Tucson Metro Chamber Setting the Bar High

By Romi Carrell Wittman –

Ranked in Top 1 Percent Nationwide

We have a member of the elite in our midst. It’s truly the best of the best, the cream of the crop, and it’s been here, advocating for local business and building stronger communities, for 121 years.

Last spring, the Tucson Metro Chamber was awarded five-star accreditation by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business federation that represents the interests of more than three million businesses across the nation.

The five-star rating is bestowed on only the very best chamber of commerce organizations in the nation. Of 7,000 chambers in the United States, only 106 have received a five-star rating. This puts the Tucson Metro Chamber in the top 1 percent of chambers of commerce nationwide.

This recognition is all the more meaningful because in this day and age of the internet and social media, many chambers have struggled to find a focus and ways to provide benefit to their community. The Tucson Metro Chamber’s robust lineup of programs, active committees and task forces – which are made up of Chamber members and one or two Chamber staff – makes the Chamber unique among its peers. These efforts are central to promoting the economic well-being of Tucson and Southern Arizona.

President and CEO Mike Varney came to Tucson to lead the Chamber in 2011. Since then he has recruited and mentored a staff of 21 that has initiated new programs and laid a solid foundation. It’s ready to move forward under new leadership after Varney retires.

Today the Chamber represents some 1,500 businesses in Tucson and Southern Arizona – 60 percent of which are small businesses. Together these small businesses with 25 or fewer employees employ more than 160,000 people and represent a major economic force in the community.

The Chamber advocates for its members, which it calls investors, by fostering a business-friendly environment. This advocacy includes interacting frequently with local government, supporting critical ballot initiatives and providing relationship building and educational opportunities to its member-investors.

“Leading and advocating for a successful community” is the Chamber’s mission. This is evident in virtually everything the Chamber does. Here are some highlights:

Economic Expansion and Job Creation – The Chamber steadfastly promotes regional economic expansion. It established the Coalition Against Retail Theft, a convening of retailers, law enforcement and prosecutors, to address Pima County’s nearly $6 million in organized retail theft losses last year. It also established the Project Prosperity Task Force to encourage more understanding of and cooperation between business and government.

Workforce Development – Workforce development is often cited by businesses as its most critical challenge. Three Chamber programs address this need: Intern-to-Career gives high school students paid internships in a trade, preparing them for employment after graduation. Earn to Learn makes a college education possible for low-income students across the state. Students save a specified amount of money each semester, then receive supplemental tuition support. The Chamber’s newest program is the Talent Recruitment Task Force, a group of major employers the Chamber will serve by creating a talent and recruitment toolkit to help them be more successful.

Public Policy – The Chamber is well-known for its successful Public Policy efforts, supported by its Public         Affairs Council. The council communicates critical policy issues to the business community in lay terms, making it fast and easy to digest complex information. The council also works with local businesses to get employees engaged in the election process.

Leadership Development – The Chamber is committed to empowering new leaders by immersing them in the culture and business atmosphere of the region.  The programs include Greater Tucson Leadership, Emerging Leaders Council and the New Executive Welcome.

Investor Ambassadors – A chamber of commerce is only as good as the members who constitute its ranks. That’s why the Chamber reaches out to its membership to ensure that its investors meet business colleagues and have access to the local business knowledge and resources that can help them be more effective.

Word of the Chamber’s success and influence has spread. The staff frequently receives calls from other chambers inquiring about business best practices and other issues. They also are invited to present at regional and national conferences. In this way, the Chamber is setting or raising the bar on a nationwide scale.

The five-star rating by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce underscores this success. The accreditation process “is a very rigorous look at how chambers of commerce operate, how effective they are, how organized they are,” Varney said. “They evaluate local chambers in nine different competencies. Five-star means you’re hitting on all cylinders.”

Raymond P. Towle, VP of the Institute for Organization Management, a program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, said in a media release, “Accreditation validates a chamber as having programs that benefit their local economy and for positively influencing action in their community.”

The U.S. Chamber accreditation is the only national program recognizing chambers for effective business practices and involvement with the local community. The areas of governance, government relations and technology all play a part in the rating a chamber receives. The ratings can vary from simple accreditation to three stars, four stars or five stars. The accrediting board, which is composed of U.S. Chamber board members, has the final say in the accreditation rating.

The accreditation process wasn’t a walk in the park for the Tucson Metro Chamber. It took roughly nine months from start to finish and involved examining every aspect of the Chamber’s operations – from governance, finance and human relations to communication, government affairs and program development, among others. Despite knowing the accreditation process would be intense, it was something Chamber staff knew they had to pursue.

“I have often said that the staff of the Tucson Metro Chamber is the best in the business,” Varney said. “Five-star recognition from the U.S. Chamber is extremely rigorous, which is why so few chambers of commerce have achieved this level of designation. The Chamber’s program of economic expansion, advocating for job creators and workforce development is a plan we are very proud of.”

And justly so.

“In 2011, the Chamber was in a difficult place,” said Robert Medler, VP of government affairs at the Chamber. “When we evolved into our current form through Mike’s leadership, we knew we had a special organization.”

Medler said the accreditation process served as a self-evaluation of sorts, proving to staff that the Chamber was as effective and efficient as they believed it to be. “It’s a recognition of doing things right and serving as a leader.”

“Not only has the Chamber done the basic blocking and tackling of your typical chamber of commerce, the leadership of Mike Varney has created and mentored an outstanding team of Chamber employees that will continue to provide excellent customer service to our investors,” said Larry Lucero, the 2017-2018 chairman of the Chamber’s board of directors. He also is senior director of government relations and external affairs for UNS Energy and its subsidiaries.

Varney said the Chamber very effectively incorporates three brand pillars – the three Cs – to serve as:

• Catalyst for business growth

• Convener of leaders and influencers

• Champion for a stronger community

“If you boil everything we do down to its most basic element, we’re problem solvers,” Varney said. “The Tucson Metro Chamber is a problem-solving organization.”

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