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VALLEY BUSINESS | CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE: FINDING STRENGTH
IN NUMBERS

Reputation, Not Size, Delivers Clout

Standing: Although the Woodland Hills group has 401 members, only about 50 attend meetings. But importance seems inherent in its name.

August 10, 1999|LISA LEFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WOODLAND HILLS — MarlynDinon thought she was in for a lot of arm-twisting when she volunteered to line up speakers for the Woodland Hills Chamber of Commerce's monthly breakfast meetings.

Instead, it took her less than six weeks to recruit a year's worth of lecturers--including state Treasurer Kathleen Connell, Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles), Latin Business Assn. head Hector Barreto Jr. and author Mel Kaufmann ("The Millionaire's Handbook").

Never mind that 50 people is considered a healthy turnout for the group's 7:30 a.m. meetings, or that the Woodland Hills chamber's membership of 401 is half of what it was a decade ago.

Everyone Dinon contacted was eager to accept her invitation--while others called out of the blue to request a spot on the schedule.

"They consider it a chance to market their products or their messages to a group of individuals who are well-known in their community," Dinon says.

The ease with which Dinon was able to fulfill her task is a testament to the Woodland Hills Chamber's reputation as one of the most influential business groups in the San Fernando Valley.

While some local chambers struggle with volunteer workers and borrowed office space, the Woodland Hills chamber employs two full-time and two part-time staff members, publishes a monthly newsletter, and recently moved into new office quarters on Ventura Boulevard.

But chamber leaders, who enjoy easy access to local elected officials and corporate executives, are the first to concede that the chamber derives its image as much from the gleaming glass office towers of Warner Center and the comparative affluence of Woodland Hills as from the 57-year-old group's size or the way it exercises its clout.

Large employers like 20th Century Insurance, Blue Cross and HealthNet belong to the chamber, but the bulk of the organization's work is mostly carried out by a small corps of committed volunteers--whether it's hosting member networking mixers, evaluating legislation and development proposals or overseeing community cleanup efforts.

"It's a little like the man behind the curtain in 'The Wizard of Oz'," says Lyle Greenberg, a Woodland Hills attorney who is the chamber's board chairman this year. "People have a perception of Woodland Hills that is built on the idea of tall buildings. Most of our members and our active participation come from small businesses, just like every other chamber in the Valley."

Of course, it helps that the chamber's board has historically been dominated by attorneys and other white-collar professionals. "[These are] people who are more in control of their time, who are perceived as decision makers and who are used to making presentations before zoning commissions and city councils," observes Marty Cooper, a Woodland Hills chamber board member who formerly served as president of the Encino chamber.

From that perspective, it makes sense that Mayor Richard Riordan asked the Woodland Hills chamber to testify before a City Council committee considering his proposal to overhaul the city's business tax.

"A chamber like Tarzana, which is a community of small retailers, tends to have on its board people who are less likely to have high profiles and lots of clout, if for no other reason than that they are stuck behind a cash register all day," said Cooper.

Chamber officials and outside observers say one key to the organization's strength is its active government affairs committee, which is often solicited by elected officials for input on city and state legislation.

The organization has effectively enhanced its reputation by not always taking positions that can be classified as pro-business, says Gary Barr, a lawyer who heads up the committee.

For example, the chamber agreed with the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization that the Warner Ridge development should not be a strictly commercial venture, and has worked to limit development in the Warner Center area as well.

"Elected officials react well when they see it's not just a knee-jerk reaction to a proposal, but that a chamber has really studied it," Barr says.

Gordon Murley, president of the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization, said his group joined the chamber nine years ago as a way of influencing the business community's positions from the inside.

But Murley said the chamber doesn't always speak with one voice. While the chamber supports efforts to beautify Ventura Boulevard, he said there are also a number of retailers along the boulevard who are chamber members and ignore the admonition.

"The businesses on the boulevard either don't belong to the chamber or they only do it so they are listed" in the chamber's membership directory, Murley said.

Chamber chairman Greenberg acknowledges that the chamber needs to do more to demonstrate its relevance to businesses that are not members.

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