Tom Morrissette, pictured in his Largo office, celebrated his 10th anniversary as president of the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce last month.
LARGO – Tom Morrissette didn’t really have an end date in mind when he started with what is now called the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce 10 years ago.
He didn’t even have the job lined up when he moved to Tampa Bay in September 2003 with only his clothes, some dishes, pots and pans. Looking to escape the snow and try something different, he had accepted an offer for his condo in Massachusetts, sold almost everything and headed to Florida.
He signed a seven-month lease on an apartment in St. Petersburg. The offer on his condo had been much higher than what he originally had bought it for at an auction, so he had some funds to burn. Morrissette, then 42, had never been to the west coast of Florida, but had some friends in the area.
“I played hooky for a little, checking out the beach and exploring the area,” he said. “I thought, if it doesn’t pan out, I’ll go back up north.”
About a year and a half prior, he had been laid off from his relatively new job as vice president of marketing for the Central Massachusetts Regional Tourism Council, a state agency that had suffered financially post-Sept. 11. After a month in Florida, he saw an ad in the newspaper for the job as president of what was then the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce and figured he could handle running a 400-member chamber.
By March, Morrissette was watching sunsets from a rented cottage on Belleair Beach and marveled that he had gone from no job in Massachusetts to a great job in a completely new state in only a year.
“It was a fun year, a year of change,” he said.
Since then, Morrissette has guided the nonprofit organization through its transition as a regional chamber and through its own financial difficulties.
“We went through the greatest recession since the Great Depression and are still here holding our own, and back to where we were before the recession,” he said. “We’re fortunate in this area, in central Pinellas, that we have a very diversified economy.”
The strategic planning to steer the chamber in a new direction began in 2006, transitioning to the new name that linked it to that vibrant central area in 2010. The Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce currently has a membership of 465 companies and boasts a 82 to 83 percent membership retention, higher than the state industry norm. Morrissette would like to see that increase to 85 percent retention by the end of the year. To him, that’s the number that counts, as an indicator that the organization is providing a return on investment for the businesses it serves.
The regionalization process is still in progress, he said. The chamber has always attracted businesses outside the boundaries of Largo, even as far as Tampa.
“This kind of locked it up more and said, ‘This is who we are,’” Morrissette explained. “Some people think like government, that we have a fence … That’s not the nature of any organization, especially chambers of commerce.”
Businesses go where they can do more business, he said. The chamber has to evolve with the businesses it supports.
“Our money comes from businesses that say, ‘We support what the chamber is doing; this is a great way for us to enhance our customer base, and we want to be a part of what they’re all about,” Morrissette said. “If we’re not providing the services and the programs and the opportunities, they’re not going to sign that check.”
Small businesses especially have to see an obvious return on investment in order to justify the expense of membership, he said. For a chamber that’s only run by Morrissette, two full-time and one part-time employees and its great volunteer base, the organization offers a lot of useful programming, Morrissette said. Other chambers have mimicked some of those programs, including the women in business council and the chamber’s leads groups.
Each of the four leads groups meet twice a month, either for lunch or breakfast, at Fat Cat Tavern, Alfano’s Restaurant, Village Inn and Proino Breakfast Club, respectively. Members pay an extra fee to be part of the group, as its sole banker or Realtor, for example. The groups develop relationships and share referrals among themselves.
“Some of them have been really big referrals that have turned into business,” Morrissette said.
For chamber campaigns, like the upcoming membership drive, the members pit themselves against the other lead groups, Morrissette explained.
“It’s, ‘We’re not going to let Fat Cat take us! We’re going to make sure we get more members than Fat Cat did.’ It’s become this camaraderie within the groups and competition among the groups,” he said. “It’s really fun. I’m enjoying it a lot.”
Morrissette hopes that the membership campaign will pave the way for a fifth leads group. The problem will be scheduling yet another regular meeting on the chamber’s busy calendar.
“It’s scary how much we’re doing,” he admitted. “Every day, we’ve got something going on.”
The chamber has seen more and more involvement in events like its business happy hours, he said. When he first started working at the chamber, businesses were enamored with the novelty of social media.
“While I think that’s important and it has its place, a lot of people were using it as The Place, because it was new, and it was shiny,” Morrissette said, explaining that a mix of social media and face-to-face connections is vital. “The chambers provide the opportunity to get out and say, ‘I know you, I met them, I like them.’ Social media can’t provide that.”
Despite his “slammed” schedule, Morrissette said he loves his job because of the people.
“You’re never going to do the same thing, day in or day out. It’s always something different,” he said. “I didn’t want to be tied down and doing the same thing.”
Ten years is certainly not a full term for Morrissette, who served 15 years as communications manager of the Worcester Area Chamber of Commerce in Massachusetts. His mentor, the late Bill Short, who was living in Seminole when he died at age 70 years later, hired him for the job.
Before joining the “chamber world,” Morrissette was working as a Massachusetts bureau chief for the Woonsocket Call, a daily Rhode Island newspaper, where he had worked as a paperboy in his hometown. Morrissette, a journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, had his roots in news radio and admitted during his interview with Short that he knew “absolutely nothing” about chambers. But that honesty eventually got him the job, in February 1986, as head of a new communications department at the 4,300-member chamber at age 24.
Short taught him everything he knows about chamber work, Morrissette said, including patience. He always told him, “Good always comes to the top. Sounder minds prevail.”
Morrissette already is anticipating what role the chamber might play in the region into the future.
“We have to redefine where we are and where we’re going,” he said.
The central Pinellas area isn’t completely defined by tourism like the beaches are, he said. Rather it’s already home to several vibrant medical, manufacturing and technology companies that most residents, who aren’t earning the good wages those jobs provide, aren’t aware of.
“How do we tell their success stories?” he asked. “We have to promote ourselves in a way that sets us up for the next 10 to 20 years.”
The goal of the chamber has to be defining the area as a niche market that will attract more businesses offering high-paying jobs in emerging technologies.
Part of that future outlook will be joining the conversation about the future of transit in Pinellas County. The chamber and its economic development committee will be hosting forums for the community to discuss those questions, specifically about Greenlight Pinellas and the proposed 1-cent sales tax that will pay for it. Improved transit is vital to the success of the region, Morrissette said.
“Our alternative is to cover Pinellas County in asphalt,” he said.
Morrissette credits his success to his staff: Cindy Paquin, the communications and events director who has been with the chamber almost as long as he has; Kathy Pabst Robshaw, the membership development director and Cathy Bosko, member services and sales consultant.
For more about the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce, visit its offices at 151 Third St. NW. in Largo, its website at www.centralchamber.biz or call 584-2321.