Vanessa Milio, CEO, Harford County Chamber of Commerce
Jan. 17 marks the one-year anniversary of Vanessa Milio’s first day at the Harford County Chamber of Commerce and the end of a yearlong celebration of the Chamber’s 35th anniversary. As the first woman to hold the position of CEO at the Chamber, the celebratory theme of “Bright Past … Brighter Future,” aptly describes what Milio brings to her role.
With over 20 years of experience in leadership roles at non-profits, most recently serving six years as the director for the Harford County Public Library Foundation, Milio is poised to bring fresh ideas, innovative programs and new energy to the traditional business organization.
“I’m a tech junkie,” Milio admits. “One of the first things I initiated was online payments on our website and a more robust social media presence. There are several more ways to integrate technology into our business,” she adds, “but those were the most obvious for me.”
A Facebook page and a Twitter account may not sound like important initiatives in a turbulent economy, but Milio understands that staying in touch and developing a relationship with your membership – your customer – is really Business 101. “I had to immediately increase the touch points we had with our members,” she says. “Because we are such a diverse Chamber, I had to create multiple ways to get the information out.”
Harford County’s Chamber is the largest in the state by membership and one of the most diverse. With over 1,000 members representing 800 businesses, the diversity brings both advantages and challenges.
“We’re trying to represent a member-ship that includes sole proprietorships, small and mid-sized businesses, and one organization whose employee roster exceeds 7,000,” Milio explains. “With that kind of spectrum, it was important to disseminate our information in multiple formats.” In addition to social media, the Chamber continues to produce a monthly newsletter in print and electronic format, sends member e-mails and uses events as a communication tool.
Milio reestablished the Business After Hours gatherings and added a new series called Business with Breakfast. “We had sole proprietors and construction contractors who told us they couldn’t make the luncheons and mid-day events because it would essentially stop the production day,” she says. “Adding early morning and after business hour events gives all members the opportunity to be involved and benefit from our programs and networking.”
It’s that kind of problem-solving and resolute action that will bode well for Milio. Upon her arrival at the Chamber, she made some immediate changes. She sat down with all the committees and solicited feedback regarding what members were saying was important to them. She restructured the responsibilities of her small staff to better utilize their skills and more efficiently run the organization. And, she embarked on a renovation of the old house on Bond Street that is the Chamber’s home. “When I came in, as with any leadership change, members saw it as an opportunity to share their ideas and observations about what they felt was working or not. As a leader, it was my duty to hear everyone, then make a decision on what course of action to take,” she states.
“It’s a challenge as you can imagine. The needs of a business in Jarrettsville and Darlington are very different from a business in Bel Air or Aberdeen. Infrastructure and traffic congestion aren’t the top concerns for the owners of a horse ranch or farm. But my job is to connect people and businesses and to facilitate opportunities and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Milio observed that the Chamber had members who sent their monthly dues and never participated and others who were in the trenches and supporting every event with attendance and enthusiasm. What she found was that the variety of the events was not serving their diverse membership. Many members needed real training and skill development in things like contract acquisition or marketing, so she introduced the Business with Breakfast series to provide information they can use immediately. Other businesses need to make as many new contacts as possible to grow their customer base. Bringing back the Business After Hours and Mix and Mingle gatherings gives those businesses a casual atmosphere without the burden of time or resources.
“Now we are seeing different members at different events,” Milio shares. “The veteran CEO doesn’t need a Marketing 101 workshop, and a retail store owner doesn’t have to close up shop to attend a networking event.”
One fact that may surprise non-members is that the Chamber is not only a registered 501(c)(6) non-profit, but it is also a registered lobbyist in the State of Maryland. “We’re registered lobbyists for Harford County businesses at the county level and the state level,” she says. “We provide our members with feedback on pending legislation so that they can stay informed of potential changes and impact. We also take the business members’ concerns and perspectives to the representatives in the County Council or state legislatures so that they are clear on how their legislative actions will affect the businesses in their jurisdictions.”
One of the Chamber’s eight commit-tees is the Legislative Committee. “We ask them to pay close attention to the session agenda and when necessary to poll the membership to determine how we fall on the issue,” Milio informs. “We only create a position statement if it’s supported by the majority of our membership.” Milio also works very closely with the Office of Economic Development and the Economic Development Advisory Board to keep Harford County’s business momentum moving.
“We see our three organizations as key stake holders in not only maintaining the current businesses that are in Harford County, but also growing new businesses,” she says. “We want to make sure that the environment is ready when a small business that is here now wants to expand and for the entrepreneur who has a new idea they want to bring to life. “Harford County is at a place of real transformation,” Milio shares. “We have some areas and businesses that are growing rapidly and thriving, while others are feeling the very real macro-economic factors of the recession. I have to be sensitive to that. You want to be celebratory about the successes, but not diminish the struggles either. It’s about balance.”
Continuing, she adds, “The same is true of my support for the Center for the Arts project. We have to have a thriving arts community in Harford County to provide a well-rounded quality of life. That’s not inconsistent with my No. 1 priority of staying ahead of the economic curve by being a huge advocate in developing an R&D park in Harford County. I share Jim Richardson’s’ (Director, Office of Economic Development) view that Harford County really could be another Silicon Valley – the idea that this area could be a “technopolis” in conjunction with what’s happening at Fort Meade and to position this region as a hub for the nation. My job at the Chamber is to keep our members informed about that and give them the resources to be ready. The minute that tech transfer happens from the Proving Ground out to the private sector, I want a Harford County business there ready to take that information and run with it from R&D to product implementation. I want to provide those links, be that connector, be that glue between what’s happening from an APG standpoint, from an education standpoint, from a business standpoint and identify the opportunities. From a bakery to a defense contractor, every business in Harford County can benefit.” I95