Fauquier Chamber of Commerce reaches for brass ring

By Posted on Aug 16 2018 | By

Vibrant growth without sprawl and crawl

The year was 1599 when the curtain lifted on the first performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at London’s Globe Theater. It was also the year the first chamber of commerce was created in Marseille, France. The chamber had a tough act to follow.

But in the ensuing centuries the organization has done quite nicely, thank you. Today, there are over 13,000 chambers in the World Chamber Registry and some 4,000 in the U.S. headed by at least one full time staff person; thousands more are operating stateside as volunteer led organizations. All of them representing some three million businesses nationwide.

When the Bard of Avon penned his play’s famous lines, “Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears,” the chamber was listening.

Here in Fauquier County we have the modern equivalent of the first chamber president embodied in Joe Martin. Martin, 60, exemplifies a 21st century executive with his tall, fit and amicable style. His qualifications reflect “to the manor born” but with the accent on downhome. He is clearly a mirror of the community he serves.

Joe Martin

Born and raised in Manassas, Martin has chamber business in his DNA. His father, grandfather and he were all former chairmen of the Prince William Chamber of Commerce where his family operated Dudley Martin Chevrolet for over 60 years. To this day, it’s still the only three-generation chairmen of the Prince William Chamber.

“I was exposed to it very early. I’ve got community involvement in my soul,” said Martin. In addition to working for the family business for 14 years, he also logged time running an audio marketing firm.

“Throughout my different careers I got involved in quite a few different organizations including serving on the boards of the Manassas School Education Foundation, the American Small Business Coalition and the International On Hold Messaging Association. Of course, those were all volunteer positions.”

Over time it occurred to Martin that his volunteer work had provided him a wealth of experience and seeking a career in chamber work made sense. “I started soul searching. I’d had had all these volunteer leadership positions and thought ‘why not work at an association or chamber and actually get paid for it’,” said Martin.

His timing was perfect since the Fauquier Chamber was looking for a new president. “Five people called me and said, ‘Joe, you’ve got to apply for that position.’” Some 44 other people had thrown their hat in the ring so the job was not a lock. “They brought it down to four finalists and in late winter of 2010 they hired me.”

The challenge
Early on Martin encountered a singular issue of importance. Fauquier County had two active chambers in a geographical area more suited to one. As he prepared to take charge in January 2011, a question was frequently posed to him: Are you going out there to mend fences? “I told them, no. I was going out to build bridges.”

It was serendipitous that the new president had been successful in merging two Prince William chambers so he was up to the challenge. But it was not his immediate goal. Even though he lived just one county over he was surprised how separate the two counties were.

“My initial goal was to get to know the community and get to know the leaders within the community and both chambers. I wanted to find out where our synergies were and where we could partner together and find out what strategic partnerships were best for the entire business community,” Martin said. In short, he proceeded slow and thoughtfully.

“There were a lot of bridges to build and nothing happens fast in Fauquier.”

For over five years incremental progress was made on knitting the two chambers relationships. What emerged was a “Unity Plan” that avoided the expense and difficulties of a formal merger since many members of the Greater Warrenton Chamber of Commerce were also members of the Fauquier Chamber.

In the end, the unity of the two chambers accomplished important goals, among them the pragmatic advantage of members not having to pay two dues and attend separate events. “However, we never changed out mutual focus or goals,” Martin said.

When the Unity Plan finally came to fruition, people told him they were pleased with what he had accomplished. “No, no, no. It wasn’t about me. It was about we,” said Martin.

“I’m hired to run the day-to-day operation but it’s really up to our board and our leadership to established the governance of where we want to go. I’m an integral part of that. But without strong leadership in both chambers the Unity Plan would have never come together,” said Martin.

Today, Martin wants the Fauquier Chamber to be a strong and leading voice on economic development within the community. The organization seeks to be a “connector”, bringing all member businesses in contact with one another so the best services can be brought to bear on building a vibrant business environment.

“We also want to be an advocate at the state level and, if needed, at the Federal level for our businesses,” Martin said.

The organization has about 500 members and sees the opportunity to grow to between 600 and 700. The annual dues range in cost from $160 to $250 based on the size of the company.

To accomplish its expansion and business goals, the chamber board consists of 20 members with an executive committee of eight members. The chair of the board is Margie Markham with Summit Community Bank.

“It became it apparent to me after becoming board chair my role would be to move the chamber forward,” said Markham. “There have been a lot changes over the last few years and my vision is to create an organization that’s looking toward the future.

“Joe has been a real asset during this period and a good spokesperson. His contribution has been so important.”

To underscore Markham’s goals, Martin, a member of the board of the Virginia Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, recently attended its annual conference in Harrisonburg. “Margie had me to go down there and just think out of the box,” said Martin. Markham wanted to know how the chamber could best help the business community and the community at large.”

What dictated new strategies? “Communications for one. We have a very vibrant young professional council. The way the millennials communicate with each other can be very different in how the rest of us communicate,” said Martin.

“So many people today are conducting business online. We have to be focused on how we can best facilitate and assist with that approach to business. It’s really what the chamber is all about. We are here to assist. We are here to advocate. Whether it’s a legal issue, a connector issue or networking issue, we have to be the purveyor of best form of communication possible.”

Beyond serving as a catalyst for the business community, Martin believes there is also a community-wide service obligation. As an example, seven years ago he was surprised to learn there was no event to honor county public safety professionals who had gone above and beyond the call of duty.

In 2012, the chamber established its annual “Valor Awards” program. In April of this year, 55 individuals were recognized for their exceptional work. “We felt that even if it didn’t necessarily fit the chamber’s mission and vision, the awards did fill a community need.”

With his experience at the helm of the Fauquier Chamber, what are Martin’s thoughts on his job today?

“A few months into taking this job I fell in love with Fauquier County,” said Martin. “I fell in love with the business community. I’ve seen the changes that have happened over the last seven years and the wonderful places we can go and the heights we can achieve.

“There are a lot of unique things this business community can achieve without sprawl and crawl. And it excites me every day to drive into the chamber office and know all that is ahead of us.”


Published in the August 15, 2018 edition of the Fauquier Times.

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