Shanna Cox, president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — The first two months on the job, Shanna Cox listened, a lot.

“‘I hear you might be open to making changes. You ought to think about this,'” Cox said, quoting others in the local business community. “I get that everywhere I go.”

The new president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is slowly rolling out new plans, culminating in a talk at the chamber breakfast Thursday, that came from all of that listening.

She is changing up membership fees, drastically. She is creating a new roundtable of business leaders to voice where they would like to see the chamber, and the region, go. And she is broadening the approach to events.

The chamber has more than 700 members with 900-plus locations in 14-plus towns representing 40,000-plus employees.

Only a small number turn out to traditional breakfasts and Business After Hours events, Cox said. For some members, there is no one left to run the shop. Or the factory started up and they cannot step out. Or they work out in the field.

“I’m a third-generation, blue-collar daughter — electricians all the way up and down my family tree,” Cox said. “You spend all day on a job site and you’re going to show up with your steel toes on and Sheetrock and paint on you and then go in there and network at 5? And feel good about it?

“Maybe if you walked in the room and it didn’t look like that, maybe if we were at Buffalo Wild Wings and there were wings out and you could get a beer and lots of other folks looked like you. And do you know who wants to be in that room? The bankers, because those folks have needs, like commercial loans, improvement loans. Do you know who bankers do not want to market to? (Other bankers.)”

Next year, Cox sees holding different events at different times and places, starting with a family night at a Maine Nordiques game in January.

She has also reworked the chamber’s entire membership system. Previously, businesses paid annual dues based on the number of employees — $150 for a sole proprietor, $375 for six workers and up — and all received the same chamber benefits, no matter the size: Access to the conference room and free or discounted workshops.

“You didn’t get a choice at all, you just got it,” Cox said. But a two-person shop, for instance, does not want a seat at every breakfast and has no use for human resources workshops. “They don’t have a staff, they don’t have HR needs. I have to tailor to what they want. I think it’s about us being relevant.”

As of November, new membership tiers start at $100 for volunteer-led organizations or independent professionals, with benefits limited to access to member-only events and some workshops.

Tiers go all the way up to $3,500 for regional leaders, limited to 20 members. That group will have an annual audience with the chamber board, quarterly roundtable discussions and benefits like four seats a month at breakfast.

“They should be able to set those strategies and priorities, or at the very least inform them,” Cox said. “This really creates a space for the leaders in our community, who are really supporting the chamber operationally and financially, to be able to have that level of input.”

Seven of those 20 top seats are already taken with commitments on three more, she said.

“The overall reactions of our members have been in the ‘thank you for listening, thank you for being relevant, thank you for offering clear value’-type,” Cox said. “The responses have been very positive, and some folks who were questioning their continued investment have stated this helped them make a 2020 investment.”

The changes, she said, are not about immediately spurring growth or improving the chamber’s renewal rate, which sits at 83%, about the national average, according to Cox.

“I’d like everybody after a year of this to say: ‘I understood my value. It helped me in my business. My team is working better and happier, and I would love to do it again, maybe even get a better package next year, do more activities,'” she said. “By the end of this year, what’s the customer satisfaction rate? That’s the metric I’m paying attention to.”

Cox, who was hired after in October after Beckie Conrad left the position in June, kicked off her first month with five listening sessions.

Another takeaway from those sessions: “‘Stop calling us a nonprofit,’ specifically from the nonprofit business community,” Cox said. “It turns out that they’re pretty angry about that. They have workforce development needs, they have marketing needs, same as any other business. So you will never hear this office say ‘nonprofits’ again. It’s for-profit business members and nonprofit business members. A pretty easy change to make. Happy to do it.”

Cox came to the new position after being recommended during the search process by several board members. A Maine native who moved to the area in 2005, she has run her own consulting firm, Project Tipping Point, which she started winding down after getting hired as chamber president.

“I have the opportunity to make sure this is a region my children choose to stay educated in, choose to have their career in, choose to have their home in, and I need to band in with everybody else and make sure this is that place,” Cox said.

“If we all have that shared vision, and the supports and resources and thinking and expertise that is represented within my membership and the region we serve, well, let’s do something amazing. I wake up with that in my head every morning, and usually when I go to sleep.”

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