SPECIAL REPORT: Tucson Metro Chamber

Change Ahead

Tucson Metro Chamber Driving Pro-Business Initiatives

By Joan Liess

Tucson is experiencing a Copernican shift. The way we view our local universe is changing dramatically. This onetime small town is energized and expanding its role in the world.

The Tucson region rightly values its unique natural and cultural assets – yet recognizes its quality of lifestyle is reliant upon a robust local economy.

A revitalized Tucson Metro Chamber is leading the way for positive economic change by focusing on the nexus of healthy, growing businesses and prosperity for all Tucsonans. That plan is to focus, focus, focus on pro-business initiatives.

A shift in the chamber’s intensity to foster a pro-business climate began when current President and CEO Mike Varney took the helm in May 2011.

Like many local businesses at that time, the chamber’s status quo was tenuous. The economy was slowly recovering from a recession that had hurt businesses and property values, escalated unemployment and dampened consumer confidence.

Not surprisingly, the chamber’s membership and revenue streams plummeted in the wake of those troubled waters. It was clearly time to refocus and rebuild.

“Mike brought a lot of different ideas based on his experience in other chambers and his own personal experience,” current Board Chairman Kurt Wadlington said. “Businesses were struggling and they were looking for solutions. Now we have a guy with a new perspective. That’s been good for Tucson.”

The chamber concluded its 2012-13 fiscal year in June – under the leadership of then Board Chairman Bruce Dusenberry – with a litany of accomplishments and an improved balance sheet. The investor curve was reversed as small businesses re-upped and the top-tier Chairman’s Circle expanded from a dozen companies to nearly 80.

Clearly Tucson businesses began recognizing the value of investing in the chamber and that drove this renaissance. The chamber is 100 percent funded by member investments and special events.


“We get things done”

“We are putting on a full-court press to bring positive pro-business changes to Southern Arizona,” Varney said.  “Companies invest in us because we demonstrated that we get things done.”

Just ask chamber investor Emmett O’Leary, president of O’Leary Construction, a site preparation company with 60 employees. In 2008 “I dropped out of everything because I was in survival mode,” explained O’Leary, who recently rejoined after the chamber helped him overcome some roadblocks with the City of Tucson on a permit issue.

“All I heard was ‘no, no, no,’” said O’Leary, whose experience mirrors that of other business owners when navigating governmental processes. “I was impressed with how much the chamber cared about me and my business.”

The snafu O’Leary experienced was a systemic predicament, according to some business owners. The concern drove the chamber’s agenda during its last fiscal year. “Our goal is to change the local culture to say ‘yes’ to business opportunities and then work out the fine details – rather than starting from a position of ‘no’ and making the opportunity justify itself,” said Varney.

Robert Medler, VP of government affairs, points to the chamber’s creation of the Joint Business Objectives as a positive step towards improving outcomes when dealing with local governments. “New York City and Portland had established a Business Bill of Rights – which inspired us to do something similar,” Medler said.

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry readily bought into the initiative. “Our document is based on give-and-take on both sides,” explained Medler, who included the development directors for both the city and county in the process. “What are the basic things that need to happen to make this process work for both government and business?”

Both the city and county now have poster-sized Joint Business Objectives documents on display in their development offices. “A lot of the problems were simple,” said Medler.  “It’s a common-sense starting point.”


Face Time With Top City, 

County Leaders

The chamber also instituted the Interface forum offering regular opportunities to speak directly with top city and county officials about public policy and doing business in Southern Arizona.

The Interface sessions rotate between the city and county leadership. Rothschild met with chamber investors in August, with the next session scheduled for Nov. 21. Huckelberry and/or Board Chairman Ramon Valadez are scheduled Oct. 31 and again on Jan. 23.

During the hour-long exchange, politicos can get direct feedback about the city’s latest policy decisions or current initiatives such as the county’s proposed aerospace and defense corridor and its proposed bond package.

“You get an hour of direct face-to-face time with this region’s senior political leaders,” Medler said.

If capacity attendance is a measure of success, investors clearly value the productive meeting of minds at these forums. The chamber encourages openness, transparency and robust discussion.


Advancing Pro-business Initiatives

The chamber recently commissioned a comprehensive study conducted by Smith & Dale, a local nonprofit consulting firm, to evaluate its effectiveness and set its agenda based on the priorities of investors.

“Businesses place a very high value on the chamber being their voice in the halls of government,” said Wadlington, who added that more than 100 business people were interviewed as part of this commissioned study.

Wadlington said the findings were “a third-party, environmental scan to get insight on things we are doing that are valuable – and things that weren’t as important so we shouldn’t spend valuable time on those.”

Key to advancing pro-business initiatives via the ballot box is the Southern Arizona Business Political Action Committee, the political action arm of the chamber. The chamber formed its political action committee in 1978 and was certified as a Super-PAC in 2012 as its means to en-dorse candidates and support or oppose issues.

“Just the creation of that PAC sends a powerful message that not only are we paying attention, but in terms of finances, we’re armed and ready,” Varney said. During the 2012 election cycle, 94 percent of candidates supported by SAZPAC won their elections.

With the blessing of Varney and SAZPAC’s board, Medler formalized and expanded the candidate evaluation process in 2011 by creating the candidate evaluation committee comprised of chamber investors equally identified as Republicans, Democrats and Independents. The committee also mirrors the blend of ages, gender, ethnicity and industry sectors of chamber investors.

“If you take out that one person who is a really strong R and his or her score, and one person who’s a really strong D and his or her score, everyone else is almost always within the first standard of deviation,” Medler explained. “They’re all pretty close when it comes to the business issues – and that’s what matters as a chamber.”

Medler invites all viable local and state candidates to participate in the chamber’s vetting process – which includes submitting a written questionnaire or track record (for incumbents), engaging in a scheduled interview conducted by the candidate evaluation committee and providing empirical information about his or her campaign.

After evaluating the data, the committee submits its recommendations to SAZPAC’s board which reviews the collected information and considers the committee’s endorsements in earnest when making its final decisions.

Medler admitted, “It took a few years to get the process just right – but it’s working well now.”

Focus on Workforce

Pro-business public policy is effective stimulus for business growth. Equally as important is a workforce fit to convert growth into tangible, quality-of-life benefits for both businesses and our community.

The workforce challenges of tomorrow are already upon us. As a result of a dwindling pool of skilled workers, 3.5 million current job openings are not being filled by U.S. companies, according to a new study published by the Apollo Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix. Compounding this problem, one of the most educated segments of our workforce – the baby-boom generation – is reaching retirement age.

Thanks to the University of Arizona, Tucson can call dibs on high-end college graduates and advanced-degree talent. The UA is the major source of engineers for Raytheon Missile Systems, the region’s largest private employer.

Conversely, Tucson was the sixth-poorest of the nation’s top 500 metropolitan areas in 2011 with a poverty rate of 20.4 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data – despite the fact that quality jobs in aerospace, mining, manufacturing and other trade professions went unfilled.

The chamber intends to be an active partner in efforts to cross this chasm. “We’ve reached a critical point. We have to move ahead,” said Gregg Johnson, campus director for the University of Phoenix in Tucson, who was tapped to head a new chamber committee charged with addressing workforce readiness and education – including strategies to reduce the high school dropout rate.

“How do we put people into the careers they want – and more importantly – match them to the careers of the future?”  Johnson said. That’s the big question here and nationwide. “We have the educational resources but we don’t always have the trade development that we need.” The Joint Technical Education District is one key to developing this segment of the workforce for the future.

“We want to keep the triangle of business, education and government working together to make sure this happens.”


Build Partnerships Pima Community College is poised to step up its role in vocational education. PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert, who took office on July 1, is a proven innovator in that arena and is certain to be an influential voice in the chamber’s efforts.

Lambert is a founding member and current board chair of the National Coalition of Certification Centers, known as NC3, a corporately supported organization that emphasizes increasing the competencies of the workforce in three key sectors – transportation, energy and aviation.


“We’re going to bring PCC into the NC3 network,” said Lambert who explained the two entities will work together with industry to develop curriculum and faculty currency, while building an assessment instrument to validate that the training programs for Pima students meet the needs of industry.

“Together, that’s the key. That’s a big change,” Lambert emphasized, referencing the rarity of educators and industries collaborating as full partners. “It’s not, ‘My way as the college; we’re going to do it and trust us.’ It’s a reciprocal relationship.”

Companies like Snap-on and Trane are hands-on in the NC3 program. “As we strengthen our relations with these multi-nationals, the hope is that it’s going to strengthen the small businesses here that sell and service their products,” said Lambert.

“Pima’s role is to make sure that we’re producing high-quality workers for those businesses.” Lambert also intends to participate in economic recruitment endeavors.

“We need investments to the region that are not tied to state and federal dollars,” he said. “If the community of Tucson wants to attract a large scale manufacturer, for example, PCC can be a big part of the supply chain.”

The Pima County Joint Technical Education District is also pivotal for training the new workforce. JTED works with business and industry to not only teach the technical skills for students to succeed in college and careers, but also workplace – or soft skills – so students know how to interact with coworkers and supervisors professionally.  At a recent Arizona Technology Council meeting, high-tech firms said those skills are paramount.

Pima County JTED offers career and technical-education programs to more than 13,000 students each year at 34 high schools and nine central campus locations. Its Business and Industry Advisories represent 25 program areas, providing curriculum and equipment guidance as well as internships and job shadowing experiences for students.


Investors, Revenues Up

Tucson Metro Chamber chose the tagline, “Growing Businesses. Building Communities.” The theme is not an idle platitude. It’s the organization’s marching orders from its investors.

Lori Banzhaf, VP of business development said the number of investors hovers around 1,400 businesses which employ more than 110,000 in Tucson and Pima County.

That’s a 7 percent increase from the recessionary fallout – with 75 percent of those designated as small businesses with 25 or fewer full-time employees. Better yet, revenues grew by almost 20 percent, in part because investments in the Chairman’s Circle increased nearly seven fold.

Banzhaf, who came onboard in the fall of 2011, is also charged with planning and operating chamber events – a key component of investor retention. “We created a strategic layout of events aligned with our goals that deliver high value to our investors,” she said.

Realignments included handing over the Man and Woman of the Year program to the Greater Tucson Leadership organization, which made “perfect sense,” Banzhaf said, as did eliminating fundraising golf tournaments from the schedule. On the flip side, acquiring the Copper Cactus Awards – which recognize innovative businesses, many of them chamber investors – was a good fit.

Banzhaf avowed that, “The number one reason more businesses are not chamber investors is because they haven’t been asked.”  Her message to prospective investors going forward is clear: “We heard you. You’ve told us you haven’t invested because you haven’t been asked. I’m asking you now to stand with the chamber as we move our community forward.”

The chamber’s “asking” is codified by the Business Expansion and Retention project, known as BEAR, which sets up exchanges of information between chamber volunteers and key business decision makers in a person-to-person setting. The project targets businesses with 100 or more full-time equivalent employees. By year’s end, the BEAR committee will present a white paper of its findings to the board and community.

The chamber, which has roots in this community dating to 1896, operates with an executive committee of five officers, plus 20 other members of the board of directors and a staff of 14. There are six key committees addressing specific priorities in the year ahead.

Numbers don’t lie and the uptick in revenues speaks volumes. “There’s a definite reinvigoration of our investment base,” Varney said.

“Our investors expect us to do whatever is necessary to promote a strong local economy. Addressing government affairs and quality workforce issues are clearly the top priorities. We are putting on a full-court press to bring positive pro-business changes to Southern Arizona,” he said.

Varney summed up the chamber’s positioning in the investor-based nonprofit marketplace. “We don’t just want to be known as an organization that does things – we want to be known as an organization that gets things done.”


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