A New Challenge
Diana Szynal recently made a successful transition from public service — she was a selectman in Hatfield and then a legislative aide — to running the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. Now, she’s making another transition, to leadership of the Springfield Regional Chamber. While Greater Springfield is a much larger area, she said the challenges facing businesses, and the basic mission of the chamber, are the same as they are in Franklin County, and she’s ready to put her experience to work in her new setting.
Diana Szynal says that within minutes of the announcement that she had been named the new president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce going out last spring, her phone started ringing and pinging.
There were calls and texts from area business leaders, government officials, and directors of area economic development agencies wanting to meet and talk.
“The calls started coming, and I’m still getting them,” said Szynal (pronounced Zy-nal), adding that her appointment book is quickly filling up for the next several weeks.
Those appointments are part of what she describes as a broad learning process as she takes the reins at the Springfield chamber, succeeding Nancy Creed, who has stepped down officially after several years at the helm, but is assisting in the transition.
Indeed, while Szynal, who most recently served as director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and before that served as a legislative aide to the late state Rep. Peter Kocot, is certainly familiar with Springfield and Hampden County in general, she admits that there will be a ‘getting acquainted’ period awaiting her as she assumes the leadership position at the Springfield Regional Chamber.
“I know that I don’t know everything about Springfield,” Szynal, who started her new job July 5, told BusinessWest. “But I do know that I’ve had dozens of local businesses and community leaders offer to help me with that; Springfield is the economic engine of Western Massachusetts, and we need to make sure that we’re at the forefront, always at the cutting edge, of what’s happening, business-wise and legislatively.”
“The pandemic really did shine a spotlight on how critical it is to be part of that larger group and have that support and have that information that was so important.”
While scheduling meetings with those who are now calling and texting her, Szynal is also putting together a to-do list, one that includes a return of the chamber’s popular Super 60 program this fall — nominations are currently being accepted for that honor — as well as a resumption of the chamber’s ambassadors program (put on the shelf due to COVID), and, further down the line, planning of the first in-person Outlook lunch since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020.
Also on the list is creation of a new strategic plan — the last one was undertaken before the pandemic — and continuing and building upon Creed’s strong track record for not only keeping members well-informed, but making sure their voices are heard on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill.
“Nancy was, and still is a great voice for this region,” said Szynal. “We need to continue to make sure that our voice is heard, and the way you do that is by engaging the legislators and forming good relationships with stage agencies. The legislative piece is really important, and that’s where the Springfield Regional Chamber has a leg up, because it spends so much time making sure that it has put together a solid legislative agenda that supports what businesses need and makes sure that the voice at this end of the state is heard.”
Overall, Szynal takes the reins at an intriguing time for this chamber, and chambers in general.
Indeed, she said that the pandemic provided an opportunity for chambers to show their true value to members — and potential members — when it comes to not only providing needed information (although there was plenty of that) but for being a true resource for, and advocate for, the business community.
“I think there was a real affirmation of the value of chamber membership, particularly during the pandemic,” she said. “In Franklin County, when we went into the shut-down and my phone was ringing, it was non-members who were reaching out. Members of chambers were getting a lot of information during that tumultuous time on matters such as the Payroll Protection Program, who qualified, and how the loans were processed.”
This ability to step up and elevate their game, if you will, resulted in chambers being able to retain members and actually add new ones at a time of real challenge for businesses of all sizes and in every business sector, she went on, adding that both the Franklin County chamber and the Springfield Regional chamber have posted solid numbers the past few years, better than those from before the pandemic.
Moving forward, she said she plans to build off this momentum — and that’s what she prefers to call it — while also strengthening existing relationships with both other chambers and other economic-development-related agencies.
For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Szynal about her new appointment, the state of the Springfield Regional chamber, and the prospects for all chambers in the post-pandemic world.
Getting Down to Business
Recalling her shift from public service — she was a selectman in Hatfield and then in county government before joining Kocot as an aide — to running a chamber of commerce, Szynal said it was a relatively smooth, almost seamless transition. That’s because the work is similar in many respects, she noted, adding that in both arenas, there are large amounts of listening and advocacy involved.
Elaborating, she said that in her municipal roles, she got to work with many area economic-development-related agencies, such as the regional employment boards (now MassHire agencies), the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and others. She was able to take those relationships, as well as her understanding of the state Legislature and relationships she forged there, to her work with the Franklin County chamber.
“It was while I was working for representative Kocot that I really cut my teeth on learning about workforce development, economic development, the importance of community organizations and nonprofits, and the importance of public-private partnerships,” she explained. “And how all of that fits into economic development.
“I was also able to develop at that time really important relationships with key stakeholders throughout the region,” she went on. “So when Rep. Kocot passed away, I went to the Franklin County chamber, and all of those relationships and learning experiences were invaluable in helping me execute the mission there.”
Szynal is expecting a similarly smooth transition as she moves from the Franklin County chamber to the one in Springfield, because, while the two regions are certainly different when it comes to population, the chambers are of similar size, membership-wise. Meanwhile, most all of the issues and challenges within the business communities are the same, and so is the basic mission of the organizations — to serve members and advocate on their behalf.
“The main focus of a chamber is communication, relationships, and business support,” said Szynal. “Each chamber is a little different, but most focus on the same things. Through events we facilitate networking and collaboration among members, and we give businesses some visibility through our membership directory, our website, member spotlights, all of those things. The business-to-business relationships, business-to-community relationships, those are things that most chambers focus on, although each chamber adds their own flavor.”
In Springfield, the size and makeup of the chamber reflects the diversity of the city and its recent upward trajectory, said Szynal, noting that, despite the pandemic and its impact on every sector of the economy, Springfield is in a growth mode and seeing vitality in most aspects of its economy.
“Springfield has so much going for it — there’s been so much revitalization in the area,” she said. “The sectors of healthcare and education, tourism and hospitality, manufacturing … all of those things are so vital and so critical here. I’m really looking forward to diving in and learning all that I don’t know and putting some fresh eyes on the chamber and the region.”
As noted earlier, she arrives at an intriguing time for this chamber, and all chambers. While most have become smaller staff-wise — several, including the Springfield Regional Chamber, are essentially one-person operations — there is a new vibrancy for many due to the relevancy gained during the pandemic.
“There is a lot of opportunity here. I have a lot on my to-do list, but I can’t wait to dive in.”
“The pandemic really did shine a spotlight on how critical it is to be part of that larger group and have that support and have that information that was so important,” Szynal told BusinessWest, adding that the challenge, and opportunity, moving forward is to hammer home the importance of chambers during what could be called more-normal, but still quite challenging times.
Indeed, Szynal said businesses large and small are still being impacted by a number of issues, many of them COVID after-effects including supply-chain issues, soaring prices, the early signs of recession, and, especially, a workforce crisis that doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
“Look at the challenges businesses are facing today that they didn’t have to before — supply chain issues, fuel prices are going to be crushing to some businesses, workforce issues, childcare, and more,” she said, adding that in such times, being part of an organization like the chamber, which can make its voice heard in Boston and Washington can be beneficial to businesses of all sizes.
Speaking of more normal, Szynal said the chamber will be turning back the clock to 2019 with regard to its events and many of its programs. On the events side of the ledger, the agency has started to stage in-person gatherings again — the annual meeting at the Springfield Sheraton drew more than 250 guests — and one of its largest annual get-togethers is back on the docket for the fall.
This is the program known as Super 60, a compilation of the region’s most successful companies based on performance in two categories — Total Revenue and Revenue Growth. One of the chamber’s most important revenue generators, Super 60 was put on ice in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, and Szynal believes the lengthy pause will generate some interest in the popular program, slated for Oct. 28 at the MassMutual Center.
The same could be said for the chamber’s annual Outlook lunch, the region’s largest gathering of area business leaders. It has been staged remotely the past two years, and Szynal is looking forward to that tradition, and many other annual gatherings, returning to an in-person format.
“Outlook, the Beacon Hill and Washington summits, the Government Reception, the Mayors Forum … it’s so important to get back to doing those again because they provide information and offer opportunities for businesses to be together,” she explained. “I’m looking forward to being back full steam.”
While planning those events, she has many other items on her to-do list, starting with those meetings with area civic, business, and economic development leaders.
And there will also be work to create a new strategic plan for the institution.
“The last one was done three years ago, so it would be time to do another one anyway,” she noted. “But with everything that’s happened in the last two and a half years, it’s a really good time to evaluate the mission of the chamber and how we’re meeting that mission.”
The Bottom Line
From a personal perspective, Szynal said she chooses to look at the next stop on her career path as an opportunity and not necessarily as a challenge.
It will be an opportunity to continue the kind of work she has been doing for the past several years in several different capacities.
“I really love connecting with people, learning about their business, and learning about their business needs,” she explained. “I love that aspect of any job, that’s why I loved working with Peter Kocot, because I did so much constituent work; this is what I’m looking forward to.
“There is a lot of opportunity here,” she went on. “I have a lot on my to-do list, but I can’t wait to dive in.”
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]