"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Larry Mankin, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce. The following interview was conducted April 27. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Why did you ask the board to change your title to "president" last year? In the past, the chief administrator was called "executive director" or "executive vice president" and the chair of the volunteer board of directors had the title of "president."
Mankin: Most of corporate America understands those titles and (I'm) president and CEO and most of corporate America knows that the top staff person is the president of the organization and the CEO is the top administrative official.
Since my business is working with business, we thought it was most appropriate that we change to a more corporate structure. I suggested that to our board of directors, and they bought into it almost immediately.
But times change. In the past I have been called executive vice president and executive director, and I am so old that at one point I was called the executive secretary.
Signal: How long have you been with the SCV Chamber?
Mankin: I actually started here Jan. 6, 2003, so I've been here a little bit over a year.
Signal: What is the mission of the chamber?
Mankin: The chamber is about business. It's for and about business. Our job is to preserve and promote the marketplace. We do that primarily for the small business community. We have about 1,600 members now in the chamber, which makes us the largest chamber in the entire San Fernando Valley and north. So we're a pretty good-size chamber.
About 93 or 94 percent of our members have 30 employees or less. So while we're for business and about business, we're for and about small business.
Signal: Who controls the chamber? Is it the big businesses that sit on the board?
Mankin: (No.) If you look at the chamber's board of directors, we certainly have representation from the large companies. We have an awful lot of representation from small and mid-size companies.
We're working on expanding our board in a couple of areas: one, the micro business level. There is a huge business population here that consists of one person working out of their house. And I'd really like to see us have that group represented on our board. The second group that we're really pursuing is the minority business community. If you look at the population base (now), in excess of 20 percent of our population is minority-based.
Signal: Tell us about the new Hispanic business organization.
Mankin: That's something I started about 60 to 90 days ago. We had a quarterly membership luncheon and (Newhall School District Superintendent) Marc Winger told the crowd, "Do you realize that 10 years ago, about 87 percent of my student population was Anglo, 13 percent was 'other'?" He then said, "It is now 54 percent Anglo." And the light bulb kind of went off in a lot of people's heads (that) this is a significant population in this community, and we'd better do something to recognize it and to help it grow and prosper much like we would the rest of the Anglo population.
Signal: Is this Hispanic organization a part of the chamber?
Mankin: (Yes), it's a part of the chamber. We've called it the Hispanic Business (Committee). We will consistently get about 30 Hispanic professionals or Hispanic business owners at a meeting. Once a month we meet. We just had our first networking opportunity, our first Business After Hours (mixer) for the Hispanic group, and we had about 130 people there. Everyone who came was just in total disbelief that we would get that kind of a crowd out.
Signal: Are you seeing Hispanic businesses participate that haven't been involved in the chamber before?
Mankin: We're starting to see some of that. But as far as I'm concerned, right now it's not about membership. It's about awareness. It's about being inclusive in the way we do business. We're not the Santa Clarita Valley Anglo Chamber of Commerce. We're the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce. We thought it was a very important message to tell the minority community that they are welcome, they are encouraged to be part of this organization. And I think this is going to do it.
Signal: What does the chamber have to offer the Hispanic business or, as you've mentioned, the home-based micro business with no employees?
Mankin: We've got the same kinds of opportunities to offer those groups that we do the traditional chamber member. One of the things that I brought in about six months ago to the chamber is a SCORE chapter. SCORE stands for Service Corps of Retired Executives. It's a group of retired men and women who have had a successful experience in business. It's a (U.S.) Small Business Administration-sponsored group. They're charged with the responsibility of helping people go into business, or helping those primarily small companies (that) are struggling in business, find solutions to problems.
Within the last 90 days, I went to the SCORE group and said, it is absolutely imperative that we have some counselors who are bilingual, can speak Spanish. We've actually gone out and recruited a couple of counselors who can work on a daily basis with any business person in the community. We have people now coming into our office (who) don't speak a word of English. It's really interesting to see that kind of interaction happen, to actually see the Hispanic community, primarily the Latin community, come into the office and ask for assistance.
So we do that. We do seminars. We ... have a whole host of benefit programs. We're providing access to the Hispanic business community to join our committees, whether they be government affairs or transportation or we're starting an environmental committee. There are a whole host of opportunities for them to meet people, to expand their business network. And that's really what it's about.
Signal: From a broader standpoint, you've indicated you wanted to increase the influence of the chamber with local government. What have you done to achieve that?
Mankin: I think there (are) a lot of things that we have been doing over the last year. We've started a political action committee. A lot of people have a very negative connotation of what a political action committee is they think of smoke-filled back rooms and the big fat cats making all the decisions (that run) our lives. In fact, a political action committee is a vehicle that, yes, it does buy us access. It will help us support candidates who are pro-business. We don't care what label they have. We don't care if they're "R's" or "D's" or "I's" or Greens or Naders or whatever. We do care that those candidates are supportive of business issues. Pro-business issues. So we've started a PAC. We've raised about $21,000. (It's a) separate group from the chamber, but it's called the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee.
(Also, I've) testified before the county Board (of Supervisors) on I think four occasions now, representing business, representing development issues in this community, in this valley. I'm told that that had not been done in the past. We're obviously very proud of having some impact on helping some of these projects be passed.
We've got a very, very active government affairs committee that's dealing with those issues. We're just starting, as I said, an environmental committee that will be dealing with clean air, clean water, solid waste, recycling, and brownfield and greenfield future development.
Right now there isn't a consistent voice in this community that speaks out. We hear a great deal from the other side on some of those issues
Signal: Meaning environmental activists?
Mankin: The environmental, the water activists, the no-growth community and I think there (are) a lot of business people (who) are a little tired of that. They're looking for the chamber to provide that kind of leadership, to be that voice of business that we've talked about being all of these years. We're not afraid to speak up. We do attend City Council meetings, we speak to issues, we take positions on issues, we started a political action committee. We even started a thing called the candidate academy, which is a program designed to identify (and) recruit people who are thinking about running for public office, and then teaching them things they need to know about being involved in the public sector.
Signal: Can we expect to see the chamber being more active at City Council meetings and speaking out on development issues?
Mankin: Absolutely. Not only you can (expect to) see it, you have seen it. We are there. And as you (know), we do meet, as an example, every other Friday, before the City Council meeting, with members of the City Council, the city manager, and we talk about issues that are going to be on the agenda. And quite frankly, they listen. They are very responsive to our concerns.
Signal: New committees and programs require manpower. You've got a fairly small paid staff. Are you seeing enough chamber members express interest and step up to the plate to implement these things?
Mankin: Very clearly, we've seen people step up. We've tried to touch their hearts, tried to touch their emotions, tell them how important it is to become involved locally.
My goodness, the last election, we saw (13.7) percent of the people vote. It's our responsibility to get people excited enough that we can start to build that kind of momentum to see those kinds of changes continue.
I've had an overwhelming response. We've seen our membership grow from about 1,450 members to 1,600 in a year, and I would anticipate that within three years, we'll be at 2,000 businesses. There are 9,000 businesses here in the valley.
Signal: If you don't represent the majority of local businesses, how important is it to you to expand your membership? How do you convince an nonmember to join?
Mankin: Well, expanding the membership is like growing the community. When the community quits growing, it begins to die. When this chamber quits growing its membership, then it will start to die. It is absolutely imperative that we continue to spread that message.
We spread the message by saying, here is what we're going to do with you and for you if you join: We're going to provide you networking opportunities. We're going to provide you educational, informational opportunities. We're going to be your voice before local and state government. We're going to build roads. Do you realize that just (state Route) 14, (Interstate) 5 and (SR) 138, over the next 20 years, there's almost $4 billion worth of roadwork that needs to be done? Someone's got to be out there giving the state Legislature, the Federal Highway Commission, those kinds of groups, that message. That's really the role of the chamber to be that loud, vocal voice for all of those kinds of concerns.
We will continue to see our membership grow. There's no doubt about that. And things like the Hispanic Business (Committee), all the seminar series (like our) Business Wakeup Call series those kings of things will assist the small business community in helping them make the decision to join the chamber.
Signal: Before your arrival, the chamber's membership hovered around 1,400 for several years. New businesses would join, but they were merely replacing the 200 or 300 that fell away each year. How will you save those 200 or 300 memberships? Do you have retention programs?
Mankin: (Yes), we do have retention programs and that's pretty standard for a business community, to have those kinds of losses.
In Salt Lake (City), when I was with the chamber there, we would anticipate about a 20-percent loss of our members every year. So I had to sell (a membership to) one more business every year than the 300 or 400 members that we lost, just to say we had positive growth. Here it's the same thing.
This is a very, very fluid business community. More fluid than any place I've ever seen. People start a shop, they start their business, they're in it for a year or so, (and) for any one of a number of reasons, they fail didn't have the proper business plan, the wrong location, they didn't have the kind of financing they needed to be successful. So of the 300 (or) 350 members that we lose every year, I would say, 60 percent of them go out of business.
Signal: Tell us about your background. You've been in this profession for a while
Mankin: My hair was dark when I got into it.
Signal: You were recruited from the outside, but sometimes the chamber board has promoted from within. It hasn't always been smooth sailing. There have been different factions on the board. How is the old guard taking to some of the changes you're implementing?
Mankin: That's a great question. I think the old guard is very supportive of us creating a world-class, very progressive chamber. I have not certainly I've had my hands slapped a couple times for something that was really outlandish that I may have brought to our board. But by and large, they have been incredibly supportive, both in providing me the manpower that we need to do it and to provide the financial resources that we need to move ahead.
We all want the same thing. We want growth in this community. We want good, solid, progressive growth. I don't know if we're after the "Old West" kind of wild explosion growth that we've had. But by and large, this group, I think, is excited about my 30 years of experience and other things that I've done in other communities.
Signal: Tell us about those.
Mankin: Well, I mean, how many chamber presidents can say they were on the Olympic board? How many chamber presidents can say they were asked by the United States Chamber of Commerce to go to Russia to help a small community start a chamber of commerce, and then (come) back and set up sister-city relationships? I also had the opportunity to be involved with bringing gaming into Iowa. We were the test case for the 1988 Indian Gaming Act, which brought the riverboats in.
You know, I've made about every mistake there is to make in the chamber business. So, one, I'm not going to make them again, and two, I've had a pretty good career.
Signal: What was your involvement in the Salt Lake Olympics?
Mankin: I was on the Olympic board and raised money. We also had our own programming that we provided to the business community. I had a "Gold Medal Seminar" series to help the business community understand what the impact of the games was going to be.
I built out a 10,000-square-foot entertainment facility. We had four walls and we put almost $1 million into building that out. It was a world-class entertainment facility in the heart of the Olympics. Our members bought access for all of their best clients from all over the world...
Signal: Maybe not the Olympics, but do you have ideas for economic development activities that would be appropriate to bring to Santa Clarita?
Mankin: A lot of what we do here is manage growth. And I'm still learning what that's about. I mean, we have more growth here in a year than I used to have in the Midwest in a decade. The analysts are saying that the greater L.A. region is going to grow by two Chicagos over the next two decades. Most of that's going to happen in the north county.
Our issue isn't always finding economic development. Our issue, often times, is finding the right kind of economic development, the kinds of companies that make sense for this valley. Every community would love to have white-collar jobs. Every community would love to have jobs that are $35,000 to $50,000. Every community wants jobs that aren't polluters. We're fortunate enough that we can get those kinds of jobs here. So our job is to kind of manage that process, to work with the city, and then just to create a terrific, workable business environment for companies that can say, "Yeah, this is a place we want to locate."
Signal: A few years ago, The Newhall Land and Farming Co. commissioned an economist to identify the industry clusters here, so Newhall would know what types of businesses to recruit and what kinds of support services they need. The study identified aerospace, filming and themed entertainment. Are there things the chamber or the city should be doing to bolster those industries?
Mankin: (Yes), we do those every day. And it's not only (those industries), but it's other groups like biomed. That's a great location. Working with the (Alfred) Mann group to make sure they have a successful experience in building their organization here.
We recently cosponsored a conference with College of the Canyons on doing business with China, where we brought a Chinese delegation in to help our business community understand what's involved with doing business with China. This is going to be a yearly event at which I would anticipate sometimes it might be with China, it might be with Great Britain, it might be with Mexico whole different groups of companies from across the world.
We need to identify those kinds of companies, those kinds of opportunities, and then we need to execute programs that bring those kinds of opportunities to this valley.
Signal: What has been your greatest success so far with the SCV Chamber?
Mankin: Well, I don't know if it's my success. I think it's the organization's success. I think we've brought some credibility back to the organization. People call us now and say, "What do you think?" City Council people will come into my office weekly and say, "What do you think?" I'm not so sure that kind of communication, that kind of respect, has been there for the last several years.
And again, that's not what I've done. It's what our transportation group, our government affairs group, being at a City Council meeting testifying on an issue, knowing the players at City Hall, and then just kind of setting up that kind of a relationship, (have done). So I think the biggest success is, we're maybe one of the players now. And that's important.
Signal: You mentioned making a few suggestions that didn't fly with the board. What disappointments have there been?
Mankin: We were a little slow in I wanted to do a leadership program, where we were going to bring a program in, designed to identify business people, emerging leaders in the community. And at first, that was not a real hot idea to them
Signal: Why not?
Mankin: It's one of those things, I think, that yes, that would be nice to do, but let's get our financial house in order, let's get our government advocacy program in place, let's do this, let's do this, let's do this.
Believe me, my mother did not raise a dumb son. If they told me, "No, we're not going to do that now," I'm not going to do it. So I stepped back and said, we'll wait.
Signal: Do you think you've been trying to move a little too fast for the board?
Mankin: No. no. I think we have the kind of relationship that we need. My job is to bring ideas, my job is to bring enthusiasm and new concepts to this chamber, so we can in fact be that world-class chamber that I think we will soon be. Sometimes I bring ideas that are either ahead or behind their times in what they want to do, and so they say, "No, let's not do it." And that's great.
Listen, I've been doing this for 30 years, and I've been said "no" to so many times that I'm pretty thick skinned.
Signal: Your wife teaches locally; have you bought a house here?
Mankin: (Yes.) We bought a townhouse, and I walk to work one day a week. That's my way of being environmentally conscious. We absolutely love the place.
Signal: Are you going to stick with the SCV Chamber? Will you retire here?
Mankin: I might. I don't know. You never know. I'm like a preacher or school superintendent. You come in and you do your work, you do your good deeds, and then sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. So we'll have to see how this relationship unfolds over the years.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.