President’s report 2017
Shortly before the AGM last year, Craig McGowan warned his Committee that anyone stepping into his shoes as President would be taking on a demanding role, in terms of both time and effort. I have to say he was quite correct. But what he did not stress was the enormous satisfaction of leading an organisation committed to fostering an ever-stronger economy in the Chamber’s area. It is both an honour and a privilege to be at the helm – and, indeed, a great pleasure to serve the members and the wider community in this way.
One of my first duties as President was to attend – in the company of seven past presidents – the funeral of Nick Smith, the Chamber’s fifth President, who served during 1991 and 1992. More recently we have marked the death of Ron Loveday, who, in retirement, volunteered to act as honorary secretary and in the words of Brian Howard “got things done between committee meetings”. I acknowledge the contribution both these gentlemen made to the development of the organisation that we have today.
No president can operate autonomously – except, perhaps, in certain political arenas – and a successful Chamber President needs the support of a ådedicated and enthusiastic committee. I am very fortunate to have inherited such a committee, and thank them all for their contributions – despite their own career pressures.
Clive Rollinson, my Vice-President
Caroline Warrington, Treasurer
Rita Tinney, Secretary
Ruth Mullender, membership
Liz Owen stepped down early in the year following a career opening, and Paul Gardner did so more recently, because of work pressures.
Sadly, we are tonight bidding farewell to several committee members, but this is simply part of the Chamber’s evolution – allowing others to participate more meaningfully in the life of the Haslemere business community.
Objectives for the years past and future
When I accepted the role of President a year ago, I announced five key areas that I wanted the Committee to focus on. These were:
- Strengthening further our relationships with the other Waverley chambers, local authorities and key interest groups
- Engaging more closely with our existing members to monitor their opinions and needs – and to encourage greater participation
- Implementing a vigorous recruitment drive to increase our strength and broaden our talent base
- Seeking further opportunities to generate revenue that can finance economic development projects
- Developing a co-ordinated marketing plan for business in Haslemere.
We have had varying success with them so far, but they remain the principles that will guide the rest of my term of office.
Twelve months later I am happy to report excellent progress in terms of relationships. Leaders of the four chambers – that’s us, Godalming, Farnham and Cranleigh – communicate and collaborate with increasing effectivenesson issues of common concern … but without compromising any of the chambers’ independence.
We have a good working relationship with the Economic Development Team at Waverley, as well as certain councillors and officials. This positions us well for lobbying to ensure that local government encourages a supportive environment for the business sector. It is a matter of some concern that, as a whole, our elected representatives at Waverley appear to have little ear for the concerns of business. The ongoing controversy over car park charges is a good example.
I am happy to report that relations with our own Town Hall, especially our current Mayor and deputy Mayor, are particularly good. I believe the Chamber is highly regarded by most, if not all, the councillors. Generally they have sympathy for the business community and I feel we should recognise the chances that this presents.
There is, of course, a significant difference between political Haslemere – the area administered by the Town Council, Waverley Borough Council and Surrey County Council – and economic Haslemere – that significant part of the Chamber’s 78.5 square miles situated in West Sussex and Hampshire. People from those counties are both part of Haslemere’s problems and its potential solutions. Camelsdale and Grayshott are literally on our doorstep, while places like Liphook and Fernhurst are well within five miles of Haslemere Town Hall. I believe our Chamber could and should strive to work with all the relevant local authorities to achieve an economic solution in the best interests of all.
We are also building relationships with interest groups such as the Haslemere Community Rail Partnership, Haslemere Vision and the Royal Society of St George. Significantly, all these groups are involved in activity that contributes directly or indirectly to the local economic climate.
The Community Rail Partnership – which is not expected to be adversely affected by the coming change in the rail franchise – is behind the Information Hub, recently opened at the Station. We are supporting this because it is a determined effort to promote Haslemere, both as a destination and as a gateway to the South Downs region. And in the most simplistic terms, more visitors means potentially more customers for local businesses.
Our involvement in the Information Hub not only helps to publicise the Chamber, but also provides free opportunities for our members to gain exposure by providing items for the changing window displays that are envisaged. Details of how members can use these opportunities will be published on our website and in the Newsletter over the coming weeks. At this stage the Hub itself has limited opening hours, but if enough volunteers can be found to staff it, it will be able to remain open longer.
As I am sure you know, we are also supporting initiatives such as Haslemere Hogs and the Spring in Haslemere promotion. Both of these specifically address the need to bring more people into our business areas, and both give people a reason to see the diversity and depth of our commercial offering – and to spend their money.
Engagement with members
I had hoped to be able to report large-scale, one-on-one consultations between the Committee and members. This remains an ambition, because it will enable us more accurately to gauge grassroots opinions and business sentiment. If we are to serve the members better, we need to understand their hopes and their difficulties. We recognise that a number of members are happy to belong, but have no wish to be active in the Chamber – however, they should get something for the 16.4 pence a day that they pay to belong to the Chamber, even if it’s just a quick visit.
A drawback of operating a Chamber with a committee of working people is that they are generally too busy to spend as much time as they would like on Chamber business. I would hope that we can also find volunteers to take on the roles of Chamber ambassadors. I am thinking of retired people, with a good understanding of business, to knock on members’ doors and develop dialogue within the membership.
We are, of course, very grateful for comments, suggestions and plain contact with those members we have been able to meet face-to-face.
In the year ahead I want the Chamber to pay much more attention to the practice of customer relationship management: our members are effectively our customers. If the Chamber is to grow in size and influence, it must handle its members in a more businesslike fashion.
Engagement does not always have to be face-to-face, and I believe we have made good progress through bringing the latest version of the website to fruition, continued improvements to the weekly Newsletter and a growing presence on social media through our Facebook group and our Twitter account. I want to ramp-up activity on all these fronts in the coming months. My plea to members is to make more use of all our channels to stay in touch with local news and also to publicise your own news – and attract business.
We are also able to engage with members and the wider community via the general media, and I am particularly grateful to the Haslemere Herald and the Messenger for the coverage they have given us. Having spent most of my working life either reporting what people have said or writing things that they will say, it’s a pleasant change to be the one being reported!
I shall continue to exploit every opportunity to get publicity for the Chamber: it is vital for member recruitment and retention that we maximise the Chamber’s general credibility and public image by leading opinion on topical issues affecting our membership.
The Herald’s weekly Chamber column is an under-used facility for members to advertise at an attractive rate and I would urge all who are selling their products or services into the local area to make use of this medium. I am aware that some current advertisers are no longer members. We have no control over contracts between the Herald and its advertisers, but with more support from our active members I expect we can gradually push out those advertisers who are no longer on our membership list.
A third possible avenue of contact with members is through networking events.
Unfortunately, there appears to have been a lack of enthusiasm among members for networking and training. The Breakfast Club was failing to break even, so we decided to ‘park’ it. On the other hand, the rebranding of Poets Day as Chamber Drinks, and its move from the last Friday of the month to the last Thursday, has been reasonably successful. Our next session will be on the 27th of April: I hope to see you all there – Please watch the website and Newsletter for details.
I still believe local networking opportunities are an important element of what the Chamber should be providing, because for many of us the Chamber area is a rich store of potential customers, suppliers and employees. But we all need to look outside the area for business as well. This is one of the reasons we are proposing affiliation with Surrey Chambers of Commerce: it has networking and training opportunities on a scale that we could never achieve.
Membership and recruitment
We have seen modest growth in membership since the new website went live. There were a few teething problems with the online application form and our internal approval process, but I think these are now behind us.
In the coming year I want to see a renewed effort to bring lapsed members back on our books and draw in more of the many businesses – large and small – that have not yet joined. If we could knock successfully on the door of every business in economic Haslemere, I believe we could easily be on the way to an organisation of perhaps 500 members – and that would give us a great deal of clout.
We have just produced a recruitment leaflet, which we will hand out to prospective members whenever possible. We will also have supplies available at key points such as the Town Hall, Visitor Information Centre, Haslemere Information Hub, and any members (or other businesses) prepared to help us spread the word.
Revenue and development
A few years ago the Chamber’s finances were in dire straits, but with good financial management practices introduced by Malcolm Traviss and developed by Carline Warrington, our position is now much more satisfactory. During the year we were fortunate to receive a sum of just over £2,400 from Waverley Borough Council, when the funds of the defunct Waverley Business Forum were shared equally among the four Waverley Chambers. The only condition attached to this windfall was that the money could be used only for business development projects.
Meanwhile, our other ‘investment’ – the Haslemere Business Centre – is down to just one vacant desk. The latest forecast shows that start-up costs should be covered by this summer and that we can look to a positive balance of almost £10,000 by this time next year. This project has the potential to be a big feather in the Chamber’s cap – and a great service to the local community. We have to applaud my predecessor Craig McGowan and his team of Chamber members for their effort and determination to make this happen.
Sadly the other key project that Craig initiated – development of the car park behind Collingwood Batchellor – remains unfulfilled. You may recall that we were working to take over a lease from the Co-op, with the aim of improving the car park to let out some 45 parking spaces to members in the town centre at economic rentals.
When we were on the verge of reaching agreement, it transpired that the Co-op had made changes to its property team – and its agents. The new agent has, we understand, thus far not managed to secure a mandate to deal with the Haslemere car park. While we appreciate the Co-op has been in difficult financial times – most recently the announcement that it is to sell off its banking arm – it is sad that an organisation with a long-standing connection to Haslemere has so far been unable to give something back to the community in the form of a resource of great value to local business. Instead, the car park generates no income, is abused apparently by freeloading commuters and is in a rapidly declining state of repair.
I am not optimistic about an early change in this situation, but the Chamber will keep the car park on its radar in case there is an opportunity to revisit the project. It still has the potential to ease parking problems for some town centre workers – and generate additional cash flow for the Chamber.
I shall be asking my new committee to be aware of the need to find further revenue opportunities, because they will help to finance projects that support our members. I shall also be asking the Committee to look for suitable projects.
I remain convinced that our economic area could benefit from a co-ordinated marketing campaign and I believe that the Chamber should take a leading role in developing such a campaign. However, while we are beginning to feel like a cash-rich chamber, I would not want to see too much of our money going into a project like this until we have a lot more support and a clear mandate from the wider business community.
There are related issues in the pipeline, and I can report that Waverley is currently rethinking its Borough-wide economic development strategy. Just last week I attended an initial meeting with the Economic Development team, its management consultants and representatives of the other chambers. With Borough finances under increasing pressure, Waverley needs to champion reasonable development in order to sustain service provision to a growing and ageing population.
Naturally, any local marketing plan should strive to dovetail with the borough strategy because we are all working towards a similar objective. So I think it may be some time before we can look at a serious plan for Haslemere, because the overall strategy may take a long time to develop. In the meantime, we will focus on short term projects and publicity.
Despite the uncertainties of Brexit and world politics, I believe our area has a fundamentally sound economy with a huge range of skills and talents. The Chamber is proud of the contribution its members have made and will do all it can to encourage further progress. Personally, I am very pleased with what the Chamber has achieved. I look forward with enthusiasm to tackling the challenges and opportunities of the remaining half of my term of office.
5 April 2017