Chamber aging gracefully
— Bank president takes helm of 90-year-old Greater Northeast Chamber of Commerce; builds on success.
Age can be a fickle commodity in the business world. On an organizational level, time often begets marketable qualities like experience and trust.
Yet, it can also breed complacency.
Kent Lufkin’s new job is to make sure the 90-year-old Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce has plenty of vibrance and relevance despite its advancing age. Lufkin, the 58-year-old president and CEO of 3rd Fed Bank, became the chamber’s chairman of the board in February.
He now oversees an organization with deep local roots but which faces the lingering challenges of a stagnant economy and a resulting membership decline.
“We have a number of initiatives and we are taking the opportunity to reassess everything,” Lufkin said of the transition. “This is our ninetieth anniversary, so we’re trying to weave that into everything we do. We’re trying to stimulate membership growth with a number of new programs.”
Lufkin was appointed chairman for a two-year term, replacing the previous chairwoman, Nazareth Hospital CEO Christina FitzPatrick. The chamber’s bylaws require that its board chairs step down every two years. In accordance with the bylaws, Lufkin served a year as vice chairman of the board leading up to his latest appointment.
Lufkin will work closely with the chamber’s chief executive, Al Taubenberger, who has been its president since 1992.
Away from the chamber, Taubenberger is running as a Republican for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, challenging incumbent Democrat Kevin Boyle in the 172nd district.
While Taubenberger’s full-time job makes him responsible for the day-to-day operation of the chamber, Lufkin plans to be a steady, hands-on influence. With more than a quarter-century experience as a bank executive, Lufkin is familiar with the give-and-take between a board of directors and administration.
“If things are meeting expectations or exceeding them, boards tend to stay away from the day-to-day operation,” Lufkin said. “(But) right now this is a challenging time for every chamber (of commerce), so we’re all pulling on the oars. The board is taking an active role in helping Al evaluate things.”
Lufkin joined 3rd Fed in 2000 as senior vice president and became its president in 2003. The bank’s holding company, TF Financial Corp., is publicly traded on the NASDAQ exchange. The bank has 14 branches in Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County and Mercer County, N.J.
It was founded in 1921 in the Northeast as the Polish American Savings Building and Loan Association.
Lufkin compares the bank’s role in the communities it serves to that of the chamber. It’s largely a matter of scale.
The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce is a large organization with great resources and influence, yet the Northeast chamber offers members some things that the regional chamber can’t.
“It’s like 3rd Fed and the Bank of America,” Lufkin said. “Bank of America is huge, but some people like dealing with a smaller entity that they feel closer to the decision-makers and that specializes in certain things.
“I will challenge anybody to find someone on the staff at the Greater Philadelphia chamber who knows anywhere near as much about Northeast Philly as Al does, although the Greater Philadelphia chamber is a great organization,” he said.
In any case, the chamber has been a tough sell during recessionary times. It has 800 members. In recent years, new arrivals have not kept pace with those departing the group.
“We’ve been higher (in membership),” Taubenberger said. “Because of the economy, some businesses have closed up and some don’t renew. (But) our retention rate is very close to ninety percent.”
About 20 new members attended a recent orientation meeting at Sam’s Club in the Franklin Mills complex.
On the programming front, longtime members are very familiar with the steady lineup of breakfast meetings and business card exchanges, along with the annual golf outing and “Business is Blooming” Expo. Lufkin and Taubenberger think it’s time for some new energy and ideas.
“We’re working throughout government relations committee to draw some local, state and even federal politicians to come and speak (to members),” Lufkin said.
“We have started a young professionals group to try and tap into (a younger) audience. … We have made contact with a number of different ethnic chambers and we frequently talk about doing joint events with them.”
Lufkin and Taubenberger both want to re-emphasize to prospective chamber members the value of networking with others in the local business community, particularly when conditions are difficult.
The chamber can be useful for business-to-business sales leads, information sharing and professional consultations.
“There are a lot of resources within the membership,” Lufkin said. “A chamber is what you make of it. If you ask for help when you need it, if you go to events, those are beneficial things. If you don’t, you’re really missing out.” ••