Ross Murray readily admits that he wasn’t quite ready yet to become the de facto face of the Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s been a little more than I thought it would be,” said the retail mortgage loan officer for HomeBridge Financial Services in Ahwatukee. “Things are really, really busy at work.”
Nevertheless, Murray has jumped headlong into his new responsibilities now that, as chairman of the Chamber board, he has the responsibility of leading the 24-year-old organization’s makeover in the wake of the board’s decision to eliminate the position of president/CEO.
The move two weeks ago ended the 14-month tenure of that position’s apparently final occupant, Lindy Lutz Cash, and put the 300-member Chamber’s future in the hands of an all-volunteer 15-member board.
While Murray was entrusted with “the leadership and responsibility that this position oversees,” he will be acting “with 100 percent oversight by the board of directors,” the board said.
The decision came after at least several weeks of discussion about the organization’s finances.
The board said it wanted to devote more resources to its membership, implying that eliminating the salary of its top-paid executive was the best way to accomplish that goal.
Cash’s two immediate predecessors – who now lead two far larger chambers of commerce – wished their former employer well.
“Chambers of Commerce are driven by a passion for economic development and community,” said Chandler Chamber President/CEO Terri Kimble. “It does not surprise me that the Ahwatukee board of directors is doing everything possible to sustain their Chamber. I commend them in their efforts and dedication to the Ahwatukee Chamber and Board.”
Anne Gill, whom Cash replaced when she became president/CEO of the Tempe Chamber, said, “I look forward to learning more about the new direction in which their board is moving and wish them the best of luck.
But Justice of the Peace and former state legislator John McComish, who was the Chamber’s part-time CEO and its only employee in 1996, recalled that a year before he was hired, “the board attempted an all-volunteer board-run approach. It did not work well. This was in the Chamber’s formative years, when Ahwatukee was young and growing.
“While I am skeptical regarding the board-managed model, I hope it works out well. The Chamber is an important piece in the fabric of our Ahwatukee Foothills community,” McComish said.
Though he recently moved to Gilbert, Murray lived in Ahwatukee since 1992 – and is passionate about the community and the Chamber’s role in it.
His main goals are to strengthen the Chamber and give more value for belonging to it – and stage community events.
Those concerns influenced the board to make the move it did – with money dominating all three goals.
A Chamber member for about four years, Murray joined the board last year. He assumed the board position in December, but he had already been prompting the board to consider its future.
He said the motivation was the Chamber’s decision to drop the Red, White and Boom! Independence Day fireworks show and festival last year after an unidentified partner pulled its financial support for the event.
“It was a matter of raising the questions and having the hard conversations,” he said. “The board had been looking at it for quite a while. Losing Red, White and Boom! was a big blow. I stepped in after that.”
“It seemed like we were just beating our heads against the wall, doing events to raise money for an individual who was overworked and probably not appreciated and for a building that was bigger than we needed,” he said. “We had to make some hard decisions as an organization, and the consensus was we had to be a volunteer-based organization.”
He said the question dominating the discussion was “with our membership and our budget are we serving the community at the highest level?”
And during those discussions, he said, the board realized “we’re really missing something here.”
“For a small community, we have a very active business community and I feel we have missed something, and this is no fault of Lindy’s,” he said.
The discussion snowballed into the board’s dramatic decision as the year came to an end.
“It happened so quickly,” Murray said. “We had a retreat coming up. Lindy had a contract coming up. We couldn’t really pay what she deserved.”
And the fact that the CEO salary “was the biggest line item in our budget” made it clear that the best answer was nuking the position.
It’s not clear how many chambers of commerce in the country are run by an all-volunteer board. Neither the U.S. Chamber of Commerce nor a national association for chamber executives would answer even simple questions related to the number that don’t have a paid chief executive.
“That’s not in my wheelhouse,” said the spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber, which counsels chambers on its website to have an executive handle day-to-day tasks.
But Murray said the Ahwatukee Chamber is different from most chambers, particularly those in neighboring communities.
For one thing, it is the only chamber in the country operating in a city that also has a citywide chamber. Its sister groups in the East Valley maintain staffs and a host of events that dwarf those of the Ahwatukee Chamber.
“We’re a small bedroom community,” Murray said. “We don’t have the big employers like Phoenix and Tempe have. Chandler and Gilbert chambers are doing great things – but they’ve got big employers too.”
The Ahwatukee Chamber will retain its membership director and two other fulltime and one part-time position. It is also looking to move out of its rental offices on East Chandler Boulevard near 46th Street and find smaller, more affordable space.
Murray and the board also have taken other measures to improve its value to members.
It has postponed its annual Day of Champions business awards breakfast, which was to be held in a few weeks, until June and has terminated the small fees it charged members to attend its monthly mixers.
Asked how the board would add more value to membership, Murray said he envisioned free seminars that helped educate business owners on public policy and other trends that directly affect them as well as other helpful educational sessions.
“The benefit of the chamber is that it’s all about building relationships. Are we going to have a robust website? Probably not. There are good ones out there already. It’s a matter of connecting people and having community events and supporting our businesses.
“I want us to educate businesses about what’s going on not just in our community but our city and our state…It’s easy to get a business license and open your door, but staying open is a different deal. I worry when I go into a business and see no one there. I care when a business closes. I worry about this community and the financial health of this community.”
Murray also is bullish on Ahwatukee and its business community – partly because of what he sees in his own business.
“I tell investors to buy in Ahwatukee right now and you will see your investment go up substantially,” he said.
He is equally enthusiastic about the Ahwatukee Chamber’s future, although he admits that with a board whose members all have busy lives, finding time in the day to devote to the organization will be a challenge.
“We empowered our board to be an active board and more engaged,” he said, though he admitted that when he became chair, “I didn’t know we wouldn’t have a CEO.”
“It’s a lot more challenging than I expected,” he said.
Right now, he and the board are putting a lot of effort into the Chamber’s biggest fundraiser of the year – its golf tournament in April.
“The problem with golf events as fundraisers is that you miss out on a big demographic,” he conceded. “I want to do an event that really brings the whole community together, not one to raise money but to give back to the community.
“I’m not worried about growing the member base,” he added. “We have to get back to basics If we can prove our value, if we can establish that, then selling memberships will be a piece of cake.”