In tough times, Chandler businesses network - East Valley Tribune: News

In tough times, Chandler businesses network

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Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2009 5:48 pm | Updated: 1:26 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

It wasn't as elegant as Tiffany's, but more than 80 people had breakfast in a Sears Home Appliance store in Chandler, sipping coffee, downing pastries and chatting between rows of washers, dryers and refrigerators.

Cesar Moran, manager of the new specialty Sears store, opened his doors at 7 a.m. so Chandler Chamber of Commerce members could chat, commiserate over a sour economy, and quaff some juice or java before the work day began.

Moran was pleased to see his store packed, even if nobody was buying anything at the time.

"This brings people into the store. Sixty to 70 percent of them didn't know we were open, because we are the first (in a new shopping center)," Moran said.

Attendance at the Chandler Chamber networking sessions keeps going up as the economy keeps falling down, said Jerry Bustamante, president of the business-focused association.

The Chamber has three of them a month, not counting smaller groups that meet to share leads.

The get-together at Sears was the regular early morning meeting. Next up is a mid-morning session.

The third monthly networking opportunity is an after-work version.

The most recent evening event attracted at least 50 first-timers, Bustamante said.

Most of the attendees are small businesses or the big businesses that cater to them, such as banks or other service providers.

Or retailers like Moran, who hopes his business community buddies will remember the new store if they need to update a kitchen or laundry room.

Attendance at all the networking sessions combined is up 20 percent to 25 percent compared with last year, Bustamante said.

"Business owners are working harder in the recession to generate new business or maintain existing customers," Bustamante said. "And this is a way to promote yourself."

That's why Jaimie Innes, owner of J.I. Plumbing, was chatting with new contacts among the appliances.

Innes, who has been a plumber for 26 years, was laid off a year ago and started his own business. His brother-in-law, a plumber who established his own company in California, told Innes to start schmoozing with other business owners.

"My brother-in-law spends most of his time doing this just to get the name of his company out," Innes said.

Calvin Cole, Chandler branch sales manager for AmTrust Bank, said most people know the name of his company, but may not know its changing focus from primarily a mortgage lender to a full-service bank.

"We're trying to be more of a business and consumer bank," Cole said. "I don't do a hard sell, but if it comes up, I make my plug. You don't really get down to business here, but if I see (the same business owners) at the next event, and maybe go out to lunch and get to know them, it builds a relationship."

But bottom line, it's new business, not new friends, that the companies need in a tough economy.

Does chatting over coffee and washing machines offer just "me, too" commiseration sessions about the recession, or does it really boost business?

Tami Eagles, who works for the family-owned gym chain Fitness Works, also is trying to promote a changing focus of the business since the economy tanked. And she has scored results from doing it at networking sessions.

"People balk at paying for gym memberships," Eagles said. "Since the recession, we are changing our focus to business rather than individual (memberships)."

She's sold two corporate accounts by chatting with business owners at Chamber networking sessions and persuading them that the cost of providing gym benefits keeps employees happier and healthier, and that's a big payback.

And chiropractor Dr. Peter Nemanic said he gets half his new clients from the Chamber sessions.

"If you're not talking to people, you miss a big part of the (potential) business," he said.

Nemanic said networking is viral. If you hit the mark with one business owner, you are, in effect, networking with that business' entire customer base.

Brad Ness, director of member services for the Chandler Chamber, agreed that networking is a must in challenging economic times.

"As the economy slows, the old tactics don't work the same," Ness said. "People are out there looking for services. The energy is there, and the word is getting spread."

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