COLUMBIA — Matt McCormick pursed his lips and paused, thinking about what his biggest learning curve will be as the new president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
For the Texas native and 37-year-old father of two, it wasn’t going to be the potential for snow, as he joked it might be.
McCormick, who began his role as the Columbia chamber's president on Feb. 5, has a strong frame, complemented by a hearty and youthful laugh with a voice that hangs on to his Texan roots. His laugh and smile give him a vibe similar to that of a father watching his child's little league game.
McCormick was president of the Lewisville, Texas, chamber for six years before taking the Columbia job. He's staying in a hotel while he waits for his home in Texas to sell. His children and his wife, Tami, remain in Texas for now.
McCormick said he got into the chamber industry by accident. Originally a forestry major at Stephen F. Austin State University, he tried other areas of study before going with speech communications. He aspired to be a political speech writer.
“Yeah, we all get into it by accident,” McCormick said. “And that’s kind of our joke in the industry, is we all get into it by accident. And you either love it or you hate it, and I absolutely fell in love with the industry.”
Randy Coil, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said the group's presidential task force went through an “extensive review process” before hiring McCormick. It had the board’s approval to hire a consultant who specializes in finding chamber executives and who did a nationwide search.
The task force, which Coil said was a combination of chamber members from different-size businesses and different industries such as health care and insurance, recommended McCormick for the job based on his experience.
“He’s an individual that’s committed to the chamber’s mission,” Coil said, adding that McCormick is “very personable,” has “good energy” and is “someone very knowledgeable about his business.”
As for the biggest learning curve in coming to Columbia, McCormick said it probably will be that the chamber here endorses political candidates.
“One of the things that’s different here than I ever dealt with in Lewisville, or my prior two chambers I worked at is we do (political) endorsements here,” McCormick said, adding that he doesn't anticipate it being as much a challenge as just something to which he has to become accustomed.
Had any of the chambers of commerce he worked for in Texas wanted to do endorsements, he said, they would have been required by law to establish a political action committee. Although McCormick doesn’t have experience with chamber endorsements, he said he favors the practice.
“If a board feels and the chamber feels that endorsements is (the) route to go, then that’s the route we need to go, and we’re gonna go at it wholeheartedly — a hundred percent,” he said.
The Columbia Chamber of Commerce, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing Columbia's business community, only recently started endorsing political candidates and offering its positions on ballot issues. In council races, it's had a split record of siding with winners. In 2010, it endorsed Bob McDavid, Gary Kespohl and Daryl Dudley, who were running for mayor and the Third and Fourth ward council seats, respectively. All three won.
Most recently, the chamber endorsed Laura Nauser in a special election for the Fifth Ward seat from which Anthony resigned. Nauser defeated opponents Susan "Tootie" Burns and Mark Jones on Feb. 5.
That means four of the seven sitting council members have been endorsed by the chamber. And three of them — McDavid, Kespohl and Dudley — are seeking re-election.
Former Columbia chamber President Don Laird, who retired Jan. 15, said it was the chamber board that decided to begin endorsing candidates after discussing the question for many years. The board’s reasoning, he said, was to “provide balance” and bring a business perspective to the council.
Laird said he knew McCormick professionally before he was chosen to lead the Columbia chamber but had no input on the decision to hire him. “He’s a good person and I think he’ll do a good job."
McCormick said the Columbia chamber differs from Lewisville’s in a few ways.
The Columbia chamber has more than 1,100 members, according to its website, while Lewisville's has around 750. The Lewisville chamber also has a budget that's about half the size of Columbia’s. The cities, however, have similar populations: Columbia at a little more than 110,000 people and Lewisville about 99,000.
Every chamber McCormick has previously worked at has had a small or large university, he said.
McCormick said that before he took the Lewisville job he had turned down the position three times because the chamber was bankrupt both financially and operationally. After interviewing with chamber representatives, he said, he decided to take the job and ended up spending his first 4 1/2 years rebuilding the organization.
By the time he left Lewisville, the chamber had grown its budget and membership. It had a 90-day budget reserve and had grown its staff and programs.
McCormick graduated from the Institute for Organization Management, which is operated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He's now an instructor there. He also is a certified chamber executive and was involved in a variety of other leadership positions in Lewisville, according to a news release that announced his position here.
Erin Carney, events and communications director for the Lewisville chamber, said in a statement that McCormick was key to setting the organization on a more sustainable path.
"He is an innovator in the chamber industry, and continues to serve as mentor for me personally as well as the rest of the Lewisville Area Chamber of Commerce staff," Carney said. "... we will miss Matt’s drive, focus and determination but know that he has instilled in us that same passion to lead and succeed."
McCormick said he doesn't think his Columbia job will be as difficult as the one in Lewisville "because there is no rebuilding."
“It’ll be a difficult task in other arenas ... as I learn," McCormick said. "Just that it’s a larger organization, so it's got its opportunities for me to learn and to work through.”
McCormick said he has no specific goals for the Columbia chamber yet. There are a lot of things it does very well already.
“Let's start ratcheting them up to that next level," he said.
McCormick said it’s always hard to leave a community after becoming so ingrained in it.
“As soon as you get there, you’re just dumped in and you start getting into every facet of a community, from day one," he said. "... So six years of being ingrained every direction we could be.... That makes it tough. You know, that’s the coolest part of the job but it’s also the hardest part of the job whenever it’s time for you to go.”
Coil said McCormick’s first challenge, given to him by the board and task force, will be to take the chamber to another level by improving the quality of chamber events, growing membership, tweaking the budget and refining the chamber's mission.
Coil said he wants to give McCormick some time to get a feel for both the chamber and Columbia, then get his thoughts.
“It’s harder when you go into a chamber that’s enjoyed good membership and a healthy budget,” Coil said. To improve something that isn’t broken yet will be a “good challenge for him.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.