Chamber Man

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2007

Manatee County Chamber of Commerce president Bob Bartz took an aptitude test after he left his position as a frustrated young manager-in-training at Kmart and was testing out different careers. He’d been working for the retail chain for three years after graduating from the University of South Dakota and had been transferred to four cities, losing all sense of community. When the test results came back, Bartz discovered he had all the right qualities to become a funeral home director—or to run a chamber.

Luckily for the Manatee County Chamber of Commerce, which was named the National Chamber of the Year last summer as well as Florida Chamber of the Year for the third time, Bartz, 56, who is now celebrating his 25th year at the helm, chose the chamber path. Less than 1 percent of all chamber presidents stay in the same position for 25 years, making Bartz a rarity among his colleagues. (The Sarasota Chamber, for example, has had three presidents since 1997.)

People who work with the tall, bearlike Bartz credit his management style and long tenure for a good portion of the chamber’s success and awards, but Bartz is quick to dismiss any praise. “It’s the staff and members,” he insists.

Of all the chambers in the country with the same total annual dues as Manatee ($500,000-$1 million), only 18 qualified to enter the competition for National Chamber of the Year. To do so, the chambers had to meet or beat the national average or median for their dues income level in four of seven quantitative points, including net income and retained member accounts.

With a consistent membership retention rate of 85 percent and increased membership every year for the last decade, the Manatee chamber is at the top of the statistical heap. The average chamber membership for a county the size of Manatee is 1,500. The Manatee chamber has 2,400-plus members.

But the numbers tell only half the story. Innovative programs and excellent member service seem to be what really catapult the Manatee chamber onto the award podium so often.

“We didn’t have to go to the chamber when we started our business, they came to us. They embraced us,” says Becky Parra, owner of Lyteworks, an upscale lighting store that opened last year in Manatee County. “I’ve had an unbelievable business experience here.”

Bartz came to the region after growing up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where his father was a purchasing agent for Union Pacific Railroad and his mother was a bank trust officer. After the aptitude test proved he’d be a good fit for chamber work (he had an abundance of empathy and an ability to play well with others), he took a job as executive vice president of the chamber in Grinnell, Iowa, and then was recruited to become vice president and general manager of the Greater Hollywood Chamber in Florida, eventually becoming the president of the Manatee Chamber in July 1982.

Along the way, he has also been a past president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Executives, and is still a member of the United States Chamber of Commerce Committee of 100, the Board of Governors of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Federation Advisory Board. He also holds positions with USF, Suncoast Workforce, South Florida Museum, Bradenton Enterprise Zone Board and the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

Long tenure among Bartz’s management team is revealing. Logging in at 11 years, Jacki Dezelski, the vice president of East County and community development for the chamber, is the “newest” member of the team. Both Neil Spirtas, the chamber’s vice president of public affairs, and Nancy Engel, the executive director of the chamber’s Economic Development Council, have been with Bartz for more than 20 years. Everyone at the management level has lived in Manatee County for 20 years. They either attended Manatee High themselves or their children did. Almost all of their adult children have remained in Manatee County. (Out of the 24-person staff, Bartz and Spirtas are the only men; the women jokingly assign each man a floor for changing light bulbs.) It’s the kind of community knowledge and loyalty that’s hard to find in most workplaces.

“You spend so many hours at work,” says Bartz. “If you have fun and enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll stay.”

To help make the chamber an enjoyable workplace, Bartz subscribes to the Fish Philosophy, a workplace program inspired by Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, where workers fill orders by throwing fish through the air. The chamber now has a Director of Staff Morale, a six-inch plastic Gumby doll that travels with employees and has its own business cards. The staff also organizes frequent parties, celebrating everything from monthly birthdays to the release of the latest Harry Potter book.

Marie Pender, vice president of membership development and services, says, “He’s really a very sensitive gentleman who gives his employees ownership over their work.” She recounts a now-legendary chamber story of how a young Bartz once sold his car to pay for his sick cat’s surgery.

Bartz “makes coffee, takes out the trash, cleans up after meetings,” Dezelski says. “He keeps his own calendar, checks his own e-mail and answers his own phone. He’s completely accessible and there isn’t one networking or after-hour session he doesn’t attend."

Pender adds, “This is the kind of office where, if your child care suddenly fell through, you could bring in your kids and their sleeping bags and put them on the floor. I’ve done it.”

In past years, chamber work was often about membership drives, dues and hosting festivals. Now Bartz is focused on issues like growth, workplace drug use and workforce shortages. In two years, the Manatee-Sarasota area is expected to be short 13,000 to 15,000 workers. The chamber is trying to help its members respond to this shortage by encouraging business to incorporate young people. “I tell businesses, if you don’t incorporate young people into your workforce, you won’t be around in 15 years,” he says.

The chamber is also taking the lead on creating a program with AARP that will encourage older people to remain in the workforce longer, perhaps by working a flexible part-time schedule.

Bartz and his staff see some threats to both business and community right now: commercial insurance, healthcare costs, housing costs and transportation, to name a few. Manufacturing jobs continue to leave Manatee, so the Economic Development Council, a division of the chamber, is working to recruit more tech businesses to create a stronger knowledge-based economy.

When asked about retirement, Bartz acknowledges it’s something he’s started to think about, but he has no plans to leave anytime soon. For recreation, he kayaks in Florida and hikes and white-water rafts in North Carolina, where he owns a condo and spends about four weeks a year.

Despite lucrative offers from other chambers in Florida and throughout the Southeast, Bartz says he’s proud to stay in Manatee. “The people are great here. The longer you stay in a job like this, the harder and more challenging it gets,” he explains.

And Bartz and his wife, Vicki, are about to get another very good reason to stay. Their son and daughter-in-law, who also live in Manatee, are expecting their first child in March.

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