May 20, 2019 Supporting Manhattan-area entrepreneurs, businesses, events

Change at the Chamber: Jason Smith Takes the Helm

On a Thursday afternoon in the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce office, it didn’t take long for the newly hired Chamber president, Jason Smith, to get comfortable. “I have that same mug,” he said with a grin while pointing to a stainless steel coffee cup bearing the 1 Million Cups logo. “We started a 1 Million Cups in Norman and have about 50 to 60 people who attend every month. I love going to those events; they’re great.”

Dressed in a requisite gray suit and tie, Smith settled into his chair and placed his coffee cup on the conference table in front of him. Smoothing his tie, he crossed his hands in his lap and took a breath. Transitioning from his role as president of the Norman Economic Development Coalition, a meeting with Smith was hard to come by during his two-day itinerary of non-stop meetings with future colleagues and community leaders. It seemed everyone wanted a moment to greet the new Chamber president.

While Smith joins the Manhattan Area Chamber with nearly 22 years of economic development experience, he recalls that this career path was not his original plan. “I’m a journalist by education,  and after college, I took a job as a writer and managing editor at a small daily paper in McAlester, Oklahoma. My plan then was to work my way into public administration.”

After editing the newspaper for a year, in April 1997, an opportunity emerged for Smith that initiated his change of course. “The economic development position in McAlester was open, and I stumbled into that job. Since I was already part of the community, they liked the idea of having someone they knew and trusted. At first, I thought, ‘This a good entrée into public administration.’ But once I got into it and understood what and why we did what we did, I was hooked by economic development and the positive impact it makes on all people.”

Smith leaned forward, emphasizing the value he identified in his work. “The Gallup Corporation discovered that people value a good job more than their basic needs because in their minds, a good job will provide them with their basic needs. It’s that important in everyone’s life.”

After nearly seven years in McAlester, Smith received a phone call. “A friend of mine got a job as president of the Chamber in Lincoln, Nebraska. They were rebuilding their program, starting from scratch with a strategic plan. He asked me to come up and run their economic development program.”

Smith recalled one particular moment which defined the challenge ahead of him. “After accepting the role, I attended my first national economic development meeting. The keynote speaker, who had worked with dozens of cities, said everywhere he worked was easy, except Lincoln.” A confident smile spread across his face. “We were able to turn that around, and the city won national awards. The effort was a collaboration of a big group of people, and it was fun to be on the ground floor and watch the impact our work had on the community. How it helped the community feel about itself, and seeing engagement from young people and the business community increase, it was exhilarating to be a part of that.”

The awards speak for Smith’s work. He took the role of vice president of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce in 2004, and only six years later, the International Economic Development Council ranked Lincoln first in business retention and expansion in the U.S. for cities with populations between 250,000 to 500,000 people. “I am really proud of that recognition. Business retention and expansion was something we really focused on for the first time ever. We also launched a branding strategy in Lincoln to help us attract and retain talent. Our efforts paid off. We took a program with a reputation as one of the worst in the country to being identified as a great entrepreneurial ecosystem only a few years later.”

Wayne Sloan, Chamber Board chair and CEO of BHS Construction, recalled that Smith’s development work in Lincoln elevated his reputation going into the hiring process. “A number of us [on the Chamber Board] were familiar with the excellent work that happened under his leadership in Lincoln, Nebraska, the arena and the redevelopment of downtown, and we felt these were really great things that would transfer to our region.”

After nearly 10 years in Lincoln, the first of several difficult career decisions presented itself to Smith in 2013. “I found Lincoln people to be great, and I loved the city. We were about to open a new arena, and we saw all this vibrancy going on in Lincoln. And then I got the opportunity to work on a Chamber in Abilene, Texas.”

A family man at heart, Smith knew the role in Abilene would bring him closer to his extended family in Norman, Oklahoma. Smith moved his family to Abilene, accepting the position of Chamber of Commerce president, where he immediately got to work. Within two years, he led several initiatives, including the development of a young professionals program, a broadened military affairs program and a Chamber marketing and communications redesign. “I loved Abilene. I was closer to my family. I would’ve stayed there a long time.” He paused. “And then Norman opened.”

Historically, Smith stayed in one city for several years to see it grow and develop. Obviously nostalgic, Smith’s subtle Oklahoma drawl explained itself as he shared his decision to leave Abilene for Norman in 2015. “That was my hometown. A wing of the middle school is named after my dad. My son was a senior in high school, my daughter about to have a baby, and it was great to be so close to family.”

In Norman, Smith focused on encouraging entrepreneurship and improving business attraction and retention. “I had no intention to ever leave. But a couple things happened.” Smith shifted in his seat as he spoke, adjusting his tie. “The university president retired and a new feeling emerged about how the university would be involved with economic development. The city itself experienced a turnover with major role transitions at the city level.”

“When the opening at the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce came to me, I said, ‘Wow, that’s a unique opportunity.’ Their vision was similar to my view of how the Chamber creates better economic opportunities for its citizens. It felt like it was the right opportunity at the right time.”

Smith recalled that his experience in economic development thus far involved turnaround work, and he wanted to take on a role that allowed him to build rather than rebuild. “Usually when I step in somewhere, it’s like, “We gotta clean this up.” I’ve never had an opportunity to start a job where there is an incredible foundation of success. At this point, we can start thinking more advanced and bigger picture.”

While not a Manhattan native himself, Smith believes the combination of his experience and his fresh eyesight into the community gives him a unique point of view that adds value to the momentum already in the region. “I’m asking myself what I can take from my experiences and try things differently to go even further. Outside perspectives can sometimes create more value and more opportunities.”

Sloan identified the aspects of Smith’s personality and leadership style, which stood out to the board as valuable qualities for a leader in Manhattan’s next season of development, and ultimately clinched his selection as Chamber president. “He is an information hound. He started reading the paper in Manhattan before he was hired. He was very well versed on the city. Any information he can get, he seeks out and is quick to learn more.”

Sloan added, “One thing that also stood out about Jason was when we asked him how he would split his time as Chamber president. Other candidates might have talked about a passion for economic development or another area. Instead, he said he was coming in as the chief executive officer, and he expected his staff to be able to take care of the different parts while he managed the organization. He saw his role as making sure the organization runs at top efficiency and achieves specific goals. A lot of us liked that comment. We wanted someone like him, with his work ethic and experience.”

“I love this Manhattan opportunity because I don’t have to sell the community on the things that matter. I get to come in and build on what’s already here.”

Smith noted that it was Manhattan’s reputation as a collaborative community that piqued his curiosity and made his decision to accept the Chamber position easier. “The Manhattan Chamber and the community have such a great reputation for effectiveness and willingness to work together to achieve significant goals. They are ahead of where a lot of other places are because they have been working together.”

As Region Reimagined takes shape in the Flint Hills, led by Program Director Christy Rodriguez, the task for a new Chamber president goes beyond seeking the growth and success of a city to pursuing the advancement of an entire region. Entering a city with a new strategic plan is nothing new for Smith, but he acknowledges the challenge of cities working together in effective partnerships, as outlined through the vision of Region Reimagined. “Regionalism is hard to implement. Money and opportunities don’t see borders, but government entities do. And there are mixed results on how that works.”

“To make regionalism work, we need to do three things: we have to be willing to work really hard at it, listen more than we talk, and be really flexible. There is no idea or thought that shouldn’t be considered. We can’t dismiss thoughts or opinions out of hand. We have to be cognizant of why people feel or think the way they do without taking offense,” Smith said.

Smith’s established track record of growth and success flows from his relentless focus on economic development from three angles, all with the ultimate goal of job creation. “Jobs are the most important thing,” Smith underscored. “In order to create jobs, three things matter. First, communities must take care of their existing businesses to ensure they have all the opportunities to succeed, grow and survive. It is easier to get business from your existing clients than it is to get new business.”

“Second, we have got to be a regional leader in entrepreneurship. I am a big believer that the long term economic success of communities relies on their ability to enhance culture for start-ups that are selling products and services outside of the community to bring in new money.”

“The third, and maybe most important, is talent. We have to ask ourselves how we can become regional leader in attracting and retaining talent. Communities didn’t have to work on that in the past, but now there are more jobs than people. People who are talented can choose where they want to live first, and we need to be doing what we can to make sure we are attractive to people with talent, from welders to advanced IT and across the spectrum. Those three are the basics.”

Sloan asserted that thriving economic development in the region depends on the ability of our communities to retain the students and service members who move to the area for work and education. “Something we have to come to grips with is, if we can’t figure out how to get students and military to stay in our community, and we don’t find and retain talent, then we are out of economic development game. Companies are looking for talent.”

Sloan added one of his talent retention priorities emphasized to Smith is a revamped Young Professionals program, and he views Smith’s experience in this area as a critical skill set. “One of my goals as Chamber chair is to reinvent the Young Professionals program. In Lincoln, their Young Professionals is a division of the Chamber. Jason took that same model to Abilene, Texas, and he rebuilt their Young Professionals program. We want him to do that here. Right now, [the program in Manhattan] is more based on social stuff, but I had four meetings last week with young professionals discussing how we will reinvent things to give them a voice in what is happening in the region.”

In the essential task of attracting and retaining skilled workers, Smith acknowledged that obstacles exist, but he believes the way around this is creatively highlighting all the region has to offer. “Every city has challenges. It’s hard to live in San Francisco, Austin or New York City, and they still seem to attract talent. There are some things about our region that we can’t change, but we can make some things so attractive that other barriers become less significant.”

In addressing some of these challenges, Smith believes one of the most powerful tools in the community’s pocket is the ability to work together. “The community rallied together to get the NBAF facility because of the collaborative nature of the city and the university. When they teamed up, they beat much larger communities with more resources because of their collaboration. That’s a huge win. From the outside looking in, Manhattan is a place that has potential and is willing to take action to achieve that potential.”

Smith said he is eager to spend his first 90 days as Chamber president focused on the priorities outlined to him by the board. “There are two priorities of the board and community. One is Region Reimagined. My part, at first, is learning the expectations of that, the economic development and strategic plan. It’s a pretty aggressive plan the board is undertaking. The Chamber is funding it right now, and we need to get a clear understanding of the relationship between Region Reimagined and the Chamber.”

“The second is a focus on engaging young professionals.” Speaking of his work in previous cities, he said, “There have been successful strategies in other communities we may want to implement. This is something we want to see the Chamber get better at. Every community is different. We need to understand the needs and desires of Manhattan young professionals. As we move forward, there are good ideas out there and we need to figure out how we integrate the successes already going on and take it to the next level.”

As Smith steps into the role, Sloan recalled advice Lyle Butler shared with him and Smith to make the transition smoother. “Lyle told us when he came on, someone gave him a list of 25 people he should meet right off the bat. We developed a similar list for Jason, but his list is up to almost 80 people that he ought to face to face with,” Sloan laughed. “They are already setting up those meetings for him.”

Smith reiterated that the most important position he will take is one of receptivity. “Our work starts with open dialogue and making sure all parties feel they have a place at the table and can share open dialogue with leadership. The board is committed to that. What I find is there are good ideas already in motion we can bring in to help the process. Usually we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Sarah Siders is a freelance writer, author and coach who specializes in leadership and healthy relationships.

Photography by: Doug Barrett

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