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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2023


Chambers/garcia/32″/lk1st/mike2nd By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter The consolidation trend transforming the landscape of corporate America is sweeping through another, less likely arena the Valley’s network of chambers of commerce. Next month, members of the Northridge Chamber of Commerce and the Chatsworth Chamber of Commerce will vote to approve merging their organizations. The move comes in the wake of a decision in October to merge the Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks chambers, a deal expected to be complete in January. At least three other Valley chambers also have considered merging in recent months. “I think we’re on the front end of a new era,” said Dave Kilby, vice president of the California Chamber of Commerce, which monitors developments statewide. “I think the finances will start dictating it. Some chambers are not going to be receiving the financial support they received in the past.” Indeed, just as in the corporate world, chamber officials say they need to consolidate in order to cut costs, obtain economies of scale and adapt to a rapidly shifting business environment. When they were founded after World War II, the Valley’s local chambers served tightly knit neighborhood business communities, each with its own set of problems and concerns. But that world scarcely exists any longer. Instead, most people in L.A. commute out of their neighborhoods to go to work, and businesses are buffeted by competition on the regional, national and global levels. The advent of electronic commerce is further eroding borders. As a result, chambers are finding that the needs of their members extend far beyond local issues. No longer content with merely networking and promoting the community, today’s businesses are seeking help with larger problems, such as the Y2K issue, legislative advocacy and economic development issues that small chambers with limited resources are hard pressed to provide. “Companies are focusing on what they think is most important, and in most cases, that’s not the parades, it’s more business and economic issues,” said Kilby. Yet while chambers in other parts of the country have been merging for the past decade, Southern California has been slow to embrace the trend, Kilby said. Instead, new regional organizations have been layered onto the existing chambers. There are now more than 20 chambers of commerce in the San Fernando Valley alone, not to mention regional organizations like the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, as well as an array of professional and ethnic business organizations. Even homeowner groups are increasingly realizing that the fortunes of the residents are tied to those of the surrounding business community. In recent months, the Studio City Residents Association, for example, has begun forming a business alliance to work jointly on the issues affecting both homeowners and businesses. “The more organizations a business joins, the better it is,” said Andre Hazarabedian, owner of Cafe Brasilia, who has been instrumental in pushing for the formation of the Studio City Residents Association Business Alliance. Privately, many Valley business people and residents believe that the businesses seeking to join the alliance are hoping to get the same networking opportunities for a $15 membership fee that they would get for the cost of chamber membership, which can run $200 or more. The consolidation trend also is raising the ire of mom-and-pop merchants, traditionally the most vocal proponents of independent, local chambers. For small merchants, such organizations have provided an opportunity to network and tout their services to their neighbors. Now, they fear mergers will bring in similar businesses from outside the area, and create a new source of competition. “Part of the chamber’s business is to promote business,” said Allen Ravert, a member of the Studio City Chamber of Commerce board of directors. “If you merged, how would you equally advertise or promote the businesses?” The Studio City chamber and the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce have held merger talks but abandoned the effort, concluding it would not be in the best interest of mom-and-pop stores. The Granada Hills Chamber of Commerce, which has held merger talks with both Northridge and Chatsworth, also has opted to remain independent. “The bulk of our membership are mom-and-pop businesses,” said Richard Colon, president of the Granada Hills chamber. “We were concerned that as a merged chamber, there may be decisions made that make sense for industry, but don’t make sense for mom and pop.” While some chambers cling to their independence, others are finding that their members are balking at the need to join several different groups, and they are leading the charge to consolidate. Such was the case in Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village, two neighboring communities that share a common economic base of young, growing high-tech companies even though they are separated by a county line. “We found ourselves in a situation where we had two chambers within the same geographic area competing for business against one another,” said Larry Carignan, a building contractor and chairman of the board of what is to become the Thousand Oaks Westlake Village Regional Chamber of Commerce. The combined chamber, with about 1,600 members, actually will be smaller than the total of both chambers individually, because the consolidation weeded out duplicate memberships. But officials believe the merged organization will have a greater potential for growth. “Before, when I talked to people about joining, the issue of which chamber to join always came up,” said Francisco Behr, an architect who is vice president of business development for the Thousand Oaks Westlake Village Chamber. “And that became an excuse for not joining either one. Now, we’ll have a much stronger chamber and a larger membership, and we won’t be cannibalizing each other.” For Northridge and Chatsworth, two communities with a more mature membership base than Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village, the advantages of a merger centered around upgrading the services provided. “Chambers haven’t reached out and provided the kinds of services businesses today really need,” said Richard A. Hardman, executive director of the Northridge Chamber of Commerce. “That’s not just networking. It’s a matter of having information resources. We should be on the cutting edge so that they can turn to us and get answers.” That takes money, and chambers like those in Northridge and Chatsworth believe that consolidation can help increase revenues and reduce overhead. The cost to put on an event for 200 members is the same as the cost of an event for 400 members, but the overhead the cost of staff to plan and manage the event and to promote it does not increase. So by holding larger events, more revenue would be available to pay for bigger and better activities and programs. The same holds true for membership drives, newsletters and dozens of other chamber activities. At the same time, the members of the Northridge and Chatsworth chambers are finding that what they have in common far outweighs the differences in their communities. A recent dispute with Cal State Northridge concerning a plan to use part of the university’s North Campus for a retail complex is one example. The two chambers, along with the United Chambers of the San Fernando Valley, joined in opposing the plan and were ultimately successful in defeating it. A chamber large enough to employ a staff to oversee governmental affairs also can play a more influential role for its members and not just on local issues, but also on statewide issues. “We know where all the bills are, and we know where the swing votes are,” said Nancy Hoffman, executive vice president for the Mid Valley Chamber of Commerce, a group formed in 1989 by the merger of the Van Nuys and Sepulveda chambers. The chamber regularly canvasses members to make certain they write letters to local political figures when necessary. “A lot of small chambers don’t have the staff to do that,” Hoffman said. “To merge is very good.”

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