The Berks County economy is still marked by large manufacturers that have historically defined the area, but now and in the coming years, entrepreneurs and small businesses will be the backbone of that economy, officials from the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce and Industry say.
The chamber is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The celebration begins at its annual dinner May 13 and will continue this summer at its annual picnic.
The chamber serves more than 1,500 companies, including Berks' largest employers, such as East Penn Manufacturing Co. Inc. and Reading Hospital. But 60 percent of its members have fewer than 10 employees. The chamber's primary focus is helping those small businesses grow.
“Small companies are the backbone of our business community,” said Ellen Horan, chamber CEO.
For more than 100 years, Reading and Berks County have been known for their large manufacturers. And while some of those companies continue to thrive, technology has reduced the number of employees necessary to run them.
It is small business that's driving employment growth, and that's what inspires the chamber to help them employ more Berks residents.
Recognizing that small business owners spend most of their time working “in their business,” the chamber provides services to work on their business, seeking new directions, and ultimately grow their companies, Horan said.
“As they're doing the service or creating the product, it's hard for them to step back and be working on, 'OK, what directions am I taking the company?' ” she said.
PART OF A COMMUNITY
One of those small businesses is L&L Services Inc, a general contractor serving Berks County.
Chamber membership has been all about being part of a community.
Last year, L&L owner Rick Herbert heard about a World War II veteran who had a leaky roof, causing major damage to the home. Herbert contacted the chamber, which connected him with another local business that took care of the required and necessary safety equipment.
“We needed a safety person on site,” Herbert said. “The chamber got the person and all of the safety equipment. It would have cost us more than $1,000.”
The project started with the leaky roof, but Herbert found more work was necessary. The chamber responded with a crew of volunteers, including Horan and other chamber board members.
“I'm really grateful for that,” Herbert said.
While networking is the primary service of the chamber, it also provides access to lectures and online resources. And with the large – and growing – Latino population in the county, those resources are available in English and Spanish.
“The person that's in charge of our small business services is bilingual, which in the Reading area is key, given the depth of our Latino population,” Horan said.
One of the chamber's most popular services is its monthly “power networking” series. At a given session, more than 70 representatives of local businesses will exchange their “elevator pitches” in a speed-dating format at a local restaurant. Horan said it's a good way to make a connection with a large number of businesses while supporting local restaurants.
“We arrange connections for them to meet with experts in that field, whether it's other chamber members or other organizations that they may or may not know exist,” she said.
The network of connections that the chamber provides can connect members with support services, such as law firms and IT providers, that could help both partners create more business. Herbert said that L&L saw immediate impact when he started networking with other chamber members.
“I just like the people,” Herbert said. “The formal introductions created a lot of business for us. In the first year, 35 percent of our business, which is about $400,000, came from chamber connections.”
The legacy manufacturers, while not providing the large-scale employment they once did, are helpful in their own way. Many small businesses generate revenue with services that those manufacturers contract out.
“We still have a good number of manufacturers here in the community, which is good because they tend to be higher paying jobs and have a bigger trickle-down effect. They generate more job opportunities for other businesses than a service industry does,” Horan said.
GROWING BASE OF SMALL BUSINESSES
As the chamber looks ahead, it will try to continue to grow the base of small businesses in order to bolster the county's employment numbers. But employees can help, too, by seeking out technical training that has become crucial to getting a job in more specialized businesses, and helping them grow.
“Our employers are having difficulty finding technician level and skilled labor. There's just not as many people going down those career paths. That's where the demand is,” Horan said.
The chamber also hopes to see a continuing trend of people starting businesses, regardless of their age or experience.
“Most employment is driven by the smallest companies,” Horan said. “I would like to see growth in business startups. I think that will be key for our economy heading forward.”
And Herbert says chamber membership is a must for small businesses looking to become a part of the Berks business community.
“I would never second guess being a member in the chamber. Whenever they need something, I'm there,” he said.