As the recession takes its toll on the member firms of the region’s chambers of commerce, Anna Blackaby looks at how the chambers are affected by the downturn and whether mergers are on the cards.
With the recession wiping out scores of potential members and many of those companies left alive struggling just to survive, the region’s chambers of commerce have seen happier times.
And with the advent of internet sites like LinkedIn and Twitter, which connect business people to each other free of charge, the chamber movement is finding itself having to work harder to make itself relevant in the 21st century.
Simon Topman, chairman of West Midlands Chambers, said chamber membership was not immune to the effect of a recession, although the region was performing relatively well in terms of numbers despite the downturn.
“There are two main reasons. When companies go bankrupt – and we all know that there have had a number of liquidations in the region in the last 18 months – that affects the chambers.
“Another thing is that people with straightened financial circumstances look to cut anything they can and chamber membership might be something that they decide to cut.
“That is sometimes a last-ditch move as the fact is the chamber comes into its own during a recession and that’s when they can use the chamber for things like contacts.
“All membership organisations are down in the recessionary times. The chamber hasn’t been down as much as most, we are now starting to recruit more on a monthly basis.”
Both the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and its Black Country counterpart report their memberships have held relatively steady during the downturn with membership of the Black Country Chamber totalling around 1,600 members and Birmingham’s is hovering around the 2,800 mark.
Although members are the lifeblood of the chambers’ work, most of their revenues in fact come from commercial services – with Birmingham Chamber, for example, cashing in on its successful training and translation arms, as well as administering public money for business support programmes for central government.
But Mr Topman said it was vital to keep up membership to keep in touch with the local business community.
“First it’s a revenue stream,” he added. “Although it’s not the biggest money earner for the chamber, it’s important we have as many members as possible because chambers are all about connecting people to opportunity.”
When Paul Bassi stepped up to the presidency of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry earlier this year, one of the first things he announced was a shake-up of the way the chamber does business, with plans to boost its brand and extend its patronage scheme.
He also floated the subject of mergers of chambers in the region – a proposal which was first mooted back in the 1990s – but which Mr Bassi suggested might be accelerated by the current recession.
Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Jerry Blackett said bringing the region’s chambers together had to overcome several hurdles before a merger could become a reality. “Over the years there has been a relentless movement to larger chambers of commerce,” he added.
“But in the West Midlands, it is not that easy to imagine a single body. Businesses in North Staffordshire for example have got more in common in Derby and Manchester than they really do with Birmingham. Personally I think we will see some consolidation but not all seven into one.”
But over in the Black Country, where the chamber has recently carried out a restructure which has removed the roles of its four regional directors, Black Country Chamber of Commerce president Peter Mathews did not rule out a merger with Birmingham in the future.
“All options are open – we work very closely with our colleagues in Birmingham,” he added.