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Building business Featured

9:32am EDT April 25, 2005
Richard Blouse Jr. has been head of the Detroit regional chamber for 10 years, but he still loves what he does and what he can accomplish in that position.

"There are some days when I'd trade it to you pretty quickly," he says. "Most days, though, we're excited about what we do. I think the excitement here is this very unique organization, in how entrepreneurial we've made it."

The Detroit Regional Chamber covers 10 counties and 5 million people. It's the largest chamber in the country; with more than 21,000 members, it far outdistances chambers such as those in Los Angeles and San Francisco, says Blouse.

"It's just a very different model that we've created here," Blouse says. "Consequently, we have probably 19,000 of those 21,000 members that have less than 50 employees. We have the General Motors of the world, but we also have many, many small businesses."

Smart Business spoke with Blouse about the Detroit region, its biggest issues and its future.

How do you balance the diverse interests of your membership?

Diversity of membership is a difficult thing to balance, because the General Motors and Daimler Chrysler and Delphi and Comerica banks are looking for more of the public policy agenda, the chamber being a leader in the community and driving the business economy. On the other hand, the smaller enterprises are looking more for things that make their cash registers ring.

It takes a lot of focus. We try to maintain ourselves as a business advocacy organization, meaning that we're not a social service, and any of the public policy items we work on are probably more related to the quality of life of community development or things that are going to help the business development program.

The model that we've created really allows for great growth. We have created a concept where we have contractual partnerships with many different business groups and other ethnic-based organizations. What that's given us the opportunity to do is really delve pretty deeply into a very diverse business community.

Why is it important to include the religious community in the mix?

In any urban community, there's a great deal of power in the religious community. The churches throughout this city and their leadership are pretty entrepreneurial. A lot of business in this city is generated from these churches. And they're not shy at the pulpit in trying to convince their congregations what is the best direction to go.

They're a very strong political force, and the more we can associate with them on certain issues like education, transportation, the better. To create a group like that, there's a great deal of trust-building that has to take place so that each group trusts and understands each other.

How does the economic development arm of the chamber encourage, grow and bring business to the area?

We've created the Detroit Regional Economic Partnership. It's a partnership between 10 counties and the city, and it's an agreement among all of us that we will go out to the global marketplace and compete in a friendly way for that business. The objective is to get that investment into Southeast Michigan. Each of the different players, then, would hope to capitalize on that because our folks that work for us bring the investment here, then they'll work with the different economic development groups in the county as well as the state to try to cement the deal.

That group also tries to bring companies from other countries here, and we are marketing the U.S as well, talking to companies about having a presence in Detroit, particularly in the automotive business.

How do you attract these businesses?

We operate this program on about two, two-and-a-half million dollars a year, but largely it's labor intensive. We've just never had the luxury of having a lot of dollars to do advertising, but we believe the best way to really attract these companies is one-on-one marketing.

So we go to trade fairs around the world. We follow a lot of the automotives in Europe. ... A lot of it is one-on-one, and it's an interesting process because sometimes it takes four or five years of calling on those companies until a deal comes along as an opportunity.

We don't turn anything down. If we can get a company in the south to put a marketing office here, we know someday that may turn into something bigger.

We would like to maintain this area as the brain center of the automotive industry. The R&D aspect of the automotive industry is ours in Southeast Michigan.

What are the biggest issues facing Southeast Michigan?

Anything related to the cost of health care is an important issue for us. It's impacting all the businesses today. Anything related to transportation. We like to think of it more intermodally, connecting all the different areas of transportation, but certainly roads.

Living on the Detroit River with Canada right across the river, anything with border crossing becomes important to us. Environmental issues, workplace issues, workers' comp, unemployment compensation, taxes, are all important issues.

We've long lobbied -- 36 or 37 years -- to get a regional transportation system in place, but we finally got that this year. We feel like we can retire now. We don't have a great transportation system, but at least we have the foundation finally in place to build it. We've been very, very aggressive on road funding. When 9/11 occurred, we had trucks backed up for 20 hours.

The economy here is a just-in-time economy. ... So when trucks are backed up 20 hours, we have really big problems. And the manufacturing plants started to shut down, and we had to get the trucks moving. And there weren't enough resources at the border, so we put our whole team into a very active state for about six months, a lot of lobbying, getting the people together from both sides of the river, Canadian customs and our customs and immigration to sit together and figure out a solution. ... It was a real nightmare for quite some time.

Regional transportation is very, very critical. It's really a piece that ultimately helps this region continue to expand and grow. And it's so far in the future. The time lag to get from a mediocre bus system to integrating those bus systems, to get to the rapid transit, to get the funding in place and go through all the politics, it's years in the future.

And health care costs are impacting the economy here in very dramatic ways. In the automotive industry, the cost of health care and pensions are huge.

And then, just continuing to try to get our region to operate as a region is probably a daily challenge. Things happen in a very slow way.

Last November, voters returned control of the Detroit school district from the state to the city, a move the chamber opposed. Before the election, you stated, 'If we lose it, I fear for the city of Detroit. I believe that it's very possible that the business community will just start to disengage again, as they were back with the old elected board.' Following the loss, what impact do you anticipate?

Five years ago -- and we supported this -- the state took over the city schools and appointed through the mayor the school board, and brought in a CEO to run the school district and to rebuild the schools, and there's been great progress in the last five years.

I had some concern when we got into the campaign. I thought it was, at best, a 50/50 chance that we could win this, but there were two sets of issues out there. The opposition (to keeping the schools under state control) focused on the business community and really put us out in front as leading this effort, and did it in a very negative way. And then there was another group that focused on the mayor having anything to do with the school district. Between the two pieces, it was just an overwhelming victory for the opposition, who spent much less money.

It was certainly a huge loss.

Where do we go from here? They will go back to the old type of governance structure, previous to the reform of governance structure, and time will tell how that works.

We're very disappointed. We obviously felt that a strong CEO form of governance was the right form of governance, regardless of how it was put in place. We felt the model was the best model, still think it's the best model, and were pleased with some of the progress that was made.

But that's the way it happened, and we'll just have to see how it goes. And we'll help when we're asked to help.

In the meantime, we're relooking at all of our policy regarding education in general. There are many other districts in this state that are seeing some severe financial problems, and so we want to look at this from bottom up now.

What projects does the chamber have on the horizon?

One of our newest programs that we (took) nationwide is a health care product that is designed to address the growing number of working uninsured. In Southeast Michigan, there are 600,000 individuals who are working that are uninsured. A large hardware chain with a lot of part-time retail employees, they maybe couldn't afford coverage, but now maybe they can afford some coverage because the premiums can get pretty low, $40 or $50 a month vs. $800 a month.

What chamber programs are an ongoing success?

There's one that's become pretty significant with us and is a model that people from all over the country come to see if they can replicate. Our Mackinac Policy Conference brings together community leaders from the whole state.

It is by far the most successful thing we do.

Attendance is limited, because on Mackinac Island, you have to get a ferry boat out to the island, and once you get to the island, you have to get up on a smelly horse. That's the only mode of transportation.

Most people, when they arrive, they stay there, and for some strange reason, when they cross the water, they seem to leave everything else behind. And you can get people to sit down, and there are a lot of deals that are made on the island and a lot of future legislation originates there.

How to reach: Detroit Regional Chamber, (313) 596-0384 or www.detroitchamber.com