Getting Down to Business
Taking over leadership of a chamber of commerce is always fraught with challenges, especially in a community as rich in diverse businesses and nonprofits as Northampton, and also stepping into the large shoes of the previous executive director, who served for 27 years. But Vince Jackson, with his deep background in entrepreneurship, business development, and marketing, is proving to be an ideal fit, and has already begun to shift and deepen perceptions about what a chamber can be.
Vince Jackson has been preparing for his new role for more than 30 years.
“What attracted me to this job is, well, it’s a bit of a sweet spot,” said Jackson, who took the reins as executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce last June.
He was referring to an intriguing mix of careers leading up to that point, including a decade and a half in corporate America; he worked for 10 years as a senior product manager at PepsiCo, two years as an assistant product manager at Kraft Foods, and three years as a senior systems analyst at Procter & Gamble.
“When it comes to engaging and interacting with our corporate community here,” he told BusinessWest, “I understand large organizations like Cooley Dickinson Health Care, I understand Coca-Cola’s Northampton’s operation and the challenges they face, I understand L3Harris.”
Equally important — or perhaps moreso, considering the makeup of the region’s economy — was his two-decade experience with Marketing Moves, the company he founded in 2000, which provided client companies with strategic marketing support.
“For the last 19 years before I took this job, I was a marketing consultant,” he explained. “I targeted Fortune 50 corporations, but I also partnered and did subcontracting work with a lot of small businesses. And I was running a small business myself, so when it comes to understanding the joys and pain points and opportunities of the small-business owner, I can relate — regardless of the industry — and also bring some of my marketing experience that may benefit them in unique ways.”
In the meantime, he was also amassing a great deal of nonprofit board leadership experience, and Northampton and its environs have a rich base of such organizations, he added. In fact, among some 525 chamber members, close to 50 are nonprofits. “So understanding the nonprofit arena is important.”
“When it comes to engaging and interacting with our corporate community here. I understand large organizations like Cooley Dickinson Health Care, I understand Coca-Cola’s Northampton’s operation and the challenges they face, I understand L3Harris.”
In short, Jackson’s background made him an easy choice to replace Suzanne Beck, who had led the chamber for 27 years before her retirement last year.
He took the reins at an interesting time, as the chamber was beginning to activate a new strategic plan. Through that process, preparing a marketing plan of his own, and communicating with members, he quickly learned an important lesson: “The things that got us here won’t get us there. So we’ve got to do things differently.
“Our vision for this community is that we really want to make it a place for everybody,” he went on. “Northampton is a very welcoming community, and we want to make sure this is also a prosperous community and that all the things that make it special really cascade through Northampton and across the community.”
Part of that vision is recognizing and promoting the city’s calling cards, such as its array of eclectic, mostly locally owned businesses. “Most of the retail shops offer things you might not find at the mall, or on Amazon. That’s the kind of thing that makes this place special and unique.”
It’s also a welcoming and inclusive community, he added, and one with a heart for advocacy, as evidenced by the number of nonprofits in the area. “They provide a lot of services that are so needed in a community like this, and you see the impact of that kind of support when you are out in the neighborhoods.”
With those strengths in mind, the chamber’s new strategic vision emphasizes two key points: that the health of the economy and the health of the community are one, and the chamber must include and reflect that community.
“The mission of the chamber, in layman’s terms, is to be a matchmaker,” Jackson told BusinessWest. “We want to be that catalyst for bringing people together, bringing organizations together, doing innovations, collaborations, and anything that moves our economy and community forward. You’ll hear us say, over and over again, that when the economy thrives, our community thrives, and when our community thrives, the economy thrives. That’s our core belief, and that’s really what the mission of the chamber is all about — driving the economic impact and the community influence to make that happen.”
The plan seeks to boost Northampton’s economic profile — both internally, growing the business base, and externally, drawing more tourism — by targeting five specific audiences.
The first is arts and culture, an area Northampton and its surrounding towns has been long known for, with its raft of museums, music venues, historic-heritage sites, and host of resident writers, artists, and craftspeople. The second is outdoor recreation, which encompasses everything from bike paths, fishing, and boating during the warm seasons to skiing and other winter sports.
Both those realms draw heavily from New York, Boston, and other urban centers, which are home to both people with an interest in the arts and weekenders looking to get away and be outdoors. And on the outdoor front especially, economic-development leaders from Hampshire and Franklin counties have often joined forces to promote a wider swath of the Pioneer Valley.
This stretch of Main Street in Northampton is typical of the city: the odd chain amid a series of unique, eclectic, locally owned businesses.
The third audience is people with connections to the Five Colleges, which collectively serve some 50,000 students each year, roughly 10% of those international, which feeds into the chamber’s fourth targeted audience, the international market. The fifth audience is the LGBTQ community, which has long identified Greater Northampton as a welcoming place.
“We at the chamber want to be the local experts on the economy, and one of the ways we do that is through our tourism efforts,” Jackson went on, noting that the chamber gets an annual grant from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism for marketing and promotional activities and programs that drive tourism to the area.
“And we see enormous impacts on our economy when we do that, when we give people reasons to come to Hampshire County and Northampton,” he went on, adding that Northampton itself sees about 50% of the regional tax dollars from tourism.
“The other way we drive the economy to offer opportunities for entrepreneurs to get established and find ways to make this a business-friendly place by working with all of our business owners and the city to make this a good place to start a business and be successful,” he explained.
One example can be found in the burgeoning cannabis industry, as NETA, the first retail dispensary in Massachusetts to sell for adult use, has been a notable success story since opening 15 months ago, and the city has about a dozen licenses pending for businesses in all areas of the cannabis trade, from cultivation to production to sales.
“When the economy thrives, our community thrives, and when our community thrives, the economy thrives. That’s our core belief, and that’s really what the mission of the chamber is all about — driving the economic impact and the community influence to make that happen.”
To better connect and assist businesses and entrepreneurs of all kinds, the chamber recently presented more than a dozen free business workshops, or “knowledge sessions,” Jackson called them, in which business leaders volunteered their time to share information and ideas. These included a look at digital marketing, a session dealing with different generations in the workplace, and another that brought beauty, health, and wellness businesses together.
Crafting a new strategic plan is daunting when a chamber has had one director for more than a quarter-century, especially when a new director is coming in, he said, which is why the chamber treated 2019 as a transition year. But there were some notable success stories.
“For example, I found it a joy to partner with [state Sen.] Jo Comerford, who was working hard for earmarks for the nonprofit community in Western Massachusetts,” he said, noting that, right before Christmas, she was able to secure $150,000 for a handful of nonprofits, three of which are chamber members. “The chamber will be the fiscal agent when those funds come through. This was the kind of matchmaking we’re proud to do.”
The Right Fit
Ruth Griggs, a member of the chamber’s board of directors who was on the search committee that brought Jackson on board, told the Daily Hampshire Gazette last spring that he was a deeply experienced entrepreneur with a balance of skills and characteristics chamber members appreciate.
Jackson, in turn, said one of his goals was to move past being just a membership organization to more of a “partnership organization” — getting people to move from being just dues-paying members to becoming more engaged with the chamber and the community.
Today, he says that has, indeed, been a priority, citing the recent opening — a couple storefronts away from the chamber offices on Pleasant Street — of Wurst Haus, the most recent new eatery from the restaurant group led by Peter Picknelly and Andy Yee, and the chamber’s outreach to them.
“When new businesses come into the community, we want to make the sure the chamber is partnering with them, and that they’re also excited about partnering with the chamber,” Jackson said. “It’s a two-way exchange that will benefit all of Northampton. We make sure we invite them and introduce them to all the work the chamber does.”
Part of that is encouraging members to participate in committees that shape much of the chamber’s direction, including a finance committee, an ambassador committee that welcomes new businesses, and an economic-development committee of about three dozen members that meets monthly to talk about projects big and small.
Members of that latter committee include “seasoned business owners and young ones, nonprofits, local politicians, bank presidents — it’s a good, diverse mix of folks who add a point of view that’s unique, and when we come together, we’re all better collectively,” he said.
In a thriving, 21st-century chamber, he told BusinessWest, members aren’t just dues-paying entities, but true investors — of time and talent, not just money — in the chamber and in the community.
“The chamber is run by volunteers,” he said, noting that his team includes four full-time staff and three part-timers (the latter mainly managing the visitor center), so members who want to be deeply involved are critical. “There are a lot of connections to be made, and our role is really to be that catalyst and bring people together to make it all happen.”
If members are willing to work toward that goal, Jackson said, then the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce — and chambers in general — still have a key role to play in their communities.
“People expect the chamber to be the centerpoint, and historically we have been. But it wasn’t as open an organization as it is now,” he said, noting, again, that the endgame is a thriving economy and a thriving community. “They’re inextricably linked; they go hand in hand.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]