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Keeping it fresh Featured

10:09am EDT August 20, 2004
John Myrland relishes the challenge of finding fresh ways to tackle the business issues Indianapolis faces. After nearly 25 years with the chamber of commerce, the last 14 as president, he's seen his share of ups and downs.

"Continuing to be effective and engaged for anyone in this business for that long is a challenge," he admits.

But focusing on the changing needs of members, as well as those of the chamber, keeps Myrland on his toes. Although the primary need of most members --dealing with employment issues -- hasn't changed over the years, the increasing intensity of that need has.

"Presenting a value proposition to potential employees can make or break a small business," says Myrland.

Despite high unemployment rates, companies continue to compete for skilled labor, and each business seeks to differentiate itself when it comes to benefits. But this can be expensive, so the chamber offers its members health care benefits, a limited number of free employment screenings and member discounts to places like Office Depot that companies can share with their employees.

Myrland says the more benefits companies can offer employees, the more value they see in their chamber memberships, making membership a win-win for the company and the chamber.

Add to that growing competition and members who seek high visibility for their membership dollars, and Myrland's job never grows stale.

Twenty years ago, when a new business located in Indianapolis, one of the first orders of business was to join the chamber. Today, a multitude of professional and industry associations and organizations that compete for membership dues. And business owners expect to receive more tangible benefits from their memberships. So Myrland and his staff have focused on bringing more of them to the chamber and maintaining high member retention rates.

Myrland says more companies are including chamber dues as part of their marketing budgets and, because of that, expect more publicity. Other organizations offer recognition for sponsorship opportunities, but the chamber has traditionally not done so, and this is one of the areas where Myrland is re-evaluating the way the chamber does business.

Smart Business spoke with Myrland about the community's changing needs and the state of the region's business environment.


How have the needs of your members changed over the past three to five years, and what has the chamber done to meet them?


They (business owners) are much more concerned about employment issues -- how to provide health care benefits to retain employees. The costs of hiring new employees can be enormous, and sometimes a company can't produce a product if it doesn't have enough trained employees.

Every dollar to a small business makes a big difference. Health care benefits are attractive to employees. Even in an economy in which people need jobs, you still need to provide competitive benefits.

There may be people looking for jobs out there, but are they skilled? Companies need to differentiate themselves and keep employees by providing benefits.

Our focus is providing discounted group health care packages to members, and one of our members is offering three free employment screenings to members. We also have a member-to-member discount program, which attracts companies to the chamber. It is attractive to the employee because he can go to an Office Depot and receive a significant discount. We rely on businesses' support, but so do other community organizations. We have to show value to our members to help us grow. If we can provide answers and change our product mix to meet members' needs, we'll be successful.


What are your members' biggest challenges, and how does the chamber try to address them?


I divide the chamber's business into two parts -- direct services, like health care benefits, and the advocacy part. We used to think that small businesses did not care about public policy issues. But we've found that that is not true.

They do care how local governments work and how the government can make a successful community. That's why we provide the health insurance and networking opportunities, and also public policy advocacy, because they really do care about the issues.

A dry cleaner, for instance, is very much interested in environmental issues. Small businesses care about transportation issues, street repairs, education for their children and employees' children. We now get a lot of our members involved in developing our policies on these issues.


How has the Indianapolis business environment changed during the last decade?


Like everywhere else, Indianapolis has become less focused on heavy manufacturing, and there is more emphasis on technology, advanced manufacturing and other industries along those lines. In Indianapolis, however, we already had a diversified economy.

We have been strong in the insurance industry, pharmaceuticals, education and, more recently, sports is a big industry for us. Convention and tourism is now a $2 billion industry in the state. At the same time, we are concentrating our efforts on attracting technology businesses through a combination of university and business partnerships.

Our biomedical research incubator is called Biocrossroads. We hear about the success of the program, of new businesses locating here, so it is growing.

The difference is that when new factories located here, they hired 1,000 employees. You don't have a lot of that anymore. It changes your mentality. You focus on a lot of small hits instead of waiting on one big deal.

Another big change in the community is that while we have never been a big headquarters city, we have lost in the last 10 years ownership of a lot of our banks, hospitals, utilities and newspapers. It used to be we could get five people in a room and get something done. We can't do that anymore.

That's not necessarily bad. It's just harder to find people to head initiatives and get resources and approve expenditures.


What challenges does the chamber face in the next few years?


The first big challenge is competition. There are lots more organizations going after the same corporations and businesses for support. These organizations are art organizations, business organizations and nonprofits, all going to the same list of people for support.

The second challenge is relevancy. We are a large organization with basically a horizontal membership. We need to successfully serve all segments, which can be problematic.

It used to be that people joined the chamber because it was the right thing to do. When you started a business in a new town, your first call was to the mayor, and the second order of business was to join the local chamber. That's not the case today.

Our volunteer leadership is working hard every day to find ways to make our value proposition sing with the people making the decisions. We have one significant member that reminds me every year that he pays significant membership dues but doesn't get any recognition for it. More members want visibility, and they can get that by sponsoring a nonprofit event, not through chamber memberships.

Companies are combining dues budgets and marketing budgets, so they want more visibility. We are re-evaluating that visibility aspect.


Have your strategies to attract new members changed?


We do a lot more marketing and a lot less selling. We used to read the paper and see who's new in town and send them material. Now, our sales force spends a lot of time talking up front to companies, asking them what's important to them and what we have to respond to their needs.

When they join, we have better members. We also spend a lot of time on retention. I send a card to every member, some every month, and on many, I include a personal note.

We have a pretty good retention rate, and I think we distinguish ourselves through our value proposition. We are one of three finalists nationally in a membership competition. We started an effort in 1991 to retain our members, and membership numbers keep growing. If it continues at this rate, we'll have more members than we've ever had. We didn't think that we could grow, but we have grown almost in spite of ourselves.


What are the region's biggest strengths when it comes to attracting new businesses?


Our location and infrastructure are a few of our biggest strengths. We have good highway systems, streets and a great, vibrant downtown with a diverse economy and educated work force, although we still have some challenges in some areas. We distinguish ourselves with our public/private partnerships. We have had strong mayors that are helpful in those efforts.


How do you think Indianapolis can improve when it comes to attracting new companies?


Venture capital, putting packages together to help finance early stage companies, is still a challenge here. We also have pockets of weakness in the educational system. The inner city schools have some issues, but there are a lot of educational options.

We also have a very conservative mentality and lack of desire to change. It took us 20 years to change our banking laws. By the time we did it, it was too late; the local banks had been bought out by bigger, out-of-state banks. There's the 'We're good enough' mentality that we need to get over.

We're great at being good. We have to get over that. We don't want to rock the boat and change as the economy changes. That doesn't work anymore.


What are your biggest personal challenges in managing the chamber?


Probably staying interested and engaged. I've been in this business 27 years, I've been president for 14 years, so continuing to be effective and engaged is a challenge for anyone in a business for that long.

People who care about this are divided into three camps. There's one camp that says, 'He's been here a long time, aren't we lucky?' Another camp can't wait to get rid of me, and the last asks, 'Why are you still here?' And I don't begrudge any of those thoughts.

The answer is to keep changing and looking for opportunities. I try to change my MO to some extent; it keeps you focused, challenged and excited about what you're doing. How to reach: The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, (317) 464-2200 or www.indychamber.com