Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Robin Sollie, left, poses for a photo with Ruthie and Paul Buxbaum, owners of Chill Tapas Restaurant and Steam Espresso Bar, winners of the Small Business of the Year award at the chamber’s annual dinner on Jan. 17.
ST. PETE BEACH – The Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce has more than doubled in size over the past four years and the spotlight for that growth shines squarely on president and CEO Robin Sollie.
Sollie, 41, joined the chamber in 2008 after a successful career running her own business. She quickly discovered running the chamber was not going to be a walk in the park.
“When I arrived the chamber had 325 members, roughly. They didn’t have an accurate tracker,” she said. “Monetarily, there were major financial difficulties and outstanding bills. They were trying hard to make ends meet. And they had not been providing benefits or value to the members they did have.”
Since then the Chamber has grown to 716 members and, according to Sollie, has a healthy bottom line, as well as a system for evaluating the benefits it gives to its members.
“We have to give businesses what they need for their operations and what they expect to get,” she said.
If you ask Sollie how she managed to lead the turnaround, with a staff of three full-time and three part-time employees, her answer is fairly simple.
“If we are providing benefits to our members then others will join,” she said. “You have to start giving members what they pay for. That is what we live with continuously and we had to tackle that as a business. The members need to be heard.”
She also pointed out that they had to focus on the makeup of their members.
“We represent a wide variety of business,” Sollie said. “But we had to recognize that 47 percent of them were tourism-related and 40 percent were service industries. Every one of our team members is trained to be a consultant and is trained to help the businesses connect with the recourse that they need.”
Sollie grew up in downtown St. Petersburg and founded the Tranquility Day Spa and worked it into a successful business. In 2005, the Tampa Bay Business Journal recognized her spa with the Business of the Year award.
Soon after she sold the business and when one of the board members at the Beaches Chamber approached her about taking on the CEO position, she quickly accepted.
“I was up for the challenge,” she said. “One of the things that excites me is to take something that is foundering and get new ideas and make them work.”
Sollie has obviously made it work at the Beaches Chamber. Travis Johnson, vice president of marketing at the TradeWinds Resort in St. Pete Beach, said Sollie’s business style is what makes her successful.
“Number one, she maintains the leadership skills necessary to lead,” said Johnson. “She has a strong work ethic and she takes pride in that.”
Johnson said Sollie has another leadership quality that is essential to leading a group such as the Chamber of Commerce.
“She’s a good listener and always follows up and has the ability to execute,” he said. “We set goals every year and every year she meets those goals. She doesn’t want to miss a goal and she doesn’t.”
Part of the job of the Beaches Chamber is to be involved with businesses outside its immediate jurisdiction.
“There are 14 chambers of commerce in Pinellas County,” said Sollie. “We respect the boundaries of each one, but we have many members from outside our immediate area. In fact, most businesses in the county belong to more than one chamber.”
Businesses in Clearwater Beach for example are in the Clearwater Chamber’s jurisdiction but many are members of the Beaches Chamber because of the unique marketing opportunities that focus on beach-related tourism opportunities.
Johnson credits Sollie’s style with attracting many of those members.
“Businesses realize they can put a plan together and Robin and her team will listen and they will stay in contact with you as they try to put that plan into operation,” he said. “As a result the retention rate of our members has been good. Once businesses are in the loop there is a high probability they will stay.”
Despite the growth of the chamber in the past few years the job isn’t finished, at least not according to Sollie.
“This year for the first time we are going to be following an official strategic plan,” she said. “We are going to grow membership even more. We want 850 members and we’re going to be launching a leadership program. We’re also going to be promoting the beach communities. We want people at the county level to hear our voice and we want people to know they can buy beach first.”
Last year the Beaches Chamber of Commerce won the Florida Chamber of the Year award and Sollie won the Chamber Professional of the Year award. In the year ahead she will be the chair of the Florida Association of Chamber Professionals.
She is proud of that.
“It means that we have been recognized for the work we’ve done here,” Sollie said. “And I like that idea.”