John Scott used to be a tireless networker.
A vice president at Closed End Fund Advisors , Scott was at one time a member of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, an assistant director of his Business Networking International (BNI) group, the director of his university’s alumni group and a member of the Rotary Club.
But after spending years attending networking events, he’s decided some of that time could be better spent. In the process, he learned a few lessons lots of Richmond business owners and executives have learned.
“The advantage of the Chamber is you meet a lot of people quickly. The disadvantage is you meet a lot of people quickly,” Scott said, meaning it can be hard to develop more intimate contacts at Chamber events. On the other hand, the Chamber can be a great way to meet a lot of new contacts, he said.
A membership to the GRCC costs anywhere from $500 to upwards of $10,000 depending on the size of the business and the degree of involvement.
But when it comes to using that membership, some business professionals – and many small business owners in particular – have mixed reactions to the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s utility.
Obviously, on a topic as broad as the value of the local chamber of commerce, opinions will vary widely. Business owners repeatedly said that they often join because it’s customary for businesses to do so, and they often continue their membership out of similar persuasions.
Some said they see little rewards, and others go so far as to say the Chamber is unhelpful and not worth the membership fee at all – especially in leaner times.
Among the most common complaints: That the Chamber is a political body that has the interests of the bigger companies at heart over the smaller ones. (Sources who were critical of the Chamber would not speak for attribution).
There are 1,950 businesses in the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. Some are local affiliates of national or international companies. Others are Fortune 1000 companies based here. But most are smaller businesses. At least 40 are non-profits. Forty-eight are restaurants.
Alternative networking groups exist. For meeting new contacts face-to-face, professionals can attend alumni organizations, religious meetings, athletic outings or online social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn (click here to read more about online networking). And then there’s Business Networking International, perhaps the biggest competitor to the chamber. A privately-owned networking group, it encourages members to attend weekly meetings and actively seek referrals for one-another.
Neither it nor the Chamber proved worthy of Scott’s time or money over the long haul.
“We noticed we weren’t getting any clients from Richmond or Virginia,” Scott said.
He has since given up his membership to the Chamber and to BNI because few local people signed up for his company’s services. Instead, he has a newsletter that goes out to 2,000 subscribers around the globe, which has proven more effective.
Several small business owners questioned said they look at a cost benefit analysis. In March, Chris Palmer joined GRCC to promote Kenmont Design Group, the graphic and website design firm he owns and manages.
“It just seemed like something I should do,” Palmer said.
“Being a part of the Chamber – it will pay dividends in the sense of having our name out there with a reputable organization.”
Palmer also has certain targets in mind.
“I think I’ll know it was worth it if we’ve established enough contacts and generated enough business based on the membership.”
Keys to making it worthwhile:
So far, Palmer has been too busy running his business to attend any events, which is a theme echoed by many business owners.
That’s probably not the best way to take advantage of a Chamber membership, said Jim Roman, who established the Central Virginia BNI groups eight years ago. He’s since sold the groups but continues to consult business owners about how to network.
“The Chamber is a great way to meet hundreds of people in a short period of time,” Roman said. He usually recommends it to new businesses. But a business owner or manager has to work hard at it and attend events regularly, which can be hard.
“It’s working on a network that’s critical. Most people don’t get on a committee. Most just show up and try to sell people,” Roman said.
He advises that members work hard on giving referrals and helping other members. Eventually the favors will come full circle. “How many dates does it take until you know if someone really cares?” Roman said, making a dating analogy. “People don’t realize that networking is like dating. The fourth time, you’re compelled to want to help me back.”
It’s also important to find out what events are worthwhile, Roman said. “If it’s a sole proprietor, it’s the breakfast breaks. If it’s a manger, then it’s the InVisions or Business Council. The who’s who of Richmond is the Chairman’s Circle.”
To join or not:
Pat Whitlow, who owns Richmond Office Interiors with her husband, Ken, said she has not attended any events yet, but she sees value in being listed in the book of members. She joined earlier this year.
“It’s also an opportunity to participate in shows and events,” said Whitlow said. “I feel it’s important to be involved in the community and for people to know you’re involved.”
Typically, businesses that don’t rely on local customers abstain from joining. Mark Grossman, who owns the sports insurance company Monument Sports Group as well as a soccer bubble in Richmond, SCOR, said that he’s never been contacted by a Chamber sales person for SCOR.
“I guess I’d ask, how active are they when new businesses open? How do they get new members, and when running a new business, how would being a member of the Chamber benefit us?”
Some Chamber Stats:
According to the 2006 Form 990 filed with the IRS:
Former Chamber Preisdent Jim Dunn earned $320,000 in salary.
The Chamber brought in $1.9 million in dues and assessments in 2006.