City of residence: Warner Robins
Occupation: President and CEO, Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce
QUESTION: Whats been your biggest surprise since starting at the chamber in January?
ANSWER: I think biggest was experiencing firsthand the breadth of the chambers programs and events. I participated on the other side as a member for years, but seeing it all from the inside was quite amazing. Seeing and helping plan, prepare and execute them has been really eye opening. The volume of work that goes on behind the scenes by volunteers, members and our staff is remarkable.
QUESTION: Can you summarize what you see as the chambers job?
ANSWER: To be an advocate for the businesses of the Robins region. We focus on promoting and assuring business success. We also promote the quality of life in the area and have a duty to support Robins Air Force Base and members of the military who live here.
QUESTION: Whats the top file on your desk most days?
ANSWER: It varies, but at the moment there are actually two top files. First is end-of-year preparation for 2013. We put a lot of effort in developing the program of work that guides and dictates the next 12 months. Im putting a framework together of ideas and items from our board that will be parceled to chamber committees who will flesh them out and take them through the year.
QUESTION: Are those committees primarily volunteers? Member volunteers?
ANSWER: We could not, we would not, operate without our member volunteers. We have only a five-member staff, myself included, and we work hard into the wee hours of the morning sometimes, but we couldnt begin to do what we do without our volunteers.
QUESTION: How many chamber members are there?
ANSWER: A thousand-plus.
QUESTION: Whats that second file?
ANSWER: The second involves supporting existing members, dealing with issues and requests they have. Again, were a membership organization, and first and foremost, my job is to take care of those members. These two things -- two files -- really lend to each other because if the program of work isnt meaningful to members, they may bid us farewell.
QUESTION: What rises to the top in the program of work?
ANSWER: The first component of four for next year is increasing member prosperity. Thats the focus. It comes from a very thoughtful process taking what we hear from members and boiling it down and creating meaningful programs and events that actually benefit them.
QUESTION: Your sign out front encourages those passing by to shop locally this Christmas. Whats your hope for that?
ANSWER: That has a Christmas theme, but the shop local campaign is an ongoing program I want to expand. We need to drive home the point of how important it is to keep dollars in the Robins region benefiting our community rather than going elsewhere. Over 800 of our 1,000-plus members are small businesses, 80 percent. We want to do a great job of supporting them and boosting their and other members business in many ways.
QUESTION: Its been several years since the chamber changed from the Warner Robins chamber to calling itself the Robins Regional Chamber. Can you define that region?
ANSWER: The intent of the shift to being the Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce was realizing we had members across Middle Georgia. If you look at our members on a map, you could see we have as many members in Bibb County as we do in Perry, and there are plenty of members from Centerville, Bonaire, Kathleen and elsewhere. We truly are a regional organization. Clearly, the bulk of our members are in Warner Robins, but we are regional and our interests are regional. We have outstanding relationships with mayors, governments and agencies all over. That approach is healthy.
QUESTION: But is there a hazard focusing on region to the detriment of Warner Robins business?
ANSWER: I wouldnt use the term hazard, but there are challenges. Thinking regionally, we do need to support efforts in neighboring communities that might draw questions from hometown folks as to why support an initiative in, say, Bibb County or Peach, thats beyond us. But I would challenge those folks to realize we succeed as a region and that a problem in a neighboring community impacts us. If we can work together it benefits all of us.
QUESTION: What was the biggest challenge in 2012 for the Robins region?
ANSWER: Threat of sequestration. That was the biggest, and its not done with. Im afraid it could be an even bigger challenge in 2013. Its a huge threat to our region and to the nation. Its a shame our leaders in Washington havent learned to compromise and keep us from falling off the cliff, as they say.
QUESTION: If it comes to it, what might sequestration actually look like?
ANSWER: I dont know -- I dont think anybody knows -- and thats what scares me. Theyre talking about whacking the national budget rather than making careful, reasoned cuts.
QUESTION: Whats been your greatest satisfaction as the chambers new leader?
ANSWER: On the serious side, seeing the staff come together as a more cohesive team that, I hope, feels more energized about their work with a focus on customer service. That cohesion can be in question when a new leader comes in. On the more silly side, Im elated to have completed the Christmas parade. Its incredibly rewarding to see hundreds and hundreds of people file by floats, having fun in the spirit of Christmas. Thats a rewarding experience.
-- Michael W. Pannell