Nancy Creed Takes the Helm at the Springfield Regional Chamber
A Job in Sales
As she takes the helm at the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, Nancy Creed brings to the job a diverse résumé that includes work with nonprofits and in nonprofit management; in small businesses, large businesses, and her own business; and at the chamber itself. She believes these experiences have prepared her for the many challenges facing this organization — and all chambers.
Nancy Creed still remembers her first feature byline — and even the headline that went over the copy.
It was the fall of 1989. Creed was only a few months out of Syracuse University and, after briefly considering and then rejecting thoughts of trying to break into journalism in the Big Apple, had come back to her hometown of East Longmeadow to work for the Reminder as an assistant editor.
Her first feature story took her to Main Street — literally. Actually, it took her to the individual who had kept it clean — since Calvin Coolidge was in the White House — and was finally retiring.
“‘Street sweeper sees the end of the road’ — I was really proud of that headline,” Creed recalled. “He had been doing it for like 65 years or something like that; I interviewed about what he’d seen on the streets of East Longmeadow for six decades. His time had come, and I was there to write about it; that’s how I got started.”
She summoned similar wording — that ‘time has come’ part — to talk about a much different career milestone, specifically her ascendency to the role of president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“I think it’s … my time,” she said with a solid dose of confidence in her voice, acknowledging that she might sound a bit cocky with that remark, but doesn’t intend to be. She implied that those words are merely what amount to the expression of an opinion — that she spent the 27 or so years since the street-sweeper profile preparing herself for such an assignment, and this one in particular. And now it’s time to put that accumulated experience to work.
“This is the logical next career step for me,” she noted. “Chamber work is in my blood.”
A quick look at her résumé would seem to bear this out. It includes work in journalism, marketing, and public relations; at small businesses, large businesses, and her own business; with nonprofits and as a nonprofit manager; and, perhaps most importantly, during two stints with the Springfield Regional Chamber, including the past three and a half years as vice president of Marketing and Communications.
Her first stint, as Communications director, came in 1999, when the name on the stationery was the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield. But so much more has changed over those years besides the name, and the sum of these transformations goes a long way toward explaining why ‘Creed’s time’ is, and will continue to be, an extremely challenging one for this chamber — and all chambers, for that matter.
The big challenge is to continue to provide value to the smaller businesses — they’re the backbone of this region’s economy.”
Indeed, the Affiliated Chambers took up considerably more real estate on the ground floor of what is now the TD Bank building back then, she acknowledged, noting that the staff was at least twice the size it is now. This contraction is a sign of the times, she said, adding that there are fewer members now, partly because there are fewer businesses that can be members due to a wave of consolidation that has enveloped banks, insurance agencies, healthcare providers, and more. But that’s only part of the story.
Another big part is the fact that chamber membership, once almost an automatic reflex action for someone new in business, is now anything but.
“Historically, joining the chamber was just the right thing to do; it’s no longer that way,” she said, adding that this is especially true with the younger generations. “So we have to figure out what people want to get out of the chamber — and provide it.”
Thus, chambers in general, and the Springfield Regional Chamber in particular, have come forth with new initiatives and programming designed to provide more of that all-important commodity — value.
As an example, Creed, who succeeds Jeff Ciuffreda at the chamber’s helm, pointed to new informational programs targeted for specific audiences (especially small businesses), such as the chamber’s Lunch ‘n’ Learn program, which has focused on topics ranging from social-media marketing to the new overtime laws.
“The big challenge is to continue to provide value to the smaller businesses — they’re the backbone of this region’s economy,” she said, referring to companies with 10 or fewer employees. “They make up 75% of our membership, so you really need to understand the issues and challenges they face and provide what they’re missing and need.”
But Creed’s time is challenging, and intriguing, for many other reasons as well, from the need to assemble almost an entirely new staff at the chamber (more on that in a bit) to the advent of what would have to be called the ‘casino era’ in Greater Springfield, to the groundswell of entrepreneurial energy sweeping the city and region.
For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Creed about, well, her time and the myriad components to that simple two-word phrase.
The Write Stuff
When asked what brought her to Syracuse, Creed offered a quick, one-word answer — “basketball” — before then elaborating.
“I loved college basketball, and I looked at all the big basketball schools,” she explained. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I thought, ‘if I’m not quite sure what I want to do, I might as well go to a college where I can enjoy a hobby.’”
And in the mid-’80s, if college basketball was your hobby, there was no better place than Syracuse, then one of the top teams in the soaring Big East Conference. But while attending games at the recently completed Carrier Dome, Creed was also finding a passion — for writing and marketing — and earning a degree from the prestigious S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
The question, upon graduation, was what to do with it. As mentioned earlier, she considered, albeit briefly, trying to make it in the city that never sleeps.
“I thought about going to New York, but that probably meant living with eight other women in a studio apartment and earning $25 a story,” she said, adding that there were several things wrong with this picture, certainly enough to look elsewhere as she sought to follow her dream.
Eventually, home, and the Reminder, became the best option. She stayed with the publication for two years before taking the first of many career turns that would shape her diverse résumé.
She went to work for the Springfield-based law firm Robinson Donovan as assistant marketing director. There, she worked alongside one of the young associate attorneys, Russ Denver, who would later go on to direct the Springfield chamber.
That connection would become a key storyline a few years later, when, after getting married, relocating to the Boston area, and serving as Communications and Public Relations coordinator for the nonprofit group Community Care Services Inc., she began searching for what would become the next line on her CV.
Denver was looking for a Communications director, and encouraged Creed to seek the job. She did, and prevailed in the search, eventually serving two years in that role before returning to big business as manager of Corporate Communications for Western Mass. Electric Co., now Eversource.
After more than four years in that role, her career took another sharp turn as she started her own business, N.F. Creed Communications, handling work for a wide range of clients, including two former employers, the chamber and Northeast Utilities, parent company to Western Mass. Electric.
But shifts in the economic winds, coinciding with the Great Recession and its aftermath, prompted many companies to bring marketing and PR work in house, Creed explained, thus prompting another career move — and a return to the chamber.
Over the past several years, she has been involved with a number of initiatives, from helping to coordinate a renaming and restructuring of the chamber to managing a host of events, including the chamber’s annual Outlook lunch, which draws nearly 1,000 people to the MassMutual Center and speakers such as Gov. Charlie Baker and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.
But mostly, she’s been working with Ciuffreda and other team members to do something chambers have always had to do, but not with anything approaching the sense of urgency they face now: sell themselves.
She sees this as both her primary assignment moving forward and the professional strength she will most call upon.
“When you look at my past experience … I’ve led, I’ve been led, I have entrepreneurial spirit, I worked in small business, I worked in big business and for nonprofits, so I understand the various challenges,” she said. “I have a really broad range of experience, and I think that’s important.
“And Jeff built a really strong foundation for the organization,” she went on. “So my marketing skills are probably the most important, because now we’re going to take that, and we’re going to sell it.”
Getting Down to Business
And as she talked about this process of selling the chamber, Creed said the organization has to do what all businesses across every sector must do — provide products and services that people want to buy.
And this brings her back to some of the newer offerings introduced in recent years, and the philosophy that brought them about.
“We used to have programs that were broad-based; there was no specific target market, no niche,” she explained. “We then created events and programs and services for specific markets, specific segments of our membership, and those have really become popular.”
Perhaps the best example is the Lunch ‘n’ Learn series, which focuses primarily on sales and marketing and employment- law issues, and was blueprinted for smaller companies that don’t have large teams, or even dedicated individuals, handling HR and PR.
“We had a session on social-media marketing, and it was designed for a specific segment of our membership that maybe didn’t have a marketing department or where the administrative assistant was handling social media,” she explained. “There are many issues that small businesses are faced with that they don’t necessarily have the internal resources to deal with, so we can provide those resources.”
This will be the mindset moving forward, she went on, as the agency looks for constructive ways to answer the question, ‘why should I join the chamber?’
Even the traditional, time-honored chamber breakfast has to be educational and value-oriented, she explained, noting that members need a reason to take that hour and half out of their day and attend.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at providing what people want to see out of those breakfasts,” Creed explained. “We continue to do our salutes because they want to see the success of other businesses and learn more about them. But with speakers, we’ve learned that people want to learn something, but they also want to be entertained.”
The chamber’s success in listening to members and responding to what they’re saying is verified in attendance figures at events, she went on, adding that they’re up across the board over the past few years.
Beyond the all-important work to sell the chamber and provide more value to members, Creed faces other, even more immediate challenges.
The first will be filling the offices and cubicles in the chamber’s space within what’s still known as the Regional Economic Development Center.
She must replace herself as vice president of Marketing, but also hire a new coordinator of sales and member benefits as well.
“We’re building an almost entirely new team,” she said, adding that the chamber’s former administrative assistant has been placed in a recalibrated position focused on events and program administration.
Assembling a solid team is critical, said Creed, again equating the situation to what faces businesses on a daily basis; there must be quality products and services, as well as people to sell them, market them, and coordinate all of the above.
But there are other pressing issues as well, including the schedule for the coming year, work traditionally done over the summer, and getting out and visiting as many members as possible in the weeks and months ahead as part of that process of listening to their needs.
Then there are the ongoing issues involving MGM’s $950 million casino, now finally starting to take shape in Springfield’s South End, specifically the matter of helping area companies do business with the gaming giant.
“We’ll continue to find ways to work with MGM to benefit our members,” she explained, adding that the process of becoming a vendor is somewhat complicated, but the chamber has resources that can help those interested navigate those waters.
Moving forward, another priority is to build upon existing partnerships with a host of entities — from Associated Industries of Mass. to other area chambers, to various economic-development agencies.
That includes those involved with promoting entrepreneurship and helping startups get to the next level, she said, adding that the rising levels of entrepreneurial energy in the region present a great opportunity for chambers, and hers in particular.
“When you look at the success of a group like Valley Venture Mentors … they’re creating a pipeline of new businesses and startups,” she explained. “The next logical step for those entrepreneurs is the chambers; there’s a huge opportunity for us.”
In Her Blood
Creed told BusinessWest that she will bring to her latest career challenge what she has brought to all the others — energy, imagination, and experience gathered from the stops that came before.
That includes the time spent recently managing a nonprofit organization, in this case, Dakin Humane Society. Creed has long served on the board of that agency, and agreed to step in and serve as interim director last fall.
She described this stint as yet another learning experience, one that was rewarding and enjoyable.
“It was easy, because it’s a passion of mine,” she said of her work with animals, adding that she has many others, including college basketball (still) and writing.
And chambers of commerce. This work is in her blood, as she said. That won’t necessarily make this assignment easy, or even easier, but it will provide her an edge, as will all that accumulated experience since the street-sweeper profile.
As she noted, it’s her time.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]