Accelerating the Local Economy

By David B. Pittman –

The business of the Tucson Metro Chamber is business.

It’s about serving small business and big business – and everything in between. It’s about meeting the membership’s needs, helping them get the job done and providing value for their investment in the Chamber.

That’s why Chamber President and CEO Michael Varney and his staff call Chamber members “investors.”

Look at the Tucson Metro Chamber’s organization chart and at the top you will see the investor base of more than 1,450 firms that employ some 110,000 full-time workers. That base includes everything from large, well-known corporations to home-based mom-and-pop companies. Small business makes up 75 percent of the membership, which mirrors the overall metro area business community.

Those investors are represented by the Chamber’s board of directors, which make up the second tier of the organization chart. It’s not until you get to the third tier that you get to paid staff and volunteers.

In the three years since Varney became president and CEO, the Chamber has engaged in numerous outreach and research projects to learn what Chamber investors want and need so the chamber can address those issues.

“We’ve internalized what our investors’ issues are, their likes and preferences, their needs and challenges. We are on a constant mission to reinvent ourselves to be relevant and provide value to the people who pay us to be a chamber of commerce,” Varney said.

Varney is widely viewed as a hard-charging, straight-talking, no-nonsense representative of the business community who listens to his investors and is determined to get results that benefit them.

“Since taking the helm at the Chamber, Mike Varney and the entire board of directors have revitalized the Chamber, making it a driving force for positive change affecting the business and political landscape in Tucson,” said Craig Kaufman, office co-managing partner for the law firm of Quarles & Brady.

Varney and the Chamber staff are dedicated and working hard “to make Tucson a more vibrant business community,” Kaufman said, adding that the Chamber “is on track and moving in the right direction.”

From a financial and membership standpoint, Varney has been extremely successful during difficult economic times. Overall membership has grown steadily during his tenure and membership among larger companies has skyrocketed.

“When I got here, the number of investors that I would call major investors – at our Chairman level or higher – could be counted on one hand,” Varney said. “Today, there are more than 100 major investors at those higher levels.”

The result is a big-league jump in revenue that has put the Chamber on solid financial footing following tough times experienced during the Great Recession.

“The Chamber brand is back, the faith is back, the confidence is back and the value is back,” Varney said.

Virtually every program or action the Tucson Metro Chamber undertakes is motivated by a commitment to forward one of these top four priorities:

• To super-serve small business
• To lead government relations and public policy
• To help develop the local economy
• To improve workforce readiness and education

“We just completed a focus group, a research project with small businesses, to find out what they like about the Chamber, what their challenges are, what the Chamber should be doing that it’s not doing and what the Chamber should be doing better,” Varney said.

One result of that research is the creation of an ambitious new program – an online help desk called We Can Help.

“The symbol for this program is a life preserver,” Varney said. “We want any business of any size to think of the Chamber first if they have a problem. If any of our investors have a problem, we want them to give us a written submission online.”

It’s a one-click portal to get to the We Can Help desk.

“We will solve the problem if we can,” Varney said. “If not, we will find somebody who can and we will triangulate the relationship.”
The We Can Help program is underway. The marketing program, already outlined, will roll out around the first of next year.

The Chamber also has programs to help small businesses make money, save money and network with potential clients.

“One of the ways we help small business make money is by holding federal procurement seminars,” Varney said. “We’ve done four or five in the last couple of years and every one of them has been completely full. Even though the federal government is tightening its belt, it will continue to be a big player in Tucson. Many federal agencies and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base are looking for small businesses to work with – but there is a special protocol for doing that. Small businesses that don’t know that protocol will find it difficult to do business with this very big customer called the federal government.”

The Chamber has several special discount programs that help investor businesses save money. One of the most successful is the Chamber’s CopperPoint worker’s compensation bonus dividend program, which rewards businesses with top safety records.

“It was a real surprise when we received our bonus check earlier this year from the workers compensation dividend program,” said Thomas Bohn, contract supervisor at DVA Consulting, a company that supervises and maintains professional employees for multiple clients in multiple fields. “We got back a significant amount of money. In fact, it exceeded our Chamber membership dues – by far. Considering how much we saved, it would be unwise for us not to be Chamber members.”

Last year, in a fact-finding effort dubbed the Business Expansion and Retention Project – now known as BEAR – the chamber polled leaders of larger businesses. Chamber investor volunteers surveyed 129 CEOs of companies doing business in metro Tucson that have 100 or more full-time employees.

“Those surveyed spoke clearly and loudly,” Varney said. “They want a better interface between the private sector and the public sector. They also want the streets and roads in the City of Tucson and in Pima County to be fixed – yesterday. They are tired of excuses. They are tired of seeing money diverted to other things when that is what everybody wants, whether as part of the business community or as a private citizen. Nobody wants to drive on these streets. We are working with our elected officials to make this a higher priority.”

Not only is the Chamber leading the effort to improve Tucson roads, it has also created a program it calls Interface, which provides business executives four opportunities a year to communicate directly to Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and four opportunities to speak with Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

“We encourage openness, transparency and robust discussion,” Varney said.

The Tucson Metro Chamber government affairs division is responsible for advocating on behalf of the business community with federal, state and local government entities to ensure an atmosphere in which businesses can thrive. The Chamber also attempts to recruit and elect business-friendly leaders to ensure an atmosphere in which businesses can succeed, create jobs and build a prosperous community.

It also goes to bat for its investors.

For instance, the Chamber helped push a bill through the Arizona Legislature that was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer that encourages and improves the viability of commercial space flight in the state.

World View Enterprises, a Tucson-based company now in the test-flight stage, intends to launch passengers as high as 120,000 feet, which it describes as “the edge of space” in a balloon-powered capsule.

Taber MacCallum, chief technology officer of World View and one of the original crew members at Biosphere 2, said the Chamber played an instrumental role in the passage of HB 2163.

“During the last legislative session, the Tucson Metro Chamber played a central role in getting the bill passed,” MacCallum said. “They lobbied state lawmakers and recruited other business organizations to support our cause. They were there whenever we needed help.”

World View’s first test flights, which have been done with scaled-down flying equipment, have been successful. The company plans on testing a full-sized balloon and para-wing early next year and for commercial operations to begin at the end of 2016.

MacCallum said future commercial flights will carry six passengers and two crew members. Several flights are already booked at a cost of $75,000 per passenger. MacCallum predicts the cost will drop significantly over time.

“We want to fly from Arizona locations. We want to set up manufacturing of balloons in Tucson. We are working with the Chamber to make that happen as well,” he said. “The Chamber has their fingers in a lot of pies.”

One of those pies is special events. The Chamber hosts more than 50 of them annually to provide businesses with the opportunity to network, make strategic connections and learn from business leaders, elected officials and industry experts.

In January, after delivering the State of the State message at the Arizona Capitol, the governor will travel to Tucson to deliver the Southern Arizona version of that speech at a luncheon hosted by the Chamber. In March, the Chamber will host a similar luncheon in which Mayor Rothschild will deliver the State of the City address.

Other major Chamber events include the Multi-Chamber Business Expo, the Chairman’s Breakfast, the Copper Cactus Awards and the Holiday Legislative Reception. There are also monthly Chamber XChange networking mixers held at investor businesses.

These events offer investors opportunities to reach a broad segment of the local business community.

“Aligning your business with Tucson Metro Chamber events through sponsorships puts your company in front of business professionals and civic leaders,” Varney said. “Regardless of your company’s size or business objectives, there are marketing opportunities to meet your company objectives.”

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