Stories of interim jobs that evolve into long-term, permanent and all-consuming positions are not uncommon. But the tale of Al Smith’s 10-year tenure as chief executive officer of the 1,200-member Fresno Chamber of Commerce is still unique. Smith, 77, stepped down at the end of 2015, saying it was time to get new blood into the role. A search is underway for a successor.
A mover and shaker in the Fresno community and member of the Chamber since he moved here in 1988 to run a chain of seven radio stations, Smith was considered to be the perfect short-term “babysitter” for the Chamber. He had recently sold his stations to a major broadcast company; had an abundance of sales and management experience; and knew the community well after catering to the diverse audiences of seven differently formatted stations.
“I thought that I knew this community well but I was surprised by the parts of the community about which I knew nothing. I discovered that a good Chamber has tentacles that run very deep into the community. As Chamber CEO I was basically a traffic cop in the middle of a busy intersection, directing people where to go for help and passing along information to the decision-makers. I had to walk the moderate line, working with union leaders and business leaders, Democrats and Republicans – all in an effort to make this community better for everyone,” Smith recalled.
Smith is particularly proud of putting the Chamber on a sound financial footing over the past decade.
“We definitely had our difficulties over the years. In fact, when I first joined the Chamber as CEO in 2005, we were facing serious monetary challenges,” Smith recalled. “But the first thing I did was rebuild our sales team and then we sat down with our business donors and told them that we could not keep the Chamber afloat on dues alone. We needed them to increase their support. So, we expanded our Chairman’s Circle of donors. In fact, now 25 percent of our income comes from these highly committed supporters.”
“Our goal was to get to the point where we had three months worth of funds in our reserve accounts and since we are an organization with a $1 million-per-year budget, that meant that we needed to have $250,000 in our rainy day fund. I am happy to say that we now have $350,000 in that reserve fund, so we have a solid financial foundation.”
Smith is also pleased that he and his staff have been able to give the Chamber a bigger voice in the community.
“I have always liked politics and I knew immediately that our elected officials need to better understand the needs of the business community since it forms the foundation and the tax base for Fresno, the county and the state,” Smith explained. “So we now have an advocacy council that meets monthly and a governmental affairs vice president who advocates on behalf of the business community. In addition, I have spent approximately 40 percent of my time attending meetings of the Fresno City Council, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and the California Legislature, stating our concerns and building relationships.”
Smith believes that the biggest challenge for the Chamber and its nine-member staff is telling the organization’s story including what they do, why they do it and how they do it. It is vital, he said, that they convince members and the entire community of their continuing value, using all means available including traditional media, Facebook, the website, Twitter and beyond.
“Everyone on the staff wears multiple hats and pitches in wherever needed. I am extremely proud of the talent and chemistry of our staff and our board,” Smith stated.
As for his successor, Smith said that whoever is ultimately chosen needs to be a leader, a visionary, a diplomat (because he or she will be dealing with lots of Type-A personalities holding diverse views) and a skilled communicator.
Lorraine Salazar, Chamber board chairwoman, told The Fresno Bee that Smith effectively stabilized and strengthened the organization during his decade at the helm and that while they are conducting a nationwide search for a replacement, she is hoping the search committee will find a local candidate who is connected to the Fresno business community and understands the region’s culture.
“This was an unexpected, but tremendous, 10-year ride for me. Whoever takes over will find him or herself in a unique and extremely satisfying job,” Smith said.