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January 2007
Success Ignited
By Lisa Hoffmann

Ask Bob Morgan about the highlight of the short time he has served as president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and a broad smile covers his face. “The day I was appointed,” he says simply. “It is a great time to be in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I’m thrilled to be a part of its growth.”

Morgan’s enthusiasm is matched only by his dogged determination to help guide Charlotte to continued growth through a carefully planned mission based on healthy economic development, good public policy and providing Chamber members with increased value. He calls it a “three-legged stool,” an apt name for a vision meant to support business in our thriving city.

 

The Three-Legged Approach

Job one of the Chamber is to recruit new jobs and investment, Morgan explains: “Job growth [through the third quarter of 2006] was running slightly below last year’s record and investment is literally off the charts.” The previous investment record for 12 months was $2.6 billion and figures had already topped that by the end of the third quarter of 2006. “And Bank of America recently announced its new 32-story tower,” he adds. “That’s another $450 million. We’re very fortunate in that Charlotte is on a lot of radar screens. Our goal is to continue this trend.”

In addition to recruiting new business, the Chamber has placed increased focus on retention. Rather than taking the existing business base for granted, Morgan cites the Northeast and the Midwest as model regions that have taken a proactive stance with business retention programs. The Chamber recently rolled out “Business First,” a program that targets 400 at-risk companies in Charlotte and uses trained volunteers to conduct formal surveys of those business’s leaders.

The first useful result of that program is constituent service casework, which reveals companies’ weaknesses, such as a need for training, and guides troubled businesses to viable solutions. The second business-retention measure is aggregating the survey data to provide a snapshot of what’s happening within Charlotte’s existing businesses.

“This helps us forecast and plan for the future,” Morgan says. “We know how many jobs a company plans to have the following year, what major challenges it is facing and what they’d like the Chamber and the public sector to work on.”

The second leg of the stool focuses on public policy. The Chamber’s goal is to remain active and visible as a legislative presence representing the needs of Chamber members and of Charlotte. Charlotte’s Chamber is the only chamber of commerce in the state that has a full-time lobbyist walking the halls of the Legislature in Raleigh.

The school bond issue Charlotte is likely to vote on this year is of particular interest to the Chamber, Morgan says. “We will be very supportive of that.” Chamber members are increasingly concerned about crime so the Chamber will likely support proposed jail bonds. The Chamber has its eye on transportation legislation too.

“The long-term public policy challenge facing this region and indeed the state is transportation funding,” Morgan asserts. “The current MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area) figure is 1.4 million people. We project that in 20 years the MSA will rise to 4.2 million people, making us as large in 20 years as Atlanta is today. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when and what is it going to look like? How are we going to fund that growth?”

The third leg of the Chamber’s supportive stool is providing real value to its members. The Chamber lost 1,500 members after 9-11 and never bounced back. Its membership once reached a high of 5,000, but currently hovers around 3,750. “We lost 1,000 members last year, 80 percent of which was winnable,” Morgan says. “Clearly we need to provide more value to our members and help them understand how we can support them.”

Not a man to procrastinate, Morgan has already implemented a program designed to reach out to new members. Each of the Chamber’s 50 staff members is assigned to contact and communicate with a new member within 30 days of joining. The Chamber has not been very good at telling members what it can do for them, Morgan says, a potentially fatal mistake.

“We’re in a growing, vibrant marketplace and we are not growing membership units,” he says. “We have made it our mission to become more member-centric, to find out what our members expect from us and match those expectations to our delivery of value. There’s no reason why we can’t be an organization of 8,000 members within the next 20 years. If we don’t have that vision we won’t get there.”

Morgan and his staff also implemented a regional partnership plan that allows members of chambers in surrounding areas to join the Charlotte Chamber for a discount. It’s a win-win-win proposal, Morgan explains. The Charlotte Chamber wins because it gets a new member, the business wins because it can avail itself of the Chamber’s resources, and the regional chamber wins because the business can’t get the discounted membership in the Charlotte Chamber unless it belongs to its local chamber.

 

A Big Fish in a Bigger Pond

Morgan’s three years overseeing the Gaston County Chamber of Commerce’s eight-member staff got him acclimated to a CEO role—and got him thinking like an entrepreneur too, he says. “I learned that Wednesday nights the garbage had to be brought to the curb,” he says with a laugh. His experience there helped prepare him for the Charlotte Chamber role and he came to the job quite focused.

“One of the hardest things for the Chamber to do is to stay true to our core mission,” he says. “I have to say no to a lot of good opportunities that come across my desk. We’re about economic development and you can make the case that anything is good for economic development. In trying to be mission-focused and member-centric, though, we have stay true to our vision.”

When the Chamber appointed Morgan in the fall of 2005 the organization was still strong in pulling money into Charlotte but was suffering from flat membership. The first thing Morgan did as the new president was sit down with the staff and create a five-year plan. The detailed, 23-page plan is in draft form, he says, and is sure to evolve. But it’s a key to the Chamber’s future growth and success. “Having a plan helps us focus and gives us some targets to shoot for.”

In an effort to become leaner, the Chamber delegated or eliminated 20 programs and initiatives that didn’t fit its core competency. Morgan left no rock unturned in his quest to streamline and nothing was sacred. The leadership school the Chamber’s been running for 35 years is now part of Leadership Charlotte. Charlotte Reads—a program Morgan calls “wonderful and valuable”—is now run by the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County. Morgan also cut seven staff positions in the beginning of his tenure, something that was “difficult but necessary.”

The changes allowed the Chamber to trim its budget by $1 million. “Carroll Gray [former Chamber president] was my mentor and he taught me that ‘if it ain’t broke, break it.’” Morgan explains. “I don’t go around breaking things for the sake of breaking them but maintaining the status quo is not enough for Charlotte if we are to succeed over the long run. Fortunately, we’ve got a great group of people here who have really rallied around the changes and shown great enthusiasm.”

 

Eye on the Future

The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce recently ranked Charlotte second among American metropolitan areas to attract 25- to 34-year-olds with a four-year college degree, a demographic Morgan refers to as the “Creative Class.” Eager to maintain that momentum, the Chamber is implementing a Creative Industries Council this year. The council will target creative firms and look for ways to serve the creative industry. “We typically don’t have much market penetration in that marketplace and we need to change that,” Morgan says.

Deciding to remain competitive with other regions is easy; defining those regions is a bit more challenging. “For every company it’s just a different circumstance,” Morgan explains. “For some corporate headquarters we complete with Atlanta and Dallas. If they’re coming from New York they always have the option of staying there. More often than not we’re benchmarking against places like Tampa, Richmond and Nashville.”

Morgan cites several challenges Charlotte faces in the competitive arena. Work force development is heavy on his mind. “Our population is not as well-educated as some of these other regions and that’s a concern as we look to compete for the high-skilled jobs of the future,” he says. “UNC Charlotte represents one of the greatest opportunities we have for positive growth. It graduated 50 Ph.D.s in 2006, which is about double what it graduated in 2005 but is still just a fraction of what universities in some of these other cities are putting out. There’s also a direct correlation between research and job growth. So the Chamber will continue to support university funding with an eye on staying competitive.”

The state’s personal and corporate income tax rates make it less attractive to prospective businesses and the long-term challenge of transportation makes the Chamber’s job more difficult too, according to Morgan.

“Charlotte’s transportation infrastructure is a ticking time bomb,” Morgan says. “From the outside it still looks pretty good so it’s not chasing people away yet, but in the long term it’s going to be a problem.”

A potential US Airways/Delta merger has Morgan concerned about Charlotte losing hub status. Delta’s big hub is in Atlanta and maintaining two large hubs so close together seems unlikely, although airline officials have assured Charlotte’s leaders that the hub will remain. Morgan stresses the importance of retaining the airline’s hub status, a critical factor in the city’s ability to attract businesses and professionals.

“Right now we’re enjoying the fruits of investments that were made over the last 10 or 15 years and they’re wonderful,” he says. “We’re nearing the completion of I-485 and later this year we’ll see the opening of the transit line to Pineville. We’re already seeing the development that’s occurring on that route line. That’s very exciting. We’re seeing young people from the Northeast continue to come here and have such a positive experience that their family members follow them down. Three years from today we’ll have the 15-story NASCAR Hall of Fame. We have the Wachovia tower and the Bank of America building coming in. Hopefully we’ll be seeing the construction of a minor league baseball stadium and city park soon. These are all positive, attractive things.”

     A true cheerleader, Morgan has a mental list of Charlotte’s positive attributes at the ready: “Being the second largest financial center in the United States is a big boon. In addition to offering the convenience of an international hub, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport has a $10 billion impact on the area, something we’ll work to keep. We have a good location, strong business environment, growing metropolitan area, accessibility, we’re attractive to the creative class, we have great weather… Charlotte’s just a great place to be and it’s not that difficult to convince people of that. Our job is to help ensure that the positive growth and attraction continues into the coming decades. And, God willing, I’ll be sitting in this chair as it does.”
Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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