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Q&A With CMCC President & CEO Raj Kudchadkar

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It’s been a busy six (or so) months for Raj Kudchadkar. During that span, he left his long-time employ with the Howard County government to join a recently-merged chamber of commerce that was formed by two organizations — the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber (BWCC) and the West Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce (WCC) — that had been in business, and in competition with each other, for decades.

But Kudchadkar, while new to chamber work, has a vast, varied educational and professional background that has enabled him to prove himself up to the challenge of running the recently named Central Maryland Chamber of Commerce (CMCC).

His professional journey started when he was hired as a planner with the Resurrection Project, a community development corporation that helps revitalize impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago.

After coming to the area to practice civil rights and disability rights law at a small firm in Hanover, he joined the Howard County Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Office as deputy director in 2007; he then went on to lead the Base Business Initiative (BBI), which helped small businesses navigate the federal contracting environment at Fort Meade. In fewer than two years, Kudchadkar helped increase the membership base of the program from 20 businesses in Howard County to nearly 3,000 businesses in the mid-Atlantic.

In 2014, he was appointed director of the Howard County Office of Military Affairs, before his most recent appointment, as deputy director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning. In that role, he led efforts on comprehensive planning for Downtown Columbia, revitalization planning for the Long Reach Village Center and flood recovery planning for Ellicott City.
Kudchadkar received a B.A. in Political Science from Carleton College, a joint M.A. in Public Policy and Education from Columbia University, and a J.D. from American University. He is married to Sapna Kudchadkar, a practicing physician at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. They have two children.

Some people were surprised by your career switch. What were the factors behind that decision?

First and foremost, it was such a unique opportunity. I was aware of the CEO positions being open at both chambers, and once merger talks started, I saw this position as an opportunity I could not pass up.

I absolutely loved my job at Howard County Planning & Zoning, as well as working for [County Executive] Allan Kittleman. Still, this was an opportunity that I had to pursue, because I knew I could make a big impact on the region. I’m probably working more hours now, but there’s also more flexibility. That’s important with a busy wife and young kids.

What are your thoughts about the ending of Session ’17 and what was accomplished this year?

We’re balancing advocacy and completing the merger, so I’m glad to say that we had a very active legislative committee. I think many people believe that, as CEO, I take positions; however, I work closely with the chamber’s board and its legislative committee.

There were about a dozen bills the chamber had its eye on this session, perhaps most notably the sick leave bill. We made sure legislators were aware that the majority of businesses had some form of paid sick leave because any successful business understands that its most important assets are its workers.
However, there are some businesses that are just not in a position to provide paid sick leave, and the regulatory burden could jeopardize businesses, impact other worker benefits, reduce hiring or increase the price of goods or services for consumers. We worked closely with our sister chambers on that issue.

What are your thoughts about the process that led to the chamber’s new name and new logo?

We could have approached it in three ways: internally, in a silo [strictly chamber staff and board]; or we could have hired an outside firm. But we picked a third approach by establishing a branding and marketing committee: We have 650 members, including many top-notch communications and marketing firms that pulled together to support their chamber.

For instance, I suggested the Greater Chesapeake Chamber of Commerce, but the committee dissuaded me otherwise, and came up with the Central Maryland Chamber of Commerce, and then the new logo. The impetus for that name is our 40-mile circle around Fort Meade, which covers 75% of our membership.

Is the CMCC looking to expand or move into a new office?

When the merger happened we adopted two bases; one in Laurel at the former home of the BWCC and the WCC location in Odenton. For a staff of five, the Laurel location was much bigger than we needed, but the WCC office was a good fit, size-wise.
The lease in Laurel is almost fulfilled. So, for the next couple of years, we’re staying here in Odenton.

How would you describe the financial state of each chamber at the time of the merger?

Obviously, when people hear a leader of the chamber is retiring, there can be some attrition. Claire and Walt announced that they were leaving around the same time, so that rate rose somewhat more than usual. But now that we’ve come together, it is slowing significantly, and recruitment has gone up exponentially.

What was the membership of each organization when the merger occurred?

The BWCC had just over 300 members, as did the WCC, so it was truly a merger of equals. Those figures are pretty good, given that there are more than 50 chambers in the state. Today, I feel we bring value to our members, in part due to our healthy size of nearly 650 members.

What are your goals for the number of members, and the ledger, by the end of 2017?

Our goal is simply to keep growing, though we don’t have a specific number we’re shooting for by the end of the year. This year alone, just the energy created by the merger has been a major selling point.

What is the split of your number of members between Howard, Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties?

Anne Arundel has the most with approximately 55%, then Prince George’s with 20%, then Howard County with 15%, followed by other jurisdictions combined making up roughly 10%. Montgomery only has a handful of members.

But know that the main point here is that we don’t worry about borders. There is a tremendous amount of synergy between Western Anne Arundel County, Eastern Howard County and Northern Prince George’s County/Laurel — primarily the 20-mile radius around Fort Meade. As a former director of planning and zoning, I see how there are divergent areas in the same county like western Howard, which is rural, and eastern Howard, which is highly suburbanized; it’s the same thing with western/northern Anne Arundel (urban/suburban) and southern Anne Arundel.
The point is that we can’t keep working with these organizational borders in mind. And that also goes for the other chambers, because we have combined events. For example, we had a joint networking breakfast in mid-April with the Howard County, Baltimore County and Catonsville chambers.

How does the chamber integrate with Fort Meade, especially since accessing the post has become more complicated in recent years?

In several ways, like with the Military Affairs Committee, where were work closely with the garrison commander. Then there’s the Army-Navy flag football game, as well as supporting the seven public schools on the installation via food drives, financial literacy fairs and other types of programs.

We also support the Fort Meade Community Covenant Council, which is directed toward coordinating different partnerships for the installation. Fort  Meade, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, is the biggest economic engine in the state, and we want people to understand what’s happening on-post.

What has been your biggest surprise since you took the helm at the CMCC?

That we have two large, well-established chambers merging that are about 10-to-15 minutes apart, with 650 businesses coming together — and only 18 overlapped. That shocked me. That’s less than 5% of the membership. That’s meant that, in terms of opportunities, this merger has been great in terms of connecting businesses.

What new programs are you considering?

We are in the midst of a strategic planning effort. But so far, with the merger, we’ve not forfeited one of the nine signature events that we have from either chamber, so we offer a great breadth of events.

We haven’t added anything new at this point, though adding some new events is part of what the strategic plan is about. We are going to talk with our member businesses about how to proceed.