COMPTON — Ernest Spears, the new executive director of the city's Chamber of Commerce, says he is far from the stereotype of those holding such positions--the back-slapping, smiling, booster who sees sunshine during a rainstorm.
Instead, Spears calls himself a "kick-in-the-ass kind of guy . . . who can restore some order to the chaos."
Chaos is an apt word for what has occurred at the chamber over the last two years. A chamber secretary is alleged to have embezzled $22,000 of the group's funds, membership goals were not met and basic bookkeeping functions were ignored, members of the group's board of directors said.
Spears, 46, was hired last month to turn that around, said Mahiri Patton, chamber president. Spears signed a six-month contract--at a salary of $18,000 a year plus 25% of new membership fees--last month so both sides could see if they could work together. Both say they are pleased so far.
"He is doing a good job," Patton said. "We needed someone who is organized. . . . Not that the chamber was falling apart, but no one was taking charge of the day-to-day operations."
Spears, who was a member of the chamber's board, replaced former Rams football star Dick Bass, who had been executive director for 18 months. "Bass was hired for his (public relations) image," said Spears, a barrel-chested man with a commanding presence. "He was OK for PR, but he had a lot of other business interests to take care of."
Bass could not be reached for comment.
Spears' office is decorated with photos detailing past triumphs of the group. Noticeably scarce are pictures from the 1980s.
Spears owns the Equity Funding Group, a local financial consulting firm. He said his business will take a back seat until he decides in June whether he wants to stay with the chamber--and he says at this point he thinks he will stay. He said he may turn the business over to one of his two sons.
Some area businessmen have criticized the 200-member chamber as being unresponsive to their needs. Several member firms say the only time the owners hear from the chamber is when it is time to pay their dues. Spears says they have some legitimate complaints.
"The membership always asks, 'What has the chamber done for me?' and to be honest, it wasn't doing a hell of a lot," Spears said. He said he is planning seminars on taxes and other subjects, group medical insurance for small businessmen and a program to help businesses deal with consumer complaints.
But the chamber is hampered, Spears said, with a budget of only $93,000 a year--$30,000 from the city and the rest from members. He said most chambers of commerce in cities of close to 100,000 people are operating with $250,000 a year.
"Most cities of (this size) have a greater economic base than Compton," Spears said. He said Compton, with its 3,000 to 5,000 businesses, "ranging from major corporations to one-man vendors down on the corner," is more like a city half its size economically.
Spears said he also wants to make peace with the independent Compton Latino Chamber of Commerce. But leaders of that group say no contact has been made.
"They are only concerned about the black businesses," said Jose Ochoa, the Latino chamber's vice president. The 35-member group was formed six years ago, Ochoa said, to help Spanish-speaking businessmen deal with the city.
"I have made overtures to the Latin chamber to work with the Compton chamber, but nothing has worked out," Patton said. He said an offer about 18 months ago to merge the two groups and guarantee the Latino chamber seats on the board was rejected.
Chamber of Commerce board members began questioning Bass' operation of the chamber in October when it was discovered the $22,000 was missing.
But Spears asserts that he has corrected sloppy accounting practices that allowed the alleged embezzlement to take place. But, he said, the incident has not hurt the chamber's reputation. "(Business) people recognize that type of thing could have happened anywhere where an employee is given a trust," Spears said.
Ann Glover, who had worked for the chamber for less than a year, was arrested in December on suspicion of using a complicated check-kiting scheme to take chamber money, according to the Compton Police. A police spokesman said the department will present its case to the district attorney's office later this month.
But Spears said he hopes to put the chamber's problems behind it.
He wants to see the chamber take a more active role in the city government, especially in redevelopment, something he said was not stressed in the past.
"We can help relocated businesses get the option of moving back into the area," Spears said. "We can also be involved in the balance of business moving into the area to make sure it is not just a bunch of (finger) nail shops and check cashing places."