Talking Shop with Brian Gerau, executive director, Jackson Chamber of Commerce

Monday, January 5, 2009
ELIZABETH DODD ~ edodd@semissourian.com
Brian Gerau became the executive director for the Jackson Chamber of Commerce in November.

Brian Gerau, 35, became the new Jackson Chamber of Commerce executive director on Nov. 1, 2008. A little more than two months later Brian Blackwell sat down with Gerau to talk about what he's learned since assuming the role. Gerau succeeded Marybeth Williams, who died from pneumonia April 27, 2008. Executive assistant Cheryl Merkler had assumed Williams' day-to-day roles since the sudden death.

Gerau is married to Southeast Missourian advertising executive Sara Gerau. The couple has two children, Jackson, 7, and Brooke, 5, and they have been residents of Jackson for five years. A 1997 graduate of the University of Missouri, Gerau worked in Columbia, Mo., as an administrator at Boone County Bank, a real estate lender with Gateway Mortgage Group and a program director with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Gerau moved to the area in 2004 when he became director of Sylvan Learning Center in Cape Girardeau. Before accepting his position as chamber director, Gerau was a territory sales manager with the Altria Group.

His past involvement with the chamber included membership in the education committee and volunteering at various events.

Q: How did you become director?

A: I was transferred out here for work and I got involved in the Jackson Chamber of Commerce when we moved here. I thought it would be a good way to meet people. I parlayed that into becoming affiliated into different groups in the chamber and volunteering and met a lot of leaders. ... when the position opened up, people contacted me to see if I was interested and that brought me to where I am now.

Q: How did those skills you learned in previous jobs prepare you for your role today?

A: It taught me basically how to talk with people. In the business community you have to be comfortable around people. If you're not comfortable around people and they're not comfortable around you, you can be the world's best salesman but you won't develop that certain rapport. When you're dealing with certain communities, they like to deal with people they like and trust. Being able to talk and communicate effectively is important.

When you talk with people the biggest thing in business [is] you have to be comfortable around people. A community likes to deal with people it likes and trusts.

Q: What about your family involvement?

A: We are members of New McKendree United Methodist Church. With our family we like spending time together, whether that's curling up on the couch watching a movie, playing a board game, driving around Jackson shopping or dropping items out at the recycle center. As long as we're spending time together, that's important.

Developing that relationship with your kids at an early age is so important. It sets the tone for when they're older. If you like spending time together, it develops that relationship for when they become teenagers.

Q: Has your family life affected the relationship with your children?

A: When I was growing up I came from a blue-collar family. My dad was a painter and my mom was a nurse. They taught me a lot of good values in home and at work -- hard work, honesty and how to parlay that into your life. You believe in those values and you'll grow up to be successful.

Q: Is that what's lacking in today's society?

A: A little bit. In today's society there's so much going on and people are so involved with work or school or extracurricular activities that a lot of that time at home with the family is missed. And when that's missed a lot of that development is lacking and missing. And that goes along with society. Things are so much different than 10 to 15 years ago. So many more things to do and events going on that it makes it hard.

Q: If you could do anything besides what you're doing right now, what would it be?

A: It would probably be going to an amusement park or vacation with my kids. Somewhere kid-friendly. If they're enjoying themselves and happy, then I'm happy. The kids keep asking when we can go to Disney World. It somehow seems kid-friendly.

Q: What you've learned the first two months on the job?

A: If you want to help people in the community, the first thing you have to do is listen to them and find their core needs. If you just jump in there and try to act without taking different points of view into consideration, it will be more challenging. But if you talk and listen to people in the community, you really know what their core needs are. That will be the most beneficial thing -- trying to listen to as many people as possible and take all those points of view. [Then] gather as much information as you can, especially in this position. Getting feedback from people from Jackson is pretty easy. It's just acting on that.

Q: What have you done since coming on board Nov. 1?

A: I've talked to three-fourths of the businesses in the chamber. We've added 12 new businesses in two months, which is pretty good. So we're well over 400 business members now.

Q: What's it been like visiting the chamber?

A: It's been great, because before, I had the chamber visiting me and seeing what my needs are. Now I'm on the other side of the table seeing what the businesses' needs are. It's interesting to see that the needs of one business can be different from another. It's been interesting to see what those businesses are looking for and what's important to them and where they're at in 2009 as opposed to other businesses.

Q: Expand on what the business community is like.

A: What's interesting is you have some business owners who want to grow Jackson and make it as big as possible and you have others who want to see it where it's at and are pretty content where we're at now. I am in the middle. I want to see it grow but keep that Jackson base. It's so important to its identity. When you're talking with those business leaders and talking about why they want that growth or remain ... where we're at now, I then decipher what direction we'll go. My personal goal is never stay where you're at. You'll always want to stay progressive. I want to be diverse.

Q: What is the future of the chamber?

A: I see the chamber growing immensely. We want to show there's a benefit to every business out there, regardless if you're a bank or a retailer or wholesalers or anybody [else]. The Chamber of Commerce can help out any business, if you're a 700-person employer or you employ yourself, there's a need. My vision for the chamber is to develop a stronger sales network with the chamber members to branch out and introduce yourself to other business leaders. You never know if you'll need their services, but if you develop that network and rapport you can lean on each other.

Q: What about the economic challenges facing the city?

A: What's amazing with the economic challenges is that if you look around at the different restaurants or look at Wal-Mart in the area, everyone seems to be busy. You go to a lot of retailers and regardless of what you hear from people saying the economy is bad, I'm a firm believer that it may seem bad but there are still consumers out there. Until you go to the restaurants and they're barren on Friday and Saturday night, then I might I think the economy is bad. But I think people are a little more selective on what they spend their money on. With that in mind we try to promote that the chamber business is still good and there are still so many good things out there we can help out with in the economy. It's not all doom and gloom. It's still pretty good out there and businesses are opening up every day. It will get better.

Q: Has the economy been a challenge?

A: With what we hear in the economy, it's ups and downs. Some businesses are tighter, whether it's with marketing budgets or donations or time. They're more selective in what they want to do and everyone is a little more tight with their money and a little more selective. So it's definitely an issue out there. But it's promoting what can be done with that business with the time and funds you do have.

Q: Have you had any surprises so far?

A: In this position I know a lot of people thought not being from Jackson was going to be against me. I couldn't be more opposite than that. Everyone has been extremely open to me and following up a person who did so well and was so highly respected in their position. You never want to replace a legend. You always want to replace the person who replaced the legend. ... the Jackson community has welcomed me with open arms and has been very open and very supportive and let me know whatever you need the community is here to help grow the chamber. And it's been so refreshing. I was told you might have a little bit of obstacle going into that position but I have not seen that.

Q: What's something else you'd like people to know about?

A: The business community is alive and well. There are so many opportunities out there for businesses, especially in the industrial park. There's lot of opportunities out there. I couldn't think of a better community to [do] business in or be in the chamber or network with. Every person I've worked with here has been fantastic in the business community and our schools have been great as well. And that's a great draw to Jackson. It makes my job very easy.

Q: Talk about the schools.

A: The schools are great because it's such a good draw to Jackson. The administration has just been extremely helpful and their teachers ... are excellent. Anyone moving into this area knows the reputation of the schools are fantastic and people want to send children to our schools. When you have good schools, it means good jobs, which means business, so it all works hand in hand.

Q: Owned by the Jackson Industrial Development Co., the 33-acre Jackson Industrial Park off Route PP is home to soccer fields, American Railcar Industries and B&B Door Co. What about the park's success?

A: We want to try and expand that of course. Another of my goals as chamber director is [to] spread the word that the industrial park is available and there are always incentives working with the city and getting those big industries in the area. We're always willing to meet with anybody regardless of the business to show them the benefits of moving to Jackson. One of the bigger goals in 2009 that we have all of this available and that prospective businesses should take a look at Jackson.

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