News Column

'A Whole New Chamber'

November 2003, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Joel Russell

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.

The program could deliver as much as $7 million to local chambers over the life of the program. "The referral fee is returned to the referring chamber as a percentage of each loan, line of credit, or lease that is booked in the program," according to the USHCC.

"People say, 'What's the value of our membership? We need money,'" Mr. Gonzales summarizes. "We can't give them money, but we will give them this program and training. A lot of the issues people have complained about at the USHCC, this staff and this board have addressed. I think we're looking at a whole new chamber."

Two other USHCC initiatives for 2003–2004 involve technology and political elections. On the tech front, Mr. Gonzales wants to get member chambers up to speed on software and connectivity to create a platform for future networking and procurement programs. He also thinks local chambers should sponsor voter registration drives. "We aren't going to advocate partisan politics, but the Hispanic vote is becoming a power, and we need to leverage that power in the business community," he says.

Financially, next year will also include keeping watch on Hispanics Today, the weekly television show produced by the USHCC. "At this point, the plan is for the TV show to continue," says Mr. Gonzales. "It is actually generating revenue now. … So the TV show is going to stay on schedule, [but] we are constantly reviewing that as long as the show stays profitable." According to sources, some members of the USHCC board want to end the show, but have agreed to let it continue as long as it shows a net profit.

Beyond the coming year, the USHCC is poised to take a more active role on procurement and supplier development. In the same election that made Mr. Gonzales chairman for a second year, the board elected Tina Cordova as vice-chair. By tradition, the vice-chair assumes the chairmanship when the current chair retires.

"My focus is on federal procurement," says Ms. Cordova, CEO of New Mexico–based Queston Construction. "The federal government is not meeting its goals with the minority and Hispanic supplier community, and since [the government] is the biggest buyer in the country, it makes sense for the chamber to address this issue."

Despite her reservations about the organization, Ms. Gonzalez gives the new USHCC leadership high marks for improving communication, and she attended the Phoenix convention with several of her board members. "It's the one and only opportunity nationwide to connect with chambers like us," she says.

THE NEW USHCC BOARD
The vote in Phoenix produced a turnover of five members of the chamber's board. New members are indicated with an asterisk (*).
REGION 1 (AK, CA, HI, ID, NV, OR, WA)
Eric Carson
David Lizarraga*
Liliam Lujan-Hickey
Rafael Sanchez
REGION 4 (IL, IN, IA, KY, MI, MN, OH, WI)
Ruben Acosta*
George Franco
Joseph Lopez
Vincent Rangel
REGION 2 (AZ, CO, NM, MT, ND, NE, SD, UT, WY)
Tina Cordova – Vice-chair
Scott Flores
Peter Granillo
Frank Rivera*
REGION 5 (CT, DE, DC, MA, MD, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VA, VT, WV)
Ed Diaz
Esperanza Porras Field
Charles Gonzalez
Elizabeth Lisboa-Farrow
REGION 3 (AR, KS, LA, MO, OK, TX)
J.R. Gonzales – Chairman
Paul Rodriguez
Maria Guadalupe Taxman
Massey Villarreal*
REGION 6 (AL, FL, GA, MS, NC, PR, SC, TN)
Alex Chavez
Robert Chavez
Enid Toro de Baez*
Luis Torres-Llompart



Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine


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