'It's going to be different this year,' new leader tells chamber
By Samantha Joseph
Allen Harper, the new chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, entered office in red shoes.
The shoes were intended to channel "Wizard of Oz" protagonist Dorothy, whose ruby-red slippers protected her from peril.
In Miami, the chamber has faced its own perils in the past 18 months.
The latest storm, addressed last week at the group's annual members meeting, came in the form of allegations that the organization has lost a significant portion of its money through fraudulent financial reimbursements.
Chamber officials neither confirm nor deny that about $1.5 million of the group's $6 million budget is unaccounted-for, but they acknowledge an investigation by the state attorney's office.
"I don't think there's ever been an occasion that I've had so much advice about what to say," said Mr. Harper, sporting red sneakers from his box of props as he walked the stage during his conversational opening address at the Sheraton Bal Harbour Beach Resort.
He brought up the missing money early in the session and emphasized changes in the chamber's administration and operational style.
"I think it's going to be different this year," he told the membership. "This is a year of starting over. I think it's a year of newness. A lot of great things are going to happen."
He mentioned former president and CEO William Cullom, who left the post last year after more than two decades. "There's no indication that Bill was doing anything wrong," Mr. Harper said. "It's not a Bill Cullom issue, but we did find that the management of the chamber needed some correction."
Part of the correction, he said, took place during a 14-month period between discovery of the missing the money and the news of the alleged theft. First, administrators withheld news of the discovery to "protect innocent people" while it investigated possible fraud, Mr. Harper said.
A key issue was predictability in the chamber's 24-year-old operations style under Mr. Collum that made the system easy to exploit, Mr. Harper said.
Apart from the dated financial system, the century-old chamber had not changed its bylaws or leadership structure in decades, he said.
The chamber has had three presidents in the past 18 months. After Mr. Cullom, retired, Isilia Arriaga was hired to lead the organization. But Mr. Arriaga resigned after only about six months, citing a desire to pursue personal interests.
Mr. Harper did not discuss Mr. Arriaga's sudden departure. But he did talk about amendments to the group's charter and bylaws, which cut its boards of governors and directors by more than half. The changes also cut more than 100 committees from the chamber's administrative group.
Last week's meeting was different in name and structure. No longer called the Goals Conference, the event is now the Annual Members Meeting, and its agenda had a new look.
Instead of having leadership set a series of goals for the year, administrators asked the estimated 700 members at the three-day conference to focus on four key areas - member benefits, advocacy, economic development and financial growth - to consider and prioritize.
The new president, George Foyo, and outgoing chairman Peter Roulhac dressed casually for the meeting.
"We're going to have one of the most successful years this chamber has ever seen," Mr. Harper said.
He reported that the new administration revamped accounting procedures to achieve seven months of positive cash flow and net worth. A membership drive to raise $700,000 between February and May surpassed its goal by 15%, he said.
"That's almost unheard-of, having happened in the midst of all these disclosures," Mr. Harper said.
In the past two weeks, he said, the group gained five trustees and a chairman circle member who paid up to $50,000 for the status.
"Is this organization in trouble? No," he said. "The worst is over."
Marie Gill, a former member of the board of governors and trustee council, said the new focus is "a very positive thing." She said "not much had happened" in the organization in recent years.
Last year, after about five years in the chamber, she decided that the membership dues she had been paying was no longer money well-spent, she said.
"To me, the emphasis was not enough on small business, so I thought I needed to just step back and not do this for a while," Ms. Gill said.
She said she changed her mind when, under Mr. Roulhac's leadership, the group turned its focus to developing opportunities for small businesses. Programs that offer a chance to purchase cooperative insurance and other products small companies often struggle to finance made the chamber appealing again, she said.
"That is what we need - more opportunities," said Ms. Gill, who runs a US Department of Commerce program to help small and minority-owned businesses.
"That's why we joined the chamber," she said. "We now have the chance not only to network but to actually do business with each other."
Other members appeared to have bought into the idea.
Last weekend, several said they were interested in hearing the administration's response to the missing money but were satisfied with the leadership's course of action.
"I understand that this was a sensitive issue that had to be handled delicately," one member said.
Said another: "They did the right thing, I think, but I will have a problem if there is no money recovered."
Ms. Gill, president of the Jamaica-USA Chamber of Commerce and MGill and Associates Inc., said the news of an investigation into the missing money was reassuring.
"The fact that there were some problems that got reported in the media showed me that someone was doing something differently," she said. "Even though the news seemed negative, it really wasn't. I felt this was something new. The chamber's new leadership was digging deep and changing things."
It was this message that the group's administrators worked hard last week to convey. A rousing live musical performance in the opening session noted the group's new enthusiasm for the year ahead.
The entertainment drew applause and brought the audience to its feet, clapping in time to the music.
"Everybody seemed to come up to me and say, 'Boy, am I glad I'm not in your shoes,'" said Mr. Harper, standing in the spotlight Friday in his red sneakers. "I'm going to have to displace that myth. I'm glad I'm in my shoes."