Richmond chamber enjoys growth for first time in years


Early this year, James Lee (pictured) dove head-first into the role of president of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce with a series of rousing breakfast speeches said to have drawn record attendance. At the chamber’s annual luncheon at the Richmond County Club on Thursday, however, a subdued Lee offered members and city leaders a brief presentation that was light on entertaining anecdotes and heavy on facts.

Lee partly kept his talk short to secure the spotlight for keynote speaker City Manager Bill Lindsay, who went on to deliver his always humorous “12 days of Richmond” speech (stay tuned for a separate report on this). But there is another good reason Lee stuck to the facts on Thursday: On their own, they speak volumes about the chamber’s direction.

Under new leadership, the Chamber’s membership has grown from 238 to 302 members, the first growth in this category in four years, Lee said. That has helped to increase the chamber’s revenues from about $151,000 last year to about $222,000 this year.

jameslee-11-18An entrepreneur and philanthropist, Lee says he’s followed through on a pledge to reduce spending on staff salaries and increase the amount of membership dues that benefits members and the community.

Prior to his tenure, a large majority of the chamber’s budget was used to pay its personnel, a figure that has since dropped to less than half, he said. That has freed up funds for projects that benefit members and nonprofits, leading to the launching of a new website with marketing features as well as professional marketing videos for Richmond businesses and community organizations. Recent videos for Kaleidoscope Coffee in Point Richmond and the nonprofit Richmond Main Street Initiative helped gain both entities exposure, Lee said.

Lee has joined six nonprofit boards, heads up an education committee for the West Contra Costa Unified School District and serves on the city’s economic commission, as appointed by Mayor Tom Butt.

“Last year we gave back $300 (from membership dues) to the community,” Lee said. “This year we had a 1,500-percent increase in giving back to the community.”

Rich Doellstedt, president of Richmond Wholesale Meat Co., said Lee opened up his schedule to listen to his business and offered “practical advice that we will surely benefit from.”

David Schoenthal, senior director of LegalShield Independent Associate, said the chamber before Lee lacked a clearly defined mission.

“Under new leadership…the chamber has experienced a renaissance,” Schoenthal said, noting that the chamber’s regularly held Breakfast Meetings have grown in attendance from 25 to 200.

The attendance increase, Lee says, is partly related to high-profile guest speakers such as JetBlue founder Alex Wilcox.

But Lee says the Richmond chamber’s potential was there long before he came.

“We had tremendous growth but it’s really due to having a great Board of Directors, members and the community,” he said.