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But chamber membership means a lot more to businesses like HVAC contractors. In fact it could mean the difference between success and failure. "It goes beyond networking," said Jeffrey Heinanen of Heinanen Engineering, Livonia, Mich. "It is all about growing a company."
HVAC contractors who become chamber members have the opportunity to learn about and promote the local community, making it a better place to live and work.
"Many businesses belong to trade associations that promote the interests of that particular trade," said Chris Workman of the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce. "These include hotel associations, restaurant associations, and realtor associations. That is good, however, the chamber is a nonprofit association with a much broader mission. Our interests are with all businesses."
Tom Cosby of the Birmingham (Ala.) Regional Chamber of Commerce also talked about the importance of joining industry and community groups. "Joining your trade association is necessary, but no HVAC association is ever going to be the trigger for growth that a good Chamber of Commerce is," he said.
"People should be convinced not to be â€˜predestination Presbyterians' when it comes to realizing that growth in any community doesn't just happen because it was somehow preordained."
At its Website, the Montgomery County (Blacksburg, Va.) Chamber of Commerce lists the top 10 reasons for joining its chamber. They include: new business contacts, credibility, member-to-member discounts, leadership development, community commitment, referrals, publicity and exposure, marketing and advertising, a healthy local economy, and to gain a voice in government.
"The chamber drives economic development, improvements in education, and sponsors legislation to create a healthy business climate," said Jim Reynolds of Total Comfort and Comfort Sales, West Columbia, S.C. "By supporting the chamber, contractors can improve the local economy and ensure growth and financial health for their businesses."
Heinanen noted that becoming a chamber member saved him from making a lot of mistakes. That's not bad, considering his original motivation for contacting the Livonia Chamber of Commerce. "I wanted to do business with them," Heinanen said. "So one of the first benefits I received was a service agreement to perform maintenance on their building's equipment."
But despite the benefits, it appears that some HVAC contractors are still staying away from chamber membership. In the Provo-Orem (Utah) Chamber of Commerce, their absence is quite noticeable. "Our membership total is over 800, but there is no representation from the heating and air conditioning sector of business," said Becky McCallum of Provo-Orem Chamber of Commerce.
The Salinas Chamber (Calif.) has 900 members but only two are HVAC contractors. The Commerce-Lexington (Ky.) Chamber of Commerce has 1,950 members, of which 13 are HVAC contractors.
Reynolds said, "There are over 120 HVAC contractors in our community and fewer than three engage with the chamber beyond paying dues and being listed as a member."
Now compare that to the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, which boasts 49 HVAC contractor members. John Bosse of the Cincinnati Chamber said the sheer size of his membership is likely what draws more contractors than other, smaller chambers. "Joining the metro/regional chambers will provide new business contacts and access to key decision makers across the region that smaller local chambers cannot provide," he said. "But smaller chambers can provide social networking for those looking to meet some people."
QUESTIONS ANSWEREDThe NEWS polled local community chambers asking for membership totals for HVAC contractors and whether any HVAC contractor held a board or advisory position with the chamber. A total of 105 chambers sent back answers to some or all of the questions.
Of the 101 replies to the membership question, HVAC contractor membership ranged from 0 to 49 members. Most answers fell into the 0-5 category (46 percent) or 6-10 category (25 percent). Of the 95 replies to whether an HVAC held a board or advisory position, 71 (75 percent) said no and 24 (25 percent) said yes.
One chamber representative said there is less participation in leadership because of one important thing: time.
"HVAC contractors are traditionally very busy and labor oriented," said Donna Brown of the Cedar City Area Chamber of Commerce (Utah). "It's a good idea to encourage them to appoint one individual to handle marketing and public relations and invite that person to represent the business at chamber functions and other high-profile community events."
But Don Laird of the Columbia (Mo.) Chamber of Commerce said there is a way to deal with the time issue besides appointing a representative - let the Web do the talking.
"I think owners are missing a great opportunity by not being listed on our Website," he said.
"We average over 400 unique visits to our site daily and if you are not there, your company may have missed a great chance for more business. Many of our members have a Website and a hot link is provided to their site from ours. All members are listed on the site."
"As near as I can figure, we have nearly 30 HVAC businesses in our area, of which four are members," said Central Louisiana's Workman. "Yes we have a need for better chamber representation."
"There are many builders, developers, and contractors in the chamber and it would benefit HVAC contractors to be members," said Roseville's Macaulay. "We are in a growing area and there is a lot of building going on as well as revitalization of our older areas."
Every chamber is eager for new members and excited to talk about the benefits of membership, according to Freya Reeves of the Greater Madison (Wis.) Chamber of Commerce. She said HVAC contractors have an opportunity to better their businesses through the endless exposure and marketing opportunities provided to member businesses by the Chambers of Commerce.
"The best way to learn about what their local chamber offers is to speak with current members, call and/or visit the chamber's Website, attend business card exchanges that are open to non-members, informational meetings, etc.," said Reeves.
One respondent is perplexed by the number of HVAC contractors in his community who don't get involved with chamber events, despite the obvious benefits to their companies.
"They [non-HVAC contractor members] ignore two business-to-business expos we run each year, missing out on thousands of new contacts," said Joe Zoratti of the Mercer Regional (N.J.) Chamber of Commerce.
"And the cost to attend is their business card. Go figure."
KEY BENEFITS ACCORDING TO THE CHAMBERSThe best way to show some of the many benefits of chamber membership is to look at the programs available from a progressive chamber with a large number of HVAC contractor members. One example is the Toledo (Ohio) Regional Chamber of Commerce. According to Toledo's Stacey Mallet, the chamber currently has 24 HVAC contractors as members. One is the president of its small business division TASBA (Toledo Area Small Business Association.) He also sits on the Chamber Board of Trustees.
The Toledo Chamber is unique in that it has a Business Development Services section, which has counselors which work with clients (members and nonmembers) seeking government contracts (PTAC); small businesses from inception through the life cycle of the business (SBDC); minority businesses (MCBAP); and businesses whose owners are disabled in some way (Enterprise Works). By offering counseling and assistance in business operations within its Business Development Services organization, the chamber provides real value added for chamber members or potential chamber members.
"I would estimate that there are HVAC contractors in northwest Ohio who could benefit from our menu of counseling services," Mallet said. "We are aggressively seeking to broaden our ability to provide these free services to our client base. Currently we have one HVAC contractor who is a client in the PTAC. There are others (less than a dozen) that are being served by our business development specialists (including two that are minority businesses).
"The financial and volunteer support of our members allows us to create a positive environment in the region in which to do business. We facilitate this process through our public affairs advocacy on the state and local level as well as our support of business development through the many services available through Business Development Services."
The Toledo Chamber also offers cost-saving benefit programs (health insurance, workers comp group pooling, office supplies, etc.) and networking/exposure events (Business After Hours, Clambake, golf outing, online directory, etc.) to help businesses both save and make money.
The East Mississippi Business Development Corp. (EMBD) of Meridian, Miss., serves as the local chamber and has another interesting benefit to chamber members as well as the community. The group believes that involvement in the education of young people is vital to their community and makes it a goal to support local schools.
"We are working to improve our K-12 schools with an in-depth program to carry the needs of industry from middle school curriculums all the way through our local college programs," said the EMBD's Dorothy Allen. "We are listening to what industry is saying, and we want to be sure our workforce is ready and qualified. We have a School Counts program which encourages students to stay in school and be on time each day, finish in four years, maintain a C average, and have a good attitude towards training.
"Our local industry leaders told us they need workers who are on time, are willing to be trained, and work well in teams. These students are given special ID cards that allow them to be interviewed for jobs ahead of other applicants and we have 150 businesses who have agreed to meet this criteria."
If an HVAC business owner wants to be involved but can't devote as much time to chamber activities as he or she would like to, it doesn't mean they can't benefit from membership - quite the contrary. Being a member in good standing is a way to establish referral customers, usually at a cost far less than through conventional marketing or advertising.
Shane Adams of the Montgomery County (Blacksburg, Va.) Chamber of Commerce commented that with the average chamber membership in the $200-$250 range, just one new business contact/customer referral for the HVAC contractor pays for the membership tenfold. "Imagine what getting two or three extra contracts in a year would do? That's a pretty good return on investment for anyone."
Karen McGrath of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce (Del.) said that being part of the referral network can take members out of the competitive Yellow Pages market. "People look in the Yellow Pages and find two dozen contractors, and then they call us to find out who is reputable," she said. "We only recommend chamber members. Membership offers opportunities for developing clients (both commercial and residential) because people like to do business with someone they know."
Like the example of the Michigan contractor who joined his chamber and immediately obtained a service agreement, there are other benefits of chamber membership that are geared directly toward HVAC contractors. Dixon Area (Ill.) Chamber of Commerce & Industry is the administrative office for its local enterprise zone, a program that offers building materials sales tax exemption for qualifying projects.
"Many HVAC systems both new and retrofitted are eligible for this exemption, and this helps people to decide to spend the dollars to put in that new system," said Dixon's John Thompson. "The sales tax on HVAC equipment or the Occupation Use Tax paid by HVAC contractors is eligible for this exemption."
HVAC CONTRACTORS SHOW THEIR SUPPORTFor contractors like Heinanen, the reasons to join his local chamber were obvious - as a new business owner he didn't know everything. "Starting a business, you think you know everything, but you don't," he said. "You need to learn about business and we knew we could learn from other chamber members."
Heinanen doesn't feel that learning is exclusive to him. He always brings an employee with him to chamber functions. On the day of The NEWS' visit, he brought along Jim Gray, one of his sales-people. The event was a Friday morning chamber breakfast, attended by 110 members of the Livonia Chamber of Commerce.
"I like to put my people in touch with other businesspeople," Heinanen said.
One contractor, Tom Scarangello of Scaran Heating & Air Conditioning, Staten Island, N.Y., a 47-year member of the State Island Chamber of Commerce, believes that some HVAC contractors simply do not see the benefits of chamber membership. "I think most HVAC contractors do not join because they don't understand the value," he said. "They don't see that making connections through attending chamber functions leads to increased business. And they fail to grasp how much they can learn from fellow business owners.
"Credibility needs to be earned every day. Chamber membership does send the message that your business is established and intends to be around for a while. There is some instant credibility in that.
"I would say join because even if you don't have the time to attend events or get involved your dues will go towards making the business environment in your community better. If you have the ability to get involved you will reap benefits that far outweigh your dues dollars spent."
Buddy Smith of Russell's Heating & Cooling, Chesapeake, Va., is a board member of the Hampton Roads (Va.) Chamber of Commerce. Smith sees a great deal of benefits from chamber membership for his company.
"The chamber provides more than 100 networking opportunities a year," he said. "We also provide our members with an array of member benefits that gives them buying power such as health insurance, dental care, disability, and life insurance. We also provide discount programs for three things every business needs: office supplies, long distance, and discount shipping.
"All of our members are listed in our chamber membership directory and on the chamber Website, which provides a link to their own site. Members can advertise in the directory, on the Website, and in our newcomer publication, This is Hampton Roads. Only members can have access to the chamber's high-qualified mailing list. And only members can get the marketing benefits of sponsoring chamber events."
One contractor is carrying on the family tradition of chamber membership - and hopes to pass it on to another generation.
"My late father joined the chamber shortly after starting our company in 1964," said Wayne Keith of Keith Air Conditioning Inc., Mobile, Ala. "Dad always gave strong support to community activities, and I fortunately inherited that same belief. My son who is now working with us, I hope will continue to be supportive of the chamber."
Visit the United States Chamber of Commerce Website at www.uschamber.com for more information on local and state chambers.
Sidebar: Chamber ChoicesEditor's note: This article is a reprint from the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce, written by Nancy Hahn, Membership Director.
You have made the smart business decision to join a Chamber of Commerce. The next step is to determine which one to join. To save time, you do a search on the Internet (www.2chambers.com). To help make your selection easier, here are some guidelines.
Identify two or three Chambers of Commerce in your market area. Your market area might be where your business is located and/or where your customer/prospect base is located.
Start by calling the chamber office. Did you get voice mail? If you had to leave a message, how long did it take someone to return your call? If you got through to a live person, what's your first impression? Were they friendly, professional, and helpful? Did you feel welcomed and important or did you get the impression that you were an interruption?
Identify your top reasons for joining a Chamber of Commerce. When you call, visit or talk to other members, ask about opportunities in the areas that interest you most.
Visit the chamber's Website. Does it contain useful information? Is it easy to use? Is the information current? What events are scheduled? Are directions available to each event? Is there a directory of members for you to view?
Is there an orientation program offered? This is a great way to get a full review of the benefits the chamber offers, meet and network with members and other business owners who are also thinking of joining.
Meet the chamber staff. Determine how responsive, supportive, and resourceful the staff will be to you as a member.
How large is the chamber? Evaluate this in three ways.
What do members say? Ask for member feedback or ask for the names and numbers of a few members that you can call to learn how they rate the value of their membership.
How active is the chamber? If networking is one of your goals, find out what kinds of events are offered, how often they are scheduled and how well attended they are.
Attend an event. If your goal is networking, attend a networking breakfast, lunch or evening event. Evaluate how friendly the group is.
Educational programs. Does the chamber offer seminars that will help educate you and/or your staff throughout the year? Are there opportunities to be a presenter of an educational seminar?
What are the leadership opportunities? What committees does the chamber have? What are the opportunities for you to get involved?
How entrepreneurial is the chamber? Does the leadership seem stuck in doing things "the way they have always done things," or is there a spirit of addressing members' needs and changing with the times? You want an organization that meets the needs of its members today, not yesterday.
Is the chamber a resource center? As a business owner, your time is valuable. When you need information, you need a resource to turn to for quick and accurate answers.
Benefits that come with membership. Benefits may vary from chamber to chamber, but here are some examples to look for:
How active will you be as a member? To get the most out of your membership, you will want to be an active member (i.e., attend one event a month and/or get involved on a committee). Your membership entitles you to participate with an exclusive group.
Membership Fees. What does a one-year membership cost? This is a key issue, but it is purposely put at the bottom of the list. It is important to evaluate what you get for your money before you evaluate the cost. If you only compare the cost to join, you just might short change yourself by getting what you pay for.
Publication date: 10/09/2006