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Getting Down to Business

West of the River Chamber Taps into Youth

Michael Beaudry and Debra Boronski

Michael Beaudry and Debra Boronski are completing the first year of a new management arrangement that saves the WRC a significant amount of administrative expenses.

Remo Pizzichemi has passed the torch.

Specifically, Pizzichemi, vice president of the Welcome Group Inc., which manages the West Springfield Hampton Inn and the Springfield/Enfield Holiday Inn, has passed the chairmanship of the West of the River Chamber of Commerce (WRC), to 32-year-old Michael Beaudry, owner of Azon Liquors and TEG Business Consulting, a small marketing and branding company that focuses on social networking, both in Agawam.

Pizzichemi is proud of his past year helming the WRC, the business organization that serves West Springfield and Agawam — the towns directly west of the Connecticut River — characterizing his tenure as the start as a new way of operating (more on that later). But he’s cognizant of the need to keep a membership-based business organization interesting, active, and, most importantly, growing. With technology radically altering the various ways of communicating and doing business, the board felt strongly that a shot of youthful energy was necessary.

“We went in [to a new era of the chamber] with eyes wide open, knowing that we needed to address younger business officers on the board, and we did that primarily by asking Mike to be the chairman this year,” said Pizzichemi. “The fact that he owns two small businesses, it’s really helped us expand our horizons to not be the typical stale chamber, but to be a vibrant new chamber that focuses on young, new people and young, new businesses.”

Beaudry represents the demographic that the chamber needs to pay attention to, added Debra Boronski, the new executive director of the WRC, who also runs the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce (again, more on that later). “And that is why, at our recent annual meeting, we had a speaker who talked about how each generation works with, and needs to work with, each other in the workplace.”

One of Beaudry’s first goals will be an overhaul of the chamber’s website, which he says will be user-friendly — offering the ability to purchase event or program tickets online, and providing a broad interactive forum for members, as opposed to a static, administratively managed blog — in addition to more Facebook and Twitter outreach.

While other chambers — not just in the Western Mass. region, but across the nation — are wringing their hands, wondering what they are going to do about their aging membership, and how they should appeal to that younger population that’s necessary for their survival, the WRC is actively creating events and programming that appear to be attracting that target audience, while retaining current businesses.

With catchy new names for networking programs — ‘Wicked Wednesdays’ instead of the typical ‘After 5’ event, for instance — and more attention to business advocacy, the WRC is healthy and growing, and not a moment too soon.

For this edition of Getting Down to Business, BusinessWest sat down with the past and present chairmen of the West of the River Chamber, as well as the relatively new executive director, who have all ridden out a recent storm of uncertainty that could have spelled the end of the WRC.

 

At a Crossroads

“This chamber finished last year with more members than it started with,” Boronski proudly stated.

In any chamber’s book, that would be a success, but it’s especially gratifying for this group, considering its recent turmoil. About two years ago, faced with a monthly management-fee increase request by the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield (ACCGS), which oversaw the administrative and event duties of the WRC, the board felt there was a need for an economical solution that wouldn’t continue to eat away at the bottom line.

“We were at a crossroads, where they asked us to contribute more money, and we just couldn’t see it; our board of directors formed a subcommittee to determine if there were any alternatives, because we literally had no idea if there was any alternative,” explained Pizzichemi.

The answer was to offer a unique deal to Boronski, who had been vice president of the ACCGS for 11 years and in 2008 founded, and remains president of, the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, a statewide chamber which provides discount business benefits, but more importantly provides businesses a presence on every legislative level across the Commonwealth.  The deal enabled Boronski to handle day-to-day WRC affairs as executive director, at a significantly reduced cost.

“Local chambers of commerce are looking at more effective ways to use their resources to better serve their members,” she said. “That’s how progressive this chamber is; they partnered with me and are using their member resources to provide services and products as opposed to paying rent, insurance premiums, and high salaries.”

Now, for the same $300 member fee plus $4 per employee (the creation of a ‘micro-business’ dues level for sole proprietorships is being discussed), which Pizzichemi said hasn’t been raised in four years, members not only receive the benefits of the WRC — including discounted or free consultation services, networking events, and business representation with both towns’ municipalities — but also reap all of the Massachusetts Chamber benefits.

Initially, the migration away from the ACCGS and the new managerial change were confusing to some members who left the chamber, thinking they had been members of the ACCGS, not the WRC.

“Some left because they thought that the ACCGS was a chamber, but it’s really a management organization, and they were members of the WRC all along, so the numbers dipped from 217 to 177 at one point. But we’re back up there,” Boronski explained, noting that the WRC surpassed its former peak last year, with 234 members.

 

Share the Wealth

As the WRC sorted out its new position as a standalone chamber with no bricks-and-mortar central office, it relied on old-fashioned teamwork and launched a mission to appeal to a younger audience while offering business advocacy and a set schedule of more events.

Boronski pointed to ‘Business with Bacon,’ which offers “breakfast with sizzling-hot topics,” which caused all to laugh — but the underlying feeling is that, be it funny, cute, or catchy … it’s working.

“We are getting members to come out for those and network, and our Wicked Wednesdays are attracting 50 to 70 people and that’s a strong showing,” said Beaudry.

But two years ago, there weren’t many events at all, Boronski said. “We’ve really made it a mission to have set schedules for purely networking events. In fact, the tag line for Wicked Wednesdays is ‘no cost, no agenda, no program, no kidding.’ That’s what small businesses need, to network and meet with people with no agenda other than that.”

“And,” Pizzichemi added, “the ability to offer real substance in the form of education and business support.”

He and Beaudry counted on their fingers the amount of money given out by the WRC in the form of grants. Six grants for $500 apiece were awarded a few years ago to member businesses for advertising assistance, and recently, four $1,000 business grants were awarded to help businesses with educational costs.

“For example, one of our auto-dealership repair services was awarded a grant to further the education of one of his technicians,” Pizzichemi said.

Another recent win for both the WRC and Agawam was the chamber’s advocacy for modifications to the business personal tax valuation that were ultimately passed, resulting in lowered taxes for hundreds of businesses. Other big hits include the recent approval of two solar-power developments (by Rivermoor Energy/Citizen’s Energy) for H.P. Hood and the town of Agawam, support for Costco’s liquor-store license and expansion, and the encouragement of a new economic-development administrator in West Springfield, which resulted in the recent hiring of Michele Cabral.

The three also point to the creation of the Agawam Small Business Assistance Center (ASBAC), which was initially funded by the town of Agawam but is now funded by the WRC. From the basics of Excel and QuickBooks to the ins and outs of social-media marketing, the ASBAC provides monthly educational seminars that help startup business members.

Next up for the WRC is the high-profile 6th Annual Food Fest West on Nov. 1 at Crestview Country Club. Pizzichemi anticipates almost 20 restaurants and more than 300 attendees.

“In a climate where almost every restaurant is overshadowed by franchises — certainly Riverdale Street in West Springfield is home to many — this elegant event celebrates our dining quality, but we do let the franchises in,” Pizzichemi said.

Along with the annual summer golf tournament and the hosting of candidate forums for local political races, ‘Coffee with the Mayor’ programs — open forum where members may converse with new West Springfield Mayor Gregory Neffinger and Agawam Mayor Richard Cohen — began this spring and have been well-received by members, said Beaudry.

As he takes charge, Beaudry’s goal is to achieve a constant flow of new, young businesses and retention of longtime members. Tapping his social-media knowledge, Boronski’s experience, and what he knows his generation needs to succeed in business, he and the companies that make up the WRC may just make this body’s transitional years a model for other chambers.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

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