October marked the one-year anniversary of the schism at the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC). It was October 19, 2002, when a group of reform-minded leaders of local chambers held a press conference at the USHCC Convention in Los Angeles to protest the board elections.
But there were no fireworks at this year's convention, held October 1–4 in Phoenix. The elections came off smoothly. By electing new members to the board, the reformers may have accomplished their goal of quietly changing the organization from within (see box, "The New USHCC Board").
USHCC Chairman J.R. Gonzales says he and the board worked all year to address issues raised in Los Angeles. He notes that last year, 55 chambers qualified as members in good standing to participate in the elections; this year, the total was 103. "It's a significant increase due to outreach and our making the process user-friendly," Mr. Gonzales says. "We really published the word and encouraged [smaller chambers] to participate."
"Yes, I would agree that they are addressing the concerns of the coalition," says Julian Canete, CEO of the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. "It [the convention] was pretty calm."
Having overcome its most vocal critics, the USHCC still faces a backlog of bad feelings and finances. On the balance sheet, the organization "will be close to break-even or at break-even this year," according to Mr. Gonzales, who says the chamber cut $600,000 of expenses out of its budget. He acknowledges the USHCC still has an accumulated debt load; one source who requested anonymity told Hispanic Business it amounts to nearly $2 million.
"I just don't see the USHCC as an organization that spreads or trickles down the benefits that I expected to get from them as an umbrella organization," says Sara Gonzalez, president of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta. "I gave up on that [expectation] a long time ago."
But J.r. Gonzales, who was re-elected chairman unanimously by a board vote in September, hopes a string of initiatives will make the USHCC more relevant for member chambers. During his second year in office, for example, he wants to establish a training institute for local chambers. Initially, the training will consist of a multi-day seminar for local chamber presidents, executive directors, or other staff. The second phase will target volunteer board members, teaching them how to run meetings, communicate with members, and speak in public.
"We're not trying to cut the membership, but to improve the membership," Mr. Gonzales says. "A lot of chambers mean well, but they just aren't doing everything they could to be a strong chamber."
One persistent complaint among chambers is the lack of financial benefit to USHCC membership. Ms. Gonzalez at the Georgia Hispanic Chamber takes it a step further, noting how the national chamber siphons funds off the top. "Big corporations here [in Atlanta] have not been able to support us because they claim that giving to the USHCC covers that corner," she explains. "I have made it a point that [the money] doesn't come down to us."
A program announced at the convention in Phoenix offers to help remedy that lack of local money. A five-year deal between U.S. Bank and the USHCC will earmark $1 billion in loans to "small businesses in high-growth Hispanic markets nationwide," according to a statement from the USHCC. Under the program, called ˇCapital!, local Hispanic chambers will receive a referral fee for loans generated from their outreach. This structure – designed to address the entrepreneurial need for access to capital as well as the bank's desire for new customers and the local chambers' funding crunch – was negotiated by George Franco, a USHCC board member and CEO of Wisconsin-based National Finance Corp.
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