Tony Del Castillo has had a lot of roles in the community in the 39 years he has lived in Central Florida. • The Santa Monica, Calif., native has been involved with the Brandon Rotary Club, and helped form the first Hispanic Knights of Columbus Council in Polk County. He's currently a member of the Plant City Lions Club, and has had an active role in nearly all the east Hillsborough chambers of commerce. • Now, the general manager of the SouthShore & Brandon Times is taking on a new role as chairman of the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce board of directors, a volunteer position. • Some of his goals for the coming year include increasing membership, growing marketing and branding to share the stories of business successes with the chamber's members, and helping the chamber continue to serve as a touchstone for the community. • "Since Brandon is not an incorporated city, this presents a unique opportunity for the chamber to serve as the glue to the community, to be their voice," he said. "There is an advocacy feature for us to talk about transportation issues and have outreach to the political leaders that represent this area." • Del Castillo recently sat down with Times staff writer Keeley Sheehan to talk about what inspires him and how the role of the chamber continues to evolve.
What has driven you to take on this new role within the chamber?
I've been inspired by individuals that have run this chamber over the years, the business leaders of this greater Brandon community. Back in 2005, I was privileged be a part of the Leadership Brandon program, and truly made lifelong friends from that. I followed in the footsteps of a couple of other classmates — not by design but by love of this chamber — to do what they did. The moment of our class project, coming together to give back to the community, we worked with ECHO and the Brandon Outreach Clinic. That project was very special for all of us, to see that hard work coming to life, and the physical transformation of the building and volunteer employees with tears in their eyes, to see this run-down building get transformed physically. It was a lot of hard work but a lot of beautiful donations came from our asking of the business community. That was very instrumental in wanting to get more involved in the chamber, and seeing that progress, I feel like I can make a difference.
What are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish over the next year?
We want to increase membership, increase the value the member is receiving, and we want to retain those members that come on. There is unfortunately in some small-business owners' minds the thought process that you become a chamber member and the business comes. You also have to get involved and give a little to get some. There are a lot of programs and offerings, it's just a matter of educating the audience as to what those programs provide.
It is our fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the chamber's model works and we keep in the black and help it be viable for years to come. That is a huge responsibility, as you look back on the wall of leaders over the years, all these black-and-white photos. These individuals have been fantastic in making our community vibrant. It's a big responsibility.
How has social networking and the ability for businesses to connect with each other and the community online impacted the role of the chamber?
Looking at the ways we communicate with our member base of 1,300 to 1,400 members; in the past we'd send out a physical newsletter. That morphed into a newsletter supplemented by an e-blast to make sure folks are seeing upcoming events, what's happening at the chamber and to gain a more critical mass of attendance. The role of Facebook, Twitter and the entire world of social media is becoming critical. Embracing new technology is important for the future. We like to see some buzz factor about our respective businesses. If you have a ribbon cutting, if you have a chamber team of ambassadors, you want so-called paparazzi out there shooting photos and posting and tagging, doing all those things you want to create that buzz factor.
What are the chamber's strengths? What areas need improvement?
It is a five-star rated chamber for a reason. The incredible program offerings for the base, from the military affairs committee, to recognizing Small Business of the Year award winners, to workshops, lunch with today's leaders, the Leadership Brandon program. The strength is in their program offerings, their networking events, their incredible staff, which makes all the difference in the world, the great leadership from Tammy Bracewell handing the mantle to Laura Simpson's great leadership. That continuity is very important, to keep viable for small-business owners that are struggling out there.
The toughest thing facing us is a tough economy. That's more of an external factor, but how you deal with that is the challenge. Business owners have to make tough decisions out there. Membership doesn't always come at the top of the list. But before you consider doing that, consider the incredible ROI. Having the chamber on your side as you are struggling can truly help to turn that tide, to bring in new business, to perhaps provide resources you didn't think of before or networking with groups you truly want to be in touch with for business purposes.
What would be your sales pitch to potential chamber members?
There are so many program offerings at the chamber that can help your respective business. Each business owner has a sweet spot that is unique to them, in reference to how they can truly flourish or excel at a higher level. That's where the incredible team at the chamber can truly reach out one-on-one as you consider becoming a member. Or you want to get more involved in the community and give back, and Leadership Brandon can provide you with that opportunity to take your business presence to a higher level.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.