It’s already been more than a year since the board of directors of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce (MCC) appointed Brien Poffenberger as the organization’s president and CEO. Poffenberger, who served for 10 years in the same capacity with the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce (HWCCC), began his tenure in June 2014, succeeding the retired Kathy Snyder.
Poffenberger is responsible for the chamber’s day-to-day operations, including its legislative advocacy program, membership development and retention, and managing its 10-person staff. Beyond the daily work of the chamber, a priority is to ensure the continuity of the Maryland Competitiveness Coalition, an alliance of 60 organizations working to create a stronger business climate in Maryland.
Under his leadership, the HWCCC tripled its annual non-dues revenue, built its membership base, strengthened member retention, bolstered its communications and outreach efforts, and advocated its public policy agenda before the Maryland General Assembly. Prior to leading the HWCCC, he served as director of the Small Business Development Center in Fauquier County, Va., and worked in the private sector, including positions with General Electric and Scott Paper; he also served as a legislative assistant for U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
He is a graduate of Leadership Maryland’s Class of 2000 and completed the U.S Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Organizational Management program in 2008. Poffenberger holds an MBA from Georgetown University and a master’s degree from the University of Virginia; he earned his bachelor’s degree from the College of William & Mary.
It’s well documented that Maryland is not living up to its potential in economic development circles. What do you think of Gov. Larry Hogan’s efforts during these early days of his administration to boost Maryland’s image in the business community?
I think Gov. Hogan and his administration are sending the right message about what Maryland offers to employers, and at the same time they have focused on the areas that need work. That speaks to an overall sales effort and branding for the state, not only to people in Maryland, but nationally and internationally.
The governor’s message really mirrors the message of the Maryland Competitiveness Coalition, a 3-year-old organization that the Maryland Chamber brought together to show off what Maryland has to celebrate, such as the Port of Baltimore and BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, educational institutions, an educated workforce and access to markets.
At the same time, together, we are working on what needs to be improved, such as the tax structure and the regulatory environment, while improving the culture of customer service within state government.
Hogan and DBED Secretary Mike Gill have said that they plan to make Maryland a Top 10 business address in during the coming years. Are you optimistic about that happening?
I am, and Mike Gill is the right guy from the job. He’s a salesman; he’s a booster. And that’s what we need him to be, nationally and internationally, to tell Maryland’s story.
This past spring, you made it through your first state legislative meeting as president/CEO of the MCC. How did you feel at the end of the session?
Good. The chamber played a huge part in making sure that the conversation about the business climate was at the fore. You heard both sides of the aisle talk about projecting Maryland and its brand. If you track that conversation back, you started hearing it in the House in 2013; and in 2014, the two presiding officers named the Business Climate Commission, chaired by Norm Augustine. Even the governor’s race last year featured a healthy debate about the business climate.
The chamber started much of this discussion with the Competitiveness Coalition, and it’s a message we drove home in this year’s legislative session. On specific policy proposals, we were able to work on workplace regulations, taxes and civil liabilities issues — which are all issues that make our membership nervous. And on each of these, we were able to stem the tide or at least lessen its impact.
What will be the hot topics for the MCC when the next legislative session starts in January?
We are building that list now and are expecting mandatory sick leave, combined reporting (which takes a company’s entire income, beyond Maryland, into account at tax time) and the Augustine Commission’s report on tax structure to come to the fore.
If you were looking at the state’s business landscape through the eyes of a small businessperson, what would you like and what would you like improved?
Basically, what I’ve mentioned above. Also know that what’s interesting about Maryland is not only its educational level, but the opportunity to educate your workforce after you’re already here. We’re strong across the board from K–12 and private schools, to the community colleges and four-year schools. There’s real parity in the various regions of the state.
How is the MCC working in the cyber and tech communities as they grow?
Two of our focuses are on cyber life sciences and information technology. We just had an event last month about the conversations going on in the C-suites so we can talk about what the CEOs, COOs, etc., are saying about cyber. Bear in mind that those folks may not be cyber people, so we have to figure out what they are protecting and how that influences operations, rank priorities, etc. We all need to understand that.
Are there any other industries that are priorities to promote?
We are generalists, and that’s our strength. Having said that, we also pay significant attention to disciplines such as unmanned vehicles, high tech manufacturing, automation and life sciences. They’re all in the innovation bubble. And we need to focus on industries that serve the entire economy, like energy, transportation and education.
How is the chamber working with academia as it tries to bolster job growth?
We have people from all of the sectors in our membership who focus on technology transfer, which ties in with the state’s key assets, like the programs at the University of Maryland, The Johns Hopkins University and the federal agencies.
Stove pipes [various parties not communicating] have been an issue in the past, and I think DBED and the universities understand that and are working to break them down.
How can business leaders increase connections among incubators, higher education institutions, employers and venture capital opportunities to spur world class innovation, technology and entrepreneurism?
I think that is where organizations like the local and state chambers of commerce play an important role. I mentioned before that people want to do business with people they know, and the chambers work at making those connections happen between all the key stakeholders.
What’s been your biggest eye-opener since you joined the MCC?
I have been surprised at how small, in the sense of working relationships, the state really is. That is certainly the case at the local level — people want to do business with people they know — and it’s true at the state level, as well. It’s almost like the more we get involved in the online environment, the more we value our relationships with the people we work with, in an old school way, such as when two CEOs engage in a joint venture. It’s just as important for them to know each other as people as it was two generations ago.
What do you think about the approach that’s being taken to bolster the Baltimore City business community after the recent riots?
I think that steps are being taken in the right direction. There is a need to rebuild and bolster the business community in Baltimore City, and the public and private sectors have come together to help that process.
What’s the biggest frustration about your job thus far?
It’s that we can’t move fast enough. There is no shortage of great ideas, and we are anxious to work on them, among the chamber’s staff and within our leadership levels.
What do you think your finest achievement has been in your career?
My ability to form coalitions. There is no easier way for government to say no than to say, “Yes, now go get everybody on the same page.” If you make a request with the stakeholders already lined up, much of the hard work is already done.