Timing perfect to look at Beacon Council-chamber merger
Written by Michael Lewis on September 6, 2016
The Beacon Council’s annual meeting Oct. 13 will change chairmen and discuss a CEO hunt. Miami will be best served if members also broach some form of merger with the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
The economic development team’s CEO, Larry Williams, resigned last week. Barry Johnson, the chamber’s CEO, will retire Dec. 31. Instead of searching for two CEOs at big salaries, why not just one for both?
A far larger table to say grace over would expand the candidate field. A merger would offer a bigger lure for top talent. And in the realm of growing and attracting business, the bigger the name the better.
A Jeb Bush, for example, could talk with CEOs about Miami-Dade locations as very few could. While we have no idea if he’d be in the least interested, he once actively chaired the Beacon Council and has the right national and global ties. Just a concept, not a nomination.
But the question is not whether we could save money or get far more bang for our bucks with a top-level leader who has been a real-life CEO. A better question is whether the two groups belong together. Does a merger make business sense?
In fact, the two once were one. The chamber spun off the Beacon Council more than 30 years ago to get government job-building cash. The chamber didn’t want to be beholden to government. The Beacon Council, on the other hand, gets most of its funds from the county, not members or its mushrooming special events that sometimes compete with the chamber’s.
But many of their functions differ widely today. The chamber is the best lunch club in town but has lost clout. The Beacon Council was built to attract and retain high-paying jobs and help diversity a tourist economy but in recent years has felt more county pressure to funnel aid to businesses with low economic impact. Neither group is as sharply focused on business development as Miami needs.
When Mr. Johnson’s coming departure was announced, chamber leaders wrote that they were talking about a merger with the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce. But instead of a bid to broaden geography, where little synergy is likely, what about a merger to strengthen local business?
Sensible as a merger might appear, it faces hurdles:
- Entrenched bureaucracies: the groups have staff duplications that might require trimming or retraining.
- Government control: the county looks to the Beacon Council to spread largesse in poorer areas and push for job recruitment precisely where employers are least willing to place operations. Those aren’t the Beacon Council’s prime mission and dilute its impact. The chamber won’t want to be tied that closely with county hall.
- Egos: each organization has a volunteer head, FIU President Mark Rosenberg at the chamber and soon Greenberg Traurig Miami office co-managing shareholder Jaret Davis at the Beacon Council. Both run big operations. Neither would aim to be No. 2 of a merged operation.
- Initiative: who would ask the other team “how could we do this together, and should we?” It can’t be a takeover.
Working together shouldn’t be a problem. The Beacon Council’s top current success, the One Community One Goal job drive, began as a chamber initiative two decades ago with Beacon Council input. When the chamber let it wither, Beacon Council then-CEO Frank Nero resuscitated it, starting on a Miami Today roundtable where he and Dr. Rosenberg discussed a revival. Under the Beacon Council, Dr. Rosenberg headed the key education drive of that successful rebirth.
Meanwhile, the chamber has drifted from business. September’s lunch focuses on early brain development with a speaker from the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Anything good for society is good for business, but the topic seems off target when so much is pressing. Maybe that’s why chamber membership now is below 800 organizations, many that are not businesses, in a community of 2.7 million people.
The Beacon Council too could be more forceful. Mr. Williams in a departure phone call noted that in his three years as CEO the council was involved in 4,500 new direct jobs and 120 new companies. Averaging 1,500 jobs a year in an economic upturn doesn’t turn heads. It’s hard today to see the Beacon Council as a powerful engine for Miami’s growth.
The greatest recent visibility for both groups has been money-raising events and panels. A single staff could run them all.
There is a precedent for merging economic organizations: in Orlando the Central Florida Partnership and the Orlando Economic Development Commission are today in the process of becoming one.
A merged chamber and Beacon Council would command more respect from government. More numbers equal more clout. There is no county hall synergy in a Broward chamber merger but a lot with another Miami-Dade organization.
A Beacon-chamber merger might not come together, but it’s surely worth a long look. We’re fortunate that both groups are chaired by top leaders – that isn’t always true – and that Dr. Rosenberg has worked on both sides of the fence. We’re also fortunate that both he and Mr. Davis have the skills to examine the issue with an open mind. It’s certainly a good academic exercise.
A merger could involve politics. While County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has been a leader of the job-building One Community One Goal in the Beacon Council, his November election opponent Raquel Regalado wants to shut down the Beacon Council. A merger could be claimed as a victory by both: as a sign of success by the mayor, as a shutdown by Ms. Regalado.
Just killing off the Beacon Council as Ms. Regalado calls for would be a huge error. While it’s hard to quantify major victories in job development, we’d lose many smaller wins in which Beacon Council actions paved the way for business. We can’t say just how much good the council does, but we know we’d be far worse off without it.
The aim of a merger would be to raise both groups to a higher level together.
Miami, as Mr. Nero notes, is at a crossroads. The city, Mr. Williams says, is world class but doesn’t quite believe it. Melding two organizations to create one stronger team might not be the answer, but the leaders of both will miss a great opportunity if they don’t try to find a fit.