By Brice Wallace
Several hundred people showed up for the Salt Lake Chamber’s 134th annual meeting, making it a perfect metaphor for what the chamber does best, according to its leader.
During the meeting at the Little America Hotel, Derek Miller, the chamber’s president and CEO, said that Utah’s economy has fared better than those of other states during the pandemic because of Utah’s “spirit of engagement, a seamless relationship between the public and private sectors, and a legacy of clear and honest communication” among business, government and community leaders.
“Sometimes we call this Utah’s ‘secret sauce,’” Miller told the crowd. “Sometimes we call it ‘social capital.’ I like to call it ‘showing up.’ We all are aware of the saying in business that ‘showing up’ is half the battle. I’m grateful to be part of a business community that shows up.”
During the past year, the chamber and the business community it represents showed up to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, strengthen the business environment, promote diversity and inclusion, build communities, address environmental issues, and work to make housing available and affordable, he said.
It also pushed for passage of business-beneficial bills in the state Legislature and hosted more than 200 gatherings (both in-person and virtually), all while adhering to the chamber’s ABCs: Advocacy for members, Building businesses and Connecting the community.
“With all of this as background, I’m pleased to say, with energy and excitement, that we’ve only just begun, particularly as we look towards the future,” Miller said.
That includes the recent launch of the Utah Innovation Network, designed to ensure that innovation is achieved in a lateral strategy “across traditional silos,” he said. If successful, it will promote innovation, create commercialization, introduce new possibilities, attract talent to the state and increase Utah’s national leadership, he said.
“We believe that Utah’s dynamic ecosystem will become a blueprint for others to follow,” Miller said. “If we can collaborate across these industries and connect innovations into a coherent constellation, then we will continue to diversity our economy and it will help to make sure that Utah stays the best state for business in America.”
Many of Utah’s challenges are not new and many are connected to others, he added.
“I’ve always said that if we are going to have challenges, it is better to have challenges associated with progress rather than to have challenges that are associated with decline,” Miller said. “And challenges associated with progress are exactly the kind of challenges that we face today. That all means that the future is bright for Utah.”
Craig Wagstaff, the outgoing chair of the chamber’s board of governors, said that a year ago, the nation was facing several problems, including racial injustice, lives lost to COVID and natural disasters.
“In the process of these events of last summer, we certainly saw a country and a community that was divided at times,” he said. “We also focused and looked at the stark contrast between how great Utah was doing and unfortunately how not-so-great other states were doing, and surely much of our success was due to the chamber’s efforts and of you as business leaders.”
Utah weathered the pandemic in part through the chamber’s “Stay Safe to Stay Open” campaign designed to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.
“The results of this is we had 10,000 businesses throughout the state sign a pledge and set a standard of safety in their offices and storefronts, standards that were also taken into communities and into individuals’ homes,” he said, noting that it happened before a vaccine was available, when pandemic information was constantly changing and when no one could predict where it was headed.
“In the process, the chamber saved lives. How many? We will never know, but they certainly saved lives,” Wagstaff said.
Traditionally, chairmen tackle a priority. Wagstaff’s was diversity and inclusion. Working with the Utah Black Chamber, the Salt Lake Chamber launched roundtable events to see different points of view, boost awareness and learn best practices. It will lead to the state’s first-ever Business Diversity Summit in November.
“Indeed,” Wagstaff said, “the past year was layered with challenges, but I believe we turned those into opportunities as a team, we learned from them, we’ve responded together and I think we’re a much better community for it.”
Gary B. Porter, senior vice president at Deseret Management Corp., will serve as 2021-22 board chair, and Dr. Donna Milavetz of Steward Health Care will serve as board vice chair.
Porter said his emphasis will be on businesses helping educators and students.
“My vision for this next year is centered on giving back and supporting educators and students who may be been left behind during the pandemic,” he said, adding that he is worried that children’s learning has been impaired during COVID. “We really need to help them achieve their potential.”
Businesses can help by adopting schools; donating supplies; providing mentorship opportunities; and holding special days focused on subjects like time management, government service and financial literacy, he said.
“There’s a lot of talent in our community that remains untapped,” Porter said, “and our ability to give back to our youth and institutions is something that we can really engage a little more in, with more enthusiasm and maybe a little more collective ownership.”
The event included an awards ceremony for several organizations and individuals:
• Wagstaff as outgoing board chair.
• President’s Award for Excellence: Utah Black Chamber.
• Corporate Partners of the Year: Ivory Homes and WCF Insurance.
• Community Partners of the Year: Rich Saunders and Utah Department of Health.
• Board Chair’s Initiative Award: AT&T.
• Small Business of the Year: Saffron Valley Restaurants & Catering.
• Chamber Champions: James Hadlock, co-founder and chief evangelist, Blunovus; Barb Johnson, commercial real estate advisor, CBRE; Ben Kolendar, director of the Department Economic Development, Salt Lake City Corp.; Nate McDonald, deputy director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services; Jeff Tiede, founder and CEO, American Packaging Group Inc.; Miles Romney, senior benefits advisor, Diversified Insurance; and Sherry Weaver, associate director of sales, Park City Mountain Resort.
The theme for the event was “Future in Focus.” The chamber represents more than 63,000 employers with a combined 1.4 million employees.