New director hopes to expand Chamber of Commerce's role


The new executive director of the Harford County Chamber of Commerce plans to expand the chamber's role to offer marketing plans and educational seminars to its members.

That way, said Fredric M. Rohm, who starts as executive director at the end of this month, the chamber would become an invaluable tool for local business.

"My overall goal is to make membership as valuable as possible, even in hard economic times, so that when businesses are making decisions about cutting back, we are beyond the cut line," he said.

"We are going to offer services to our members to help them grow and work with the county to provide an economic environment that fosters business."

Mr. Rohm, 53, comes from a much larger organization, the New Castle Chamber of Commerce in Wilmington, Del., where he was executive director. The organization has 2,400 members and a $1.8 million annual budget compared with the Harford chamber's 1,400 members and $240,000 budget, he said.

Mr. Rohm and his wife, Gretchen, have four children and live in Newark, Del. The two, who have been married for 24 years, plan to build a house in the county, perhaps near Havre de Grace.

The chamber's focus would be to improve the county's economy and therefore boost growth in sales and the growth of local businesses, said Mr. Rohm, who has worked for chambers of commerce for 25 years.

Mr. Rohm, who received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Delaware, cautioned that his ideas need the chamber's approval.

One way to boost the Harford economy, he said, would be to encourage residents to shop locally.

The Harford Mall, for example, previously launched campaigns to encourage county residents to shop there rather than driving to White Marsh Mall in Baltimore County.

"We are talking something much bigger than that. We want to make county residents aware of everything that's locally produced so they will buy here," he said. "We want to keep those dollars here."

Betsy Campion, outgoing president of the chamber and a member of the executive director search team, called Mr. Rohm "a wonderful choice" because "he is a proven leader."

"Ed Ward, the former executive director, had been here for so long and was so well-known and so well-liked that we needed someone who could stand up to the comparisons," she said.

Mr. Ward will retire at the end of this month after 13 years as executive director.

Ms. Campion said the search committee, which received 135 applications, was impressed with Mr. Rohm's marketing ideas, including his production of a full-color magazine that included articles and pictures about local businesses.

Ms. Campion said one of the search committee's priorities was to find a director who could increase chamber revenues.

She said the chamber receives about 60 percent of its annual budget from dues. The rest has to be generated through fund-raisers, she said.

"While we are probably the most financially stable chamber in the state, we need a more steady flow of revenues," said Ms. Campion, who operates Insurco, an insurance agency. "We have a real concern that our employees receive good benefits and earn competitive salaries."

One way to get that cash is for the chamber to hold educational forums for its members -- information they may be paying someone else to provide, she said.

Mr. Rohm said one of the first things he would like to do is offer two- to 2 1/2 -hour seminars to teach small-business owners basic business skills.

"A lot of small-business people have a large degree of expertise in their basic business, but they don't understand the underlying aspects, such as cash flow, advertising or inventory control," he said.

Mr. Rohm said he had met with Harford Community College officials about the possibility of the college supplying instructors, materials or other information.

The majority of the chamber's members are small businesses with about 10 employees.

Mr. Rohm said he wants to work as a partner rather than independently of the county's Office of Economic Development.

"Basically, we are going to take the role of supporting and retaining small businesses and support Mr. Gilbert's efforts to bring large businesses in," Mr. Rohm said.

Paul Gilbert, the county's director of economic development, said the two organizations have made plans for a working lunch.

"We need to tell them what we do for business because they don't know. And they need to tell us what they are doing -- because we don't know," Mr. Gilbert said.

He said the two groups could work more effectively if they didn't duplicate each other.

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