Profiles in Business
This Chamber Official Is Fond of Summit MeetingsRuss Denver has a number of vivid memories from his ascent last December to base camp at Mount Everest, some 17,500 or so feet above sea level.
One is of his first look at the glacier on which base camp sits, positioned between mountains on three sides. “You look out over the glacier and you see what looks like ocean waves, but they’re frozen at their peak height; it was very cool to be able to see that.”
An even more poignant sight came at the 15,000-foot level, when, after clearing a rise, Denver, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, and the other members of his party came across a collection of stone memorials to individuals who dared to climb to the top of the world’s highest peak — and died trying.
“There were maybe 100 of them, and they were all man-made,” he said, noting that this number alone was enough to give him pause. “Some were more sophisticated than others; they had interesting or funny inscriptions in the stones, like ‘he came, he saw, he didn’t conquer,’ or ‘it was always his dream to climb Everest, and he died trying to fulfill his dream.’
“It certainly made you aware of the dangers of what you were doing,” he continued, adding quickly that there are few, if any, fatalities among those whose goal is base camp, which is a little more than halfway to the summit, some 29,002 feet into the sky. But a good number don’t get that far, he went on, noting that he saw several people helicoptered out with extreme altitude sickness, broken bones from falls, and other maladies.
Denver made it to base camp — although he lost 21 pounds over the 18-day excursion (“it took me six months to gain it all back”) — giving him two major triumphs in what has become an intriguing new hobby, one that has given him more than stories to tell and photos to show (more on that later). The other came at Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, which he scaled in 2008.
And there are two more scheduled — Mount Elbris in Russia (18,800 feet) for early next year, and Mount Aconcagua in Argentina (21,000 feet) for late 2011. Doing two in one year — a feat made possible by the fact that it will be summer in South America in December — will be taxing on the body and the schedule, but Denver feels he can handle it.
He told BusinessWest that, as might be expected, there is a great sense of satisfaction that comes with reaching one’s goal on such peaks; one trains for months to get in proper shape, and there are many sacrifices that come with getting ready and hardships during the climbs, or what are technically known as ‘hikes.’
Things are a little different with his day job. For a chamber of commerce director, especially one based in a city with as many challenges as Springfield, the work is never really finished, and the triumphs are few and certainly not as definitive as reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro.
The victories are usually much smaller, and some of them don’t even get noticed by most business owners, he said, citing as one example success with tax classification in communities such as East Longmeadow, and keeping the commercial rates as low as possible.
“We have one business owner who’s been a member in East Longmeadow since 1963,” said Denver, who worked for the Springfield chamber for several years before joining a local law firm and then eventually returning to lead the ACCGS. “We’ve worked for years to keep a single tax rate in that town, and we’ve saved him $8,000 a year on his property. He said, ‘I never knew you guys did things like that.’ That’s because it’s behind-the-scenes work, like so much of what we do.”
As for Springfield’s future, Denver, whose 14-year tenure at the helm of ACCGS coincides with one of the most challenging periods in the city’s history, takes that optimistic, glass-half-full attitude that seems part of his job description. He said that things are looking up for the City of Homes in terms of recovery from its steep descent, but plenty of challenges remain, with everything from poverty and all that goes with it to convincing companies to look beyond current demographics and ultimately choose to locate or expand in Springfield.
For this, the latest installment of its Profiles in Business series, BusinessWest talked with Denver about everything from scaling one of the world’s tallest mountains to the role of the chamber of commerce in today’s business community. He had plenty to say about a host of topics.
Denver said that while he’s always been interested in sports and staying fit — “I work out like crazy” — hiking some of the world’s tallest peaks was something he would never have considered even a few years ago.
Indeed, he came to this pastime in a rather roundabout fashion. It started, he told BusinessWest, with something called the HAM, or the Hike Across Maryland. He heard about it from a friend and former chamber colleague, and decided to take part in the 40-mile, one-day trek along the Appalachian Trail.
“The first year, I did it in 13 and a half hours, and I’ve gotten it down to 11:45,” he said. “That’s moving! We start at the Maryland-Pennsylvania border and finish up by crossing the Potomac River and then going on to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia; it’s a fun event, and you meet a lot of interesting people along the way because you don’t walk with the same people all day.”
One of the people Denver encountered during the 2007 trek was a woman, a lawyer who had recently returned from scaling Kilimanjaro. “She said that if I could do the HAM, I could do Kilimanjaro, so the very next day, after getting back from the HAM, I started doing some research.”
Denver eventually talked a few local business people into making the hike with him, and the three made the trek in the summer of 2008. “I fell in love with it, and said, ‘OK, what’s my next adventure?’ I determined that I was in good enough shape to make the hike up to base camp at Mount Everest.”
That odyssey, completed early last December, like the Kilimanjaro hike before it, gave Denver what he called “new and different perspective” on life and an appreciation for what he and most Americans take for granted.
“One of the things that strikes you when you travel to unusual places like this is that poverty is a very subjective phrase,” he said. “You see people living with just a pipe sticking out of the ground — there’s no running water. When we were Tanzania, we saw people in thatched homes, and in Nepal, the higher up you went, people lived without electricity — the only heat was from a stove heated with yak dung.
“Another amazing thing is all the different ways people find to make a living,” he continued. “In Nepal, there were 15-year-old boys carrying 40 pounds of goods on their backs delivering things from village to village because there’s no infrastructure.”
Like his treks up mountains, Denver’s career path has also featured a number of interesting twists and turns.
He started out as the aide to the City Council in Springfield, a job he held from 1980 to 1984. In that role, he was responsible for handling committee meetings, requests from constituents, requests from councilors, writing press releases, and other matters. He described it as a good learning experience, one that gave him considerable insight into how local government works.
He took that experience to his next stop, as the first full-time administrative assistant to the Board of Selectmen (now known as town manager) in Longmeadow, a position he kept for the next five years. He then went to work for the Springfield Chamber of Commerce and then-Director Jim Shriver, and attended Western New College School of Law at night.
He took his juris doctor and worked for the Springfield-based firm Robinson Donovan Madden & Barry (now Robinson Donovan) for four years, before putting his name into consideration to succeed Shriver in 1996.
“I loved the law,” he told BusinessWest, “but the opportunity to run a large chamber, be involved in economic development, and have a dramatic impact on a region as an organization was something too big to pass up.”
Getting Down to Business
While he’s in a different profession, Denver says he’s putting his law degree to good use at the chamber.
“I use it almost every day here,” he said, “while interpreting legislation and working on local zoning and municipal ordinances, HR issues that require legal interpretation, and, as lead tenant [in the economic development offices at TD Bank], drafting and interpreting subleases. There’s a lot of use of my legal background.”
Many of these duties fall into that broad behind-the-scenes category that Denver described, which constitutes much of what happens at the chamber and also defines much of its relative worth to members. Putting things another way, Denver, when asked to delineate the value chambers (and especially this one) provide to members, said, “we’ve got your back.”
Elaborating, he summoned the chamber’s mission, “to create a positive business environment for businesses to start, grow, and prosper,” and said this is work he and others in the organization take very seriously — and that many in the business community may not know about, or appreciate, until they need it.
“There’s legislative work we do on specific matters of importance to the business community,” he said as he started listing chamber initiatives. “There are also the 15 to 20 businesses a week that I help out of jams, like people who need additional financing and don’t know where to turn, referrals for banks, people who want to open a restaurant and say, ‘how do I get started?’ and others who want to be hooked up with commercial real-estate people because they want to expand in Springfield.
“It’s these and many other things that seem mundane, but are very important to many individual businesses,” he continued. “I could help 20 to 30 people a week, and the staff people can help another 20 to 30, because they’re out there; people are so busy running their companies they don’t know what resources are out there.”
As for Springfield itself, Denver said demographic evolution, especially with regard to how many residents are at or below the poverty line, has changed the city’s fortunes, and, unless trends are reversed, they will likely hinder its progress moving forward.
“Over the past 10 or 12 years, Springfield has become much poorer, and many people don’t understand that this has a dramatic impact on economic development,” he explained, adding that the Urban Land Institute, in its comprehensive analysis of the city, strongly recommended steps to help reverse this pattern and improve the income demographic to attract more business. And the chamber is committed to following that advice.
“Companies will call that might be interested in the Springfield market because of its size,” Denver continued. “And then you share with them the income demographic for Springfield proper, and that does not put the city first on their list of places, so they may wind up in West Springfield or Wilbraham, so they can get the population size, but they draw a wealthier income demographic.”
Meanwhile, another problem is the educational demographics for the city, he said, adding that once — and not too long ago — the city could boast that a well-educated workforce. “That is not the case anymore.”
And education is just one of many ways that poverty directly and indirectly impacts economic-development efforts, he said, adding that, while there are no easy answers to the problem, Springfield has to do something to reduce its concentration of poverty.
From his office in the TD Bank building, Denver looks out on Main Street and, more specifically, Tower Square, which means he’s had a front-row seat from which to observe the changes that have come to downtown over the past 10 to 15 years.
Noting the sharp decline of the retail base in Tower Square — there are only a handful of stores left — and elsewhere, Denver said changing demographics have impacted that sector considerably, but he says other forces are involved, especially the Internet.
“I’m a lawyer, so I know that, in the old days, you had to file everything by paper — with the court system, with the government,” he explained. “Nowadays, everything is done electronically, so you don’t need to be close to a courthouse, because of all the electronic filing.
“If you were to go back 20 years and look at the number of law firms and accounting firms that were located in downtown Springfield, and compare it to today,” he continued, “there’s probably half the number, and that has a huge impact. With fewer professionals downtown, there’s less money downtown, and retailers look at that.
“If you were to take just 10 professional salaries out of downtown, that’s 10 fewer lunches being eaten every day, 10 fewer books being bought every day, it goes on and on and on,” he told BusinessWest. “I think the Internet has a lot to do with Springfield’s problems.”
Looking ahead, Denver said he expects that Springfield will eventually complete the process of converting to what he called an “eds and meds economy,” meaning one fueled mostly by its many colleges and health care facilities. Job growth in both areas will be significant, he said, adding that there will still be a solid base of manufacturing as well as a significant tourism sector.
However, if real growth is to occur, Springfield must take steps to present current and prospective employers with a better-qualified workforce. “We need to increase the graduation rates in Springfield,” he said, then repeated those words for emphasis. “That’s a must.”
Reaching the Top
While talking with BusinessWest, Denver, 53, allowed himself to contemplate retirement for a few moments.
He said he’d like to spend it in the Midwest, preferably working in some capacity for a minor-league baseball team. “I’ll do anything they ask,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s selling tickets, being a landscaper, whatever. I just want to be involved in sports at a lower level, where the players are still trying their absolute best so they can progress to the major leagues.”
With that, he acknowledged that retirement is still quite a ways off — “that will be well into my 60s; I love working.”
In other words, there are still a number of mountains to climb, in a literal sense, and a figurative one as well.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]