News Column

Chamber Focuses on Workforce, Small Business Under New President

Jan 16, 2013

Gene Zaleski

Dede Cook, the new Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce president, says she's ready to focus on helping small businesses survive in a challenging economy and enhancing workforce training for high school students.

"We are focusing on the things that we think are the most important right now," Cook said. "Our motto this year is putting business and education front and center in Orangeburg County."

And she is focused.

Cook has an air of confidence as she sits behind an orderly desk containing the latest correspondence needing to be addressed.

"I do value the chamber and I do care about it deeply," she said. "We have just a great board which is really excited about the future of this chamber. I think we will face every challenge that comes and I think we will come up with a way to make a difference. I am excited."

Cook previously served as chamber president from 1999 to 2002, and has held other positions through the years.

She served as interim president following the September 2012 departure of Ralph Faulling. Cook officially became president Jan. 1.

Cook said the chamber decided on its focus during the December board retreat.

"We have always done things to encourage small business and have always been an information center for them to get information from us," she said.

The chamber has done a good job helping individuals go through the process of starting a small business, she said. But the chamber wants to help the small businesses go a step beyond, providing them with the resources they need to do well.

Cook said, in general, small businesses are struggling to attract a customer base because of the economic downturn and decreased spending.

She said the concerns of small businesses include, "How will the health care reform affect them? How will the tax increase affect them?

"We hear it and it is across the board. We will listen closely and be a part of the conversation. We are the voice of the business community and we are trying to provide them with as many networking opportunities as we can so that they can network with others."

One way to help small businesses is to patronize them.

"I don't think we have been able to identify a service or a product that is not offered right here at home," she said. "We know they are right here. We need to make people aware and to encourage them to shop local."

Cook said the chamber wants to be more involved in helping form the bridge between education and workforce development.

The chamber supports the recent South Carolina Certified Work Ready Community initiative unveiled by Gov. Nikki Haley, Cook said. The initiative will aim to certify worker skills and match employee skills with employer needs.

"We have not had an education committee in a while and we will be regrouping an education committee together and hearing from those superintendents and headmasters of the private schools what is it that we can do," she said.

Cook said the recent chamber membership drive brought in 243 new members, which will help with its political efforts.

"We are now over 700 members strong and that certainly is a stronger voice than we have had before," Cook said. "We do what we need to do. We do access the legislative agenda that the South Carolina Chamber puts out and study that very closely to make sure if we endorse all that they are representing and if we feel like it is representative of our chamber membership, we endorse the entire legislative agenda."

Internally, Cook said she is working to fill two new full time positions: director of operations to serve as the chamber's office manager and full-time receptionist.

Cook is no stranger to the chamber. In 1997, she secured a position as office manager/accounting representative.

In January 2003, she stepped down from the chamber presidency, choosing to spend more time with her husband and children. She also wanted to pursue her love of accounting with Orangeburg's C.C. McGregor and Co. Inc. as a bookkeeper in the company's Small Business Department.

In August 2011, Cook returned to the chamber to become interim finance director. This was the position she held until she was named interim president.

Source: (c)2013 The Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, S.C.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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