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St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce slowly getting back on solid ground

Challenge: How do the new leaders of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce rebuild relationships in an organization pummeled by years of financial distress, dwindling membership and infighting over priorities?

Answer: Invite folks to lunch.

Or, under the strategy of incoming chairman David Punzak and relatively new president and CEO Chris Steinocher, throw a series of lunches to "reintroduce" the chamber to community leaders, many of them disgruntled former members.

"We had people who were former chamber chairs who hadn't set foot in that room for many years," said Punzak, St. Petersburg office managing shareholder of the Carlton Fields law firm. "To be in that room there was almost a purging of the badness. (People saying), 'You know what? I'm on board. I've got my oar in the water.' "

Punzak, whose term as chairman begins in January, is speaking from experience. His law firm is among those companies that had distanced themselves both professionally and financially from the chamber during the four-year tenure of CEO John Long. (Long retired in July of 2010 instead of renegotiating a new contract with chamber leaders he disagreed with over policy direction.)

Now, Carlton Fields is back in the chamber fold. So is former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, now a USF rep. And funeral home operator Terry Brett, a former chamber chairman.

It's been a painful purge to get to the point of rebuilding. In its heyday, the chamber had 30 employees; now it's down to six.

"When you're in a hole, you stop digging," said Steinocher, a onetime chamber employee who came back to run the operation in January after a long stint with the Tampa Bay Partnership. "We're just living within our means now."

Chamber growth is taking a back seat to member relations. The theme the group has adopted for the year is "Grow Smarter."

Punzak, 51, and Steinocher, 47, sat down with the Times to talk about the makeover:

Dave, How did you get reinvolved with the chamber?

Punzak: I'm actually a St. Petersburg native. I was born at Mound Park Hospital (now part of Bayfront). I came back here after I graduated from law school in 1984. One of my goals in life, strange as it sounds, was to become chairman of the chamber. So it's 26, 27 short years later, and I'm good.

As you're aware, the chamber has been through some tough times recently. … I went to the annual chamber lunch in February. I guess I heard through the grapevine that there was a change in management. I met Chris … and said we need to go to lunch. We went to lunch and it took me somewhere between 30 to 90 seconds to figure out this guy is great. He has vision. He's a leader that I can get behind and be supportive of. And I've never looked back.

What's your biggest challenge?

Punzak: It's to reach out to our members and prospective members and ask them how we can help grow their businesses. That's what chambers of commerce do: grow businesses. We need to listen to them … and to take action on their behalf. To attend city meetings or county government meetings. To become a voice for businesses here in St. Pete.

To use an analogy to a restaurant, we've served a bad meal or two here over the past couple years. Part of our challenge is to prove to our customers and prospective customers that we're back in business and we're listening.

Are the big checks coming in?

Steinocher: I'd say we're doing really well. I'm very proud of our community. Nobody has said no to me. Nobody told me to take a long walk off a short pier. They haven't, and they've had plenty of opportunities.

So you've recovered financially?

Steinocher: We're a little less than a $1 million organization. We may have been double that in the heyday of chambers in the past. But we've scaled ourselves back. We've balanced our budget, which is the really exciting part.

At last count, you had about 600 or 700 members, right?

Steinocher: Our goal is to get about $1 million in membership (dues). We'll probably be a little less than that. That translates to anywhere from 800 to 900 members.

I'm really proud of how many new members we've seen. We have a new member orientation here once a month, and we're getting 40 to 50 people in a room at one time.

Some of our newest members are young businesses, like a gentleman named Brian who's a sign spinner. One of the ordinances (the city of St. Petersburg) is looking at is if you want sign spinners on your streets or not. So (Brian) came to our new member orientation and said, "This is what I do. I spin signs." He said, "I also employ two other people now … and one of them is a homeless gentleman who now has an apartment."

Tell me how I can say sign spinning is bad now? He's created three jobs.

A few years ago, the chamber had touted a membership exceeding 2,000. But apparently it was much lower if you only counted dues-paying members. What numbers are you focused on?

Steinocher: You're talking to a guy who hasn't been a chamber guy for life. How I counted may be different than how every other chamber executive counted in the past. I really was counting people who were paying a membership due.

(The earlier member estimates) got a little fuzzy. Some nonpaying members were counted. Maybe someone who had 10 stores was counted as 10 members. I count that as one. So each brand is basically one member rather than all the individuals counted.

The St. Petersburg Times is changing its name to the Tampa Bay Times on Jan. 1. USF is adding Tampa Bay on to its marketing moniker. Is the shift to regionalism good or bad as you're trying to promote St. Pete businesses?

Steinocher: It's both. When I used to market Tampa Bay … we would talk about the communities of Tampa Bay. All our research shows that when you say the words "Tampa Bay," they come up with 3.2 communities. "They" being when we interviewed (700) CEOs, CIOs and COOs across the country. They would come up with Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and many times Sarasota. So when anyone markets Tampa Bay, I'm confident they know it's a St. Pete product.

Does our name appear? No. Is that frustrating for a lot of us? Certainly. But what you really want to look at is how the money flows. People come here. They don't go to "Tampa Bay," the water. They go to the communities of Tampa Bay, and that's where the money is spent.

The chamber has reinserted itself into the future of the Tampa Bay Rays and whether the team will stay in St. Pete. Dave, as a member of the caucus studying this, where do you see the team heading?

Punzak: I don't have a crystal ball. I think our caucus has made great progress. We're listening to different folks giving us ideas and opinions. But our caucus is without regard to location. … We're midstream. I think we'll know much more six to nine months from now. But again, we're an advisory group. We don't have power over anything.

What's your growth target?

Steinocher: I'm always going to be in growth mode, but I'm not looking to be the largest chamber any more. We've learned that lesson.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or jharrington@tampabay.com.

St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce slowly getting back on solid ground 12/19/11 [Last modified: Monday, December 19, 2011 5:54pm]
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