs and events). And this clout comes from a combination of that number and the word ‘chamber,’ which carries a good amount of weight, especially with elected officials.
With its size and clout, the PA Chamber is able to help level the playing field in a state where the Southwest (Pittsburgh area) and Southeast (Philadelphia and its suburbs) quadrants are well-represented, but most other areas feel neglected, he said.
“What we try to do as a state chamber is enlarge the pie, from an economic development standpoint, and see that everyone gets a slice,” he explained. “First and foremost, what we do is advocacy — we’re the voice of the business community.”
Enlarging the pie is one way to describe what Boronski wants to accomplish with the MassCBI, and she said her experience with the ACCGS provided some inspiration for her venture in the form of ample evidence that there is indeed strength in numbers.
She said that through affiliation with the ACCGS, smaller chambers have access to information, expertise, lobbyists, and programs. But even the affiliated chambers are limited in what they can do because of their size and specific geographic focus, so she wants to take that model to a much wider stage — the entire state.
“The ACCGS does a great job — but that’s just Greater Springfield,” she said. “The Worcester chamber does a good job in that city, and the Boston chamber does, too. But there needs to be a united voice; when the Massachusetts Chamber of Business & Industry goes to Boston, it speaks for the Berkshires, Boston, and everyone in between.”
The business plan for the statewide chamber is still a work in progress, said Boronski, and it is being shaped by trends and issues involving chambers across the country, and the need for what she described as a “support system” for these municipal and regional chambers.
The MassCBI will fill this role through a variety of products and services, said Boronski, whose preliminary marketing materials list several of them, including:
• Membership programs, including discount programs involving health, life, and dental insurance, as well as car rentals, shipping, and even Monster.com;
• Monthly updates through a MassCBI E-news service, offered free to members, that will provide monthly reviews of legislative and political news (the Web site — www.masscbi.com — goes live Jan. 2);
• Vote for Massachusetts.com, another online service that enables members to access the voting records of their state and national legislators, and also voice their opinions on issues;
• Employee training seminars on subjects including human resources, employment law, workplace safety, and health care;
• Regulatory compliance publications — reference guides covering employers’ rights and responsibilities under state and federal employment, safety and health, tax, and environmental laws;
• Events including a “congressional dinner,” an annual meeting, a legislative reception, and regular breakfast roundtables she calls “Eggs and Issues.”
While the times and places for these events have not been finalized, Boronski expects many of them to be staged in the Worcester area, middle ground for members at either end of the state.
Getting Down to Business
While finalizing the roster of services, Boronski says she must also go about the task of selling the MassCBI, and convincing business owners that there is real value in what she’s calling the “membership investment” — which ranges from $299 to $2,000 depending on the size of the company’s workforce.
For this, she’ll call on previous experience with chambers — she was also long-time president of the Chicopee chamber — and also in marketing (which she’s taught at the college level), development, and even as a business author.
In 1994, for example, she wrote You Don’t Need a Crystal Ball! Visualize Your Future Success Through Market-oriented Strategic Planning. This is a manual of sorts for those starting a business, trying to take one to the next level, or just trying to figure out what the next step might be. There are chapters on identifying one’s customers, doing market research, analyzing competition, performing self-analysis, assessing the business climate, and, finally, formulating a strategy.
Boronski has followed her own manual as she’s gone about creating the MassCBI, and will continue to do so as works to build a membership base, crystalize her mission, and develop a suite of products and services.
She told BusinessWest that she did some extensive research before she embarked on her venture, and it revealed a clear need for a state chamber, even at a time when chamber membership is declining in many regions of the country, and when the Commonwealth boasts a statewide business group — the Associated Industries of Mass. (AIM) — that already provides many of the services planned for the MassCBI.
“We have AIM, we have the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast, and other groups, but there is room for everyone, and not every one program or organization fits every need,” she said. “While AIM is a magnificent resource for the state of Massachusetts, it can’t possibly meet every need for every business.
“AIM is also not a chamber of commerce by name,” she continued. “It’s an association, and that is different; there are associations for everything. A chamber of commerce is a significantly different creature that has a more united voice.”
When asked how she intends to build membership, Boronski said she’s having a number of databases prepared, and has a number of target audiences she’s trying to reach. Current chamber members are a logical starting point, she explained, because they obviously have some level of support for the concept.
“If they see value in a local chamber, they’re likely to also see value in a state chamber,” she said, noting that she plans to speak before area chambers, Rotary clubs, and other business-related groups to outline her venture.
But a state chamber may provide a solid alternative for those who are not part of a local chamber because they don’t have the time to take part in programs and events because they’re too busy trying to grow their businesses.
“The state chamber is mostly Internet-based — it’s information, education, and advocacy, so members don’t have to be involved,” she said. “Many people are busy and don’t feel they have the time to commit once they make an investment in an organization. And if you’re going to be active in a local chamber and get value from your membership, you have to make an investment in time and network.”
But she reiterated that she wants the MassCBI to complement existing chambers, not compete with them.
“Every business should support their local chamber, first and foremost,” she said. “But they can also support a state chamber and even the national chamber — and they should, because each one plays a different but important role in advocating for the business community.”
Albright said he was one of several members of the Northeast Board of Regents who advised Boronski to meet what he considers an unmet need in the Bay State.
“It looked to me that (Massachusetts) had a lot of strength in its local chambers, but didn’t have an overall umbrella, or an organization that can pull them all together when needed,” he explained. “It sounds like they’re doing a lot of things individually very well, but collectively, the strength of the group [a state chamber] can do even bigger and broader things.”
Time will tell if he’s right with that assessment.
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]