Would bigger Greater Miami Chamber be as relevant?
Written by Michael Lewis on May 3, 2016
The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce is on the brink of a sea change. But in which direction will the tide turn?
Within weeks the chamber has revealed that its goals-setting meetings that lure 1,000 paid guests will no longer set its goals, that its CEO is leaving, and that its leaders are studying a money-saving merger with Fort Lauderdale’s chamber.
Not since a staff theft of $1.9 million a dozen years ago has so much about the group’s future been unclear.
Up in the air is how big the chamber might become, what its mission might be, how effective it will be and who it will serve.
That’s a lot to answer. But certainly, next year’s Greater Miami Chamber won’t be this year’s chamber.
Quick history: the chamber was stumbling a half century ago when Miami Herald Publisher Alvah Chapman led the charge to revamp it to move Miami forward. The chamber became the action arm for a cluster of business leaders who privately set an agenda that the chamber fronted. The chamber was active, respected but not huge.
Over the years, both the chamber and the private forces behind it grew more inclusive. In the process, both public and private arms morphed from being those at the top of a business to number two and then number three and four and five on the ladder, and then to non-business members. Most top business leaders, however, are never seen.
Because the Number Ones aren’t there, the chamber can’t set an agenda that once was our de facto compass. The chamber now rarely takes a tough vocal stance – the last hard call in our memory was to support a baseball stadium eight years ago.
Today, mayors who once took chamber goals seriously seldom show up to speak at the goals conference when asked. Clout has waned.
The chamber remains useful if less powerful. Its lunches are the best meet-and-greets in town. Issue-oriented gatherings between monthly meetings have value – and earn fees beyond trustee membership costs of $3,000 a year. It sends missions to Tallahassee and Washington.
But with CEO Barry Johnson retiring Dec. 31 and a job search pledged, the chamber just announced it was talking merger.
What could that cross-county union do?
More members over broader area should add clout on state issues, but would a tradeoff be the end of the local action arm that Alvah Chapman built?
A multi-county chamber would have more big firms, but would that build ties among executives who today don’t know each other and are many miles apart?
Would broader business reach weaken traditional chamber efforts to serve local business?
The biggest benefit of a successful merger could be to smash the invisible wall between Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which have different population groups, government structures and industry pillars.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez for years has jested that the only man-made structures on earth visible from outer space are the Great Wall of China and the Dade-Broward line. For years we’ve talked the talk of regional unity, but the walk has been the sentries marching up and down to defend the county line.
So are chamber leaders in both counties serious that they’re just kicking tires so far? If they don’t agree to merge, both bodies will get egg on their face. Better to explore in private before the press release.
A far larger chamber might or might not benefit members – depending on why they joined.
Is it a big lunch club or a tool to move the state legislative agenda? Is it a way to build business with neighbors or a way to find a merger with a larger chamber member? Such motivations should be more important than cost saving by having just one paid leader for what is now two chambers.
The Greater Miami Chamber should know all about member motivations and satisfaction. Behavioral Science Research not long ago surveyed exactly those points and made a full report to leaders that should be pivotal in merger thoughts.
If two chamber giants merge, some members might defect to chambers like those in Coral Gables, Doral and South Dade. For many small businesses, regional reach is far less vital than building sales locally.
Merger thoughts should probe one unpleasant fact: despite claiming regional thinking, each county disdains the other. It’s not rational, it’s not right, but it’s real. Overcoming that could be slow and hard.
The first battle would be over where the real chamber headquarters should be. The county without headquarters becomes second class. And think of what would happen if retiring Barry Johnson were replaced by his Fort Lauderdale counterpart as CEO of a merged chamber. We may think big, but we often act small.
In fact, bigger is often not better, just bigger. Conglomerates decades ago rolled up lots of businesses into one, but many later split again to do better.
The chamber clearly faces a sea change. But it has time to decide what its survey shows members want and need.
It would be surprising if during the survey a chamber with members having 400,000 employees was ever called too small. The chamber hit its peak years ago when it was smaller, not larger.
Do members suddenly want even more, or do they prefer a chamber that’s more relevant?