Questions linger about Del. State Chamber chief departure

    The abrupt departure of Joan Verplanck from the top post at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce remains a hot topic at business get-togethers and quick cups of coffee.

    Notes have been compared and possible explanations have been offered. The talk is nearly always all off the record in keeping with a reluctance in discussing personnel matters and the interlocking relationships that are part of any business community.

    The decision came as a shock (at least outside chamber circles) as Verplanck and chamber staff were involved in a statewide get acquainted tour that gained some positive feedback.

    Verplanck and the chamber were also a prominent part of a November episode of WHYY’s “First,” a TV news magazine that came out of an interview with Delaware Today. The story and segment on “First” offered hints on what would take place later in the month.  

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    Verplanck came across as a forceful no-nonsense leader, a breath of fresh air for an organization coping with a changing economic environment.

    Her success and long tenure in her previous post as president of the New Jersey State Chamber was touted in many quarters.

    In speeches and one-on-one meetings, she made it clear that she was not particularly impressed with a state where many take great pride in the ability of legislators and business to work together. She did not rule out the possibility that these relationships were part of an inward focus that limited its economic possibilities.

    Instead, she seemed inclined to side with those who believed that high utility rates, higher taxes and a headlong plunge into alternative energy placed a crushing burden on the economy. That ruffled feathers in Dover, where Democrats have championed that agenda.

    Perhaps more significant was her vision for the State Chamber did not have the full backing of a board that is comprised of a mixture of business, non-profit and small business representatives with a variety of political and economic points of view.

    There were also numerous reports that Verplanck, perhaps believing that changes needed to be made quickly, did not work to foster relationships, or seek support, for shifts in strategy among current and former board members.

    More than once she told small business persons that the State Chamber might not be the perfect fit for their enterprises. It was nothing personal. Rather, she believed that local chambers of commerce would do a better job representing their interests. In return, the State Chamber would also represent their interests in Dover.

    The issue of trying to be all things to all businesses and organizations is a dilemma that has faced the State Chamber for a number of years.

    The chamber now operates affiliates that cover educational innovation, small business, manufacturing, retailing and public policy. Add in its core function of representing the business community in Dover and it’s clear the organization faces a daunting task in maintaining its focus.

    From time to time, strategy shifts have been suggested and implemented. Verplanck was not happy with what she viewed as too much emphasis in competing with the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce and clearly wanted to work more closely with local chambers in the state.

    That vision would seem to call for a major restructuring of the chamber, perhaps to a more typical state chamber model that focuses on legislation and public policy. Unwinding those activities would be difficult to say the least and would result in a reduction in revenue from related events.

    Not in the cards anytime soon is a merger of the New Castle and State Chambers, an idea that has been around for a number of years. In the meantime, a Small Business Chamber of Commerce has emerged with statewide ambitions and a non-stop round of networking events.

    All of this might suggest big changes could be in the offing for the State Chamber. But with the departure of Verplanck that day is not likely to arrive anytime soon.

    Incoming chairman of the Chamber Mark Stellini noted in the WHYY First segment that the chamber needs to prove its relevance in a tough business environment.

    That will be the biggest challenge facing Verplanck’s successor.

    Doug Rainey is the editor of the Delaware Business Daily.  Email Doug,  or follow him on twitter:

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