Our Corner Office spotlight shines on Mick Fleming, president of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE) which serves 1,400 chambers of commerce nationwide and 7,000 individuals.
Association Adviser: Mick, tell us a little about ACCE and its core activities.
Mick Fleming: For ACCE members, we offer a wealth of information, professional development opportunities, management techniques and best practices through publications, online education, conferences and networking. I’ve got 24 great staff members focused on helping member organizations with certifications, employee benefit plans, consulting and networking opportunities for community leaders throughout North America. I’m pleased to say we have representation in 130 of the top 150 markets—that’s pretty strong penetration.
AA: Nearly everyone has a chamber in their area, but not everyone understands what a chamber of commerce really does.
MF: That’s right. A business-led civic and economic advancement entity operating in a specific space may call itself any number of things – board of trade, business council, etc. – but they are all chambers of commerce. They’re organizations of businesses seeking to further their collective interests while also advancing their community, region, state or even nation. Business owners in towns, cities and other territories voluntarily form these local societies/networks to advocate on behalf of the community at large. Chambers have existed in the U.S. for more than 200 years — we’ve been around since 1914.
AA: Sounds pretty diverse. What do chambers of commerce have in common?
MF: Five primary goals:
1. Building communities to which residents, visitors and investors are attracted.
2. Promoting those communities.
3. Ensuring future prosperity via a pro-business climate.
4. Representing the unified voice of the employer community.
5. Reducing transactional friction through well-functioning networks.
AA: Tell us a little about your career path and how you came to the helm of ACCE.
MF: I’ve been here since 2001. Previously, I was chief executive of the Manufacturers Association of Central New York representing companies and facilities all over upstate New York and spent a decade and a half with the Business Council of New York State.
AA: That’s a logical progression, but you also taught school, coached football and published newspapers. How have those experiences helped you in your current role?
MF: In the not-for-profit world you have to lead people who don’t technically work for you. It’s all about relationships and buying in to your way of doing things. That certainly came into play during my teaching and coaching days. It was especially important in football, because I was put in charge of a prep-school startup team. I had to set the foundation not just follow an existing program. The small newspaper I worked at was a startup too. It was very tough sometimes. It wasn’t exactly the New York Times. I was selling ads. It was all relationship sales—you’re selling dust. People are buying you as much as they’re buying the ads.
AA: So, how would you describe your leadership and management style?
MF: Being vulnerable. That’s the way I work. That’s the way I write. As you can tell, I don’t hold back a lot. You get all of me [whether you want it or not]. I hope you like it.
AA: You’ve been with ACCE since 2001. What are biggest changes you’ve seen during your tenure, especially with regard to membership?
MF: Membership has been remarkably stable—maybe a 7 percent drop in accounts during the depths of the recession, but only a minor reduction in dues money. There have always been waves in how civic-minded corporations are. If anything, I’d say today there’s less overt “lapel grabbing.” It’s more subtle advocacy for the advancement of business. Also, I’d like to remind your readers that during our centennial convention in 2014 we changed our name from the American Chamber of Commerce Executives to the Association of Commerce Executives to reflect a more global perspective.
AA: How about membership growth for chambers of commerce overall, i.e., among your members’ organizations?
MF: In terms of membership growth for chambers, it is affected by slumps in the economy generally. But, there are numerous exceptions in which a hurting economy makes people more reliant on their chambers. For instance, right now, membership and engagement in Houston Partnership is strong, even though the oil business is struggling.
AA: What other changes have you seen during your 14 years at the helm of ACCE?
MF: The revenue model is different. It used to be a lot more about our affinity programs. But with the web and such an open marketplace, it’s very hard to put a “velvet rope” around those programs we offer. Non-dues revenue is much bigger for us now. Our annual convention has grown into a 7-figure business. We’re expecting over 1,000 attendees in Montreal in August. Also, foundations, online courses and corporate sponsorships have become much more important to us.
AA: What are your members’ biggest concerns?
MF: Four come to mind right off the bat:-“Millennial Phobia.” You’ve got to get whole organizations to buy in, not just the individual.
- Business models that are moving away from transactional to mission based.
- Chambers need help navigating the political divide in our country. We help them lead from a “sane center” point of view.
- Community governance. Chambers need involvement from a broad spectrum of members. You can’t have a small group—a Gang of 13—run everything in town.
AA: Any suggestions for connecting with younger, up-and-coming members of your industry?
MF: They’re very smart. They have their own way of doing things. We don’t always agree with how they do things, but you have to deal with that. It’s a different mindset because they tend to have a “gig” mentality. They’re at their current employers to learn specific skills. They often don’t intend to stay with their current employers as long as other generations did. We also have our HERO portal (Help, Expertise and Resources Online) which includes an online help desk, webinars, online encyclopedia, comparative benchmarking data and 2,600 chamber-oriented documents about surveys, job descriptions, marketing plans, policy statements and more.
AA: What do you look for when hiring?
MF: We hire for fit and train for [job] function. Most of our people are good generalists who can wear many hats and help throughout the organization, from member relations to the annual conference. We also look for people who are adaptable, since your calendar often blows up by 10 a.m. It’s a very diverse form of “case work” here, from operations to finance to the board to politics.
Also, we won’t hire people who can’t write. Every single applicant must take a timed writing test, no matter what the job entails. You must be able to communicate via the written word and you also need good phone skills. By the way, millennials get a bad rap about their writing and phone skills. It might not be their preferred form of communication, but they learn fast and they can do it just as well as anybody else.
AA: Speaking of writing, we understand you have a book to your credit.
MF: That’s right. It’s called “Making Your Chamber Make a Difference.” It’s about effective grassroots lobbying techniques.
AA: When it comes to having a successful career at ACCE, having previous chamber of commerce experience must help.
MF: Not necessarily. It often depends on the size of the chamber they came from. We’re a national organization. Much of your work here is done without seeing your constituents face to face like you do in a small, local chamber. People who do well here are good communicators who find ways not to get lonely at their desks.