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Chamber of secrets or national treasure?

200 years, yet its combined membership totals just 2% of the business population (104,000 businesses). So how is it that the vast majority of businesses in this country reject the idea of joining their local chamber, particularly in these times of tough trading, when the need for extra support is at its peak?

T Striking a balance

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) is most visible when lobbying Government which, at least on the face of it, appears willing to listen to their views on the big issues. However, the influence of the BCC far outweighs the uncomfortable fact that they hold a mandate of only one in fifty businesses. Compare this figure to the now defunct Business Link advisory service, which at its height was engaging one in five. Relations with Government have

always been at the heart of chambers of commerce. Their political influence is a key reason why larger businesses join their ranks, bringing with them higher membership payments. As chambers of commerce rely on this revenue for their very existence, it is obviously vitally important that these larger employers are kept on board and satisfied. It must be a difficult balance to strike. On the one hand, the BCC must focus on lobbying at a strategic level (all the way to Westminster if needed) to satisfy the larger corporates, while striving to keep the majority of their membership, small businesses, satisfied with the provision of immediate, tactical help.

This tension is best illustrated by

Caroline Williams, chief executive at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, when she describes how chambers have a “corporate responsibility to support start ups”, while having the honesty to acknowledge in the same breath that these customers are “needy and time consuming”.


he chamber of commerce has been a fixture of the British business support landscape for

Britain’s 51 chambers of commerce are diverse and independent, but together they punch far above their weight. ELLIOT FORTE investigates this quietly self-confident network and considers its potential to take a bigger role in supporting business.

My own personal experience is that

chambers universally treat every member, whatever their size, with the same respect and importance. Whether this message is getting through to small businesses is doubtful, but it remains critically important to the future development of the chambers. After all, 75% of the business population is made up of single person organisations.

No hand-holding

The BCC does not pretend to be in control of the local organisations that form the wider network. Each respective chamber is independent and implements their own ideas on how to help businesses in their own area. However, the BCC does set a minimum service requirement for accreditation. This list includes training, international trade and networking. It does not include advisory support.

Business advice is the exception for chambers, not the rule The BCC’s director of policy and

external affairs, Dr Adam Marshall, is clear that “a Government style business advice system is not a core service” for the chambers. That’s not to say some chambers don’t

offer business advice directly, particularly in the larger cities. But that appears to be the exception, not the rule, with the chambers content to leave advice to the private sector, lacking both the will and resource needed to employ an army of business advisers. Derek Phillips, chair of the South

West Chambers of Commerce, was even more forthright on this issue, claiming that chambers “would never claim to provide business advice to any degree”. As a result, if you are looking for some spoon-fed business advice and hand-holding, the chambers are likely to be a dead end. However, if you are searching for a way to meet like-minded business people and exchange knowledge, that’s very likely to be on the menu.

Meeting local demand

The common denominator in every chamber of commerce is an almost fanati- cal obsession with localism. Dr Marshall is critical of “people out there who have a attitude that everything has to be the same. We are responding to local demand in local markets and it differs from place to place”. Personally I have always struggled with the idea that businesses are different

Better Business No 189

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