Maureen Gustafson

MACCB President & CEO Plays Her Role Well

MACCB President & CEO Plays Her Role Well

To wake the soul by tender strokes of art,

To raise the genius, and to mend the heart;

To make mankind, in conscious virtue bold,

Live o’er each scene, and be what they behold –

For this the tragic Muse first trod the stage.

– Alexander Pope in his Prologue to Addison’s Cato.

Maureen Gustafson may be playing out her starring role as president of the Mankato Area Chamber & Convention Bureau (MACCB), but she’s really more the Muse that Pope described back in the 18th Century.

A graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, with a degree in theater, Maureen was trained as a Muse, or actress, to “wake the soul,” “raise the genius,” “mend the heart,” and “make mankind, in conscious virtue bold.” Now, as MACCB president, she’s doing the very same things.

She and her staff help wake the soul with tender strokes of art each Christmas season through the Celebration of Lights fantastique and a Festival of Trees that benefits area child care. MACCB’s Business and Education Succeeding Together (BEST) raises the genius of area youngsters by plugging them into the world of work. Hearts are mended at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. dinner. Leadership Mankato Area helps make mankind in conscious virtue bold.

Just like the tragic Muse that wants the world a better place, MACCB’s Gustafson acts to make her town a better one. The role fits her.

At one time or another in the past just about every business in this region has been contacted by a local chamber of commerce. They ask for your money and time and give you their chamber schtick. Sometimes you say Yes, sometimes No. But the purpose behind this interview isn’t to discuss them or that.

Rather sneak backstage with me where Maureen waits with bated breath. She’s the star of this show, not MACCB. The timpani in the concert pit beats a feverish roll while the violins and violas screech. That’s my cue, she says. The curtain opens while applause breaks like waves over a packed house. She enters stage right and begins a warm repartee with her audience. “Welcome to the Mankato Area Chamber & Convention Bureau,” she smiles.

CONNECT: If you could choose, would you rather be an actress or a chamber of commerce president?

GUSTAFSON: My standard joke when I do speeches is that I wanted to be a movie star, but Joan Collins got my job. When I graduated from MSU with an undergraduate degree in theater, everyone asked, What are you going to do with that? Back then I described a perfect job as one where I could do planning, government relations work, lobbying at the legislature, public speaking, some teaching, and marketing. Without knowing it I described this job.

CONNECT: How do you “act out” your avocation now?

GUSTAFSON: I do murders on weekends. I worked my way through graduate school that way.

CONNECT: Murders?

GUSTAFSON: Yeah. I started doing murder mystery dinners at the Garden Inn. The guests would arrive and shortly thereafter a murder would take place. Myself and seven other actors were planted in the audience. We would throw out clues and keep the mystery going. One of my favorite murder mysteries had a Roaring ’20s theme. When the guests came in a dead body would be in the middle of the hors d’oeuvres table. Through the course of events the guests would try to solve the mystery. I still work with this group after all these years. It’s a stress reliever.

CONNECT: What in your background prepared you for running MACCB??

GUSTAFSON: My theater background helps because I have to be in front of a crowd quite often. I have to summarize ideas to keep meetings going. My speech writing background helps me organize thought. You learn timing in theater, and that’s very helpful at a meeting in knowing when to move on to another topic.

Some of the best training I ever received was with the American Cancer Society as a public relations director. I covered the Region Nine area and established educational programs for cancer prevention, did fund-raising, and helped develop marketing and public relations materials. That position and the one I have now are very similar. I learned then that people become involved in an organization for their own personal reasons, which is fine, but it’s important to realize that and focus it in a positive direction.

CONNECT: In the 1998 MACCB directory, it says that MACCB’s mission is “to promote member businesses and enhance the quality of life in our community.” I looked back in the 1993 directory and the mission statement reads “to promote business and enhance….” Why did you add member? Why the change?

GUSTAFSON: It’s the members who make the investment. We do great things for the community as a whole, but the ones paying the bill should have priority. For instance, we just produced a reference sheet for economic development. It lists the governmental-supported entities involved with economic development and the services they offer. It has Valley Industrial Development Corporation listed. Then there are the private developers who bring in businesses like Sam’s Club and Barnes and Noble. We gave members preference because they are making the investment.

If someone calls looking for assistance in a certain area, and we don’t have any members in that area, we will refer them to a nonmember. But we always give members preference. For example, when Phenix BioComposites Inc. wanted to build here, they called and requested the names of Chamber members who could help them.

CONNECT: What are your priorities for the upcoming legislative session? and how did you arrive at those priorities?

GUSTAFSON: We hold priority sessions in the summer, often with legislators. Transportation continues to be the top priority. We’re not on a major four-lane highway. The highways around us are deteriorating rapidly. The money isn’t there to maintain basic infrastructure, let alone start new projects. So our transportation lobbying has been most aggressive. And we’ve had success with it. When governmental agencies met two years ago to form the Highway 14 Partnership, we were the first non-governmental group to kick money into it.

I’m very concerned that Metro and Outstate will become the political parties of the future. It won’t be Democrats and Republicans. Metro needs transit, Outstate needs better roads. Hopefully we can finish Highway 14 in a safe and orderly fashion.

Commercial and Industrial property taxes will always be an issue in Minnesota. We pay the third highest of these types of property taxes in the U.S.. This is one topic where you feel like you have a big hole in your head because you’ve hit it against the wall so much. There has been success with workers compensation reform. Right now there are issues with state mandates that upset government, education and business. The new unfunded mandates with government and education certainly bother all of us as taxpayers. Then there are the business mandates, in which government tells a business it has to comply and not telling them how to go about doing it.

CONNECT: Do you feel you have less access to political power now that Reps. Dorn and Kalis are in the minority party, and Ruth Johnson is gone?

GUSTAFSON: We have been very fortunate to have had excellent accessibility with legislators. The two Johns, Dorn and Hottinger, have done a lot for this area. Rep. Kalis has been very successful in transportation issues. Ruth Johnson showed real promise. However, two years ago, when she was elected, we felt hers was a lost seat. She did not debate well. She didn’t have a platform the business community could rally behind. There was some initial concern, but she learned fast.

This last Election Night was a shock for many people. The potential for change, and doing business in new and more innovative ways, is exciting. There is enough talent in our local elected officials that they will find their niche.

CONNECT: Why is MACCB a new member of the MN Chamber of Commerce? Why are you no longer a member of the US Chamber of Commerce?

GUSTAFSON: We dropped out of the US Chamber a few years ago. We never saw them. I flew in to Washington D.C. once on a Chamber and legislative mission. I toured their facility and met with them. We dropped out because they never contacted us personally and had outrageous dues. It didn’t seem to do much for this area.

The Minnesota Chamber has a full staff of experts that work on every possible area of political policy. To have that expertise at our disposal is very helpful. My purpose in being on their board is because of the whole metro-vs-outstate issue. I want to make sure outstate continues to have representation and a voice.

CONNECT: I’ve heard some people say they won’t become a Chamber member because they don’t think the Chamber does anything for them. What’s your response to that?

GUSTAFSON: Most of the time the people who say that don’t do business in this area. My answer to them is this: Our Number One issue right now is the workforce. We are marketing to try and lure employees to this area. We are working on housing issues and transportation issues. We are partnering with education to make sure that this is the most desirable place to live. All this benefits everybody.

In addition, our School-To-Work program educates people already here on why this is a great place to live. The project is over two years old and it has been very successful. It’s used as a model around the state. The fact that Mankato is a great place to live and work just didn’t happen. The Chamber of Commerce has been here eighty years. All the efforts of past Chamber members have helped improve our quality of life. We’re involved in festivals, promotional pieces, and we answer the phone for every possible question in the community. Add it all up and it’s a lot. People say, Isn’t it nice that somebody is doing that. But they never realize that we’re the somebody. A lot of that is our fault because we should market ourselves better.

CONNECT: In a way, I guess a Chamber membership also pays for a lobbyist.

GUSTAFSON: Sure. And also for disseminating information on issues. During the legislative session, if something comes up that affects our members, we make sure they know about it.

CONNECT: What’s the strangest request you have ever received from someone calling the Chamber?

GUSTAFSON: Can I wash a blouse in Calgon Bath Oil Beads?

CONNECT: What are your major accomplishments over the last five years?

GUSTAFSON: Establishing the School-To-Work Program. We were the first to raise the funds, hire a director, and write the grants to get the money for the program. We’ve formed partnerships between business and various educational entities. I’ve been impressed with how supportive the businesses have been.

Other accomplishments are the quality of our materials and our website. We portray a great image to outsiders. We receive great feedback from people receiving our relocation packet. The relationship we’ve established with local governments is an accomplishment. In the past, at times we weren’t included at the table. Now it’s common for us to be invited for community projects and issues. We also have a very top-quality board that helped us add a hundred new members this last year.

CONNECT: In high school did you know Pat Hentges, city manager of Mankato?

GUSTAFSON: Yes, but he’s older than I am. (laughter.) I knew him when he was a senior, and popular, and I was in junior high. We went to Bethlehem Academy in Faribault. There were 54 in my graduating class. I think Pat had about 70 in his. It’s a small Catholic school.

CONNECT: What niche does the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) fill? and do you look at them as competitors?

GUSTAFSON: They do a wonderful job with hands-on management of special events such as People’s Fair and special events. When I first started here, the Jaycees were almost nonexistent. I’m thrilled with its comeback. We want to be supportive of them in their role. We’re their mail box and their phone number. When people call for them, we answer. They have a separate leadership structure.

CONNECT: Why have a combined Chamber of Commerce, and Convention and Visitors Bureau? Some cities have two separate organizations.

GUSTAFSON: When I started in 1991, I attended all the same meetings alongside the Chamber of Commerce director. We had duplicate services and functions. At that time in Minnesota there was a movement to separate the economic development arm from Chambers. They were going their own way, doing their own thing. The tourism arm was being severed, going its own way too. These groups were splitting up, and not having a lot to offer their memberships.

We felt we could deliver a bigger bang for the buck by consolidating. When you ask for tourism information at some Chamber offices around Minnesota, they send you down the street. They don’t even have a customer-friendly atmosphere. Our united arrangement has worked for five years. I’m asked to speak to communities where the groups are separated. Owatonna recently patterned themselves after our model.

CONNECT: Could MACCB farm out some of its functions to member businesses?

GUSTAFSON: We tried that with the Business Expo, but it didn’t work. We outsourced it to a member. They didn’t get much of a response. Many members didn’t sign up because they didn’t think it was under the Chamber umbrella.

For day-to-day activities, to outsource our financials would be difficult because we do so many different sets for different organizations. We found that out quickly when we had a person resign six years ago and a local accounting firm did the financials. As a marketing staff, even though we work with local printing companies, we still do much of the layout in-house. The marketing staff has to be in-house. As far as tasks, we could hire event planners, but it’s not cost-effective.

CONNECT: What’s behind the School-To-Work program?

GUSTAFSON: The bottom line is to keep and retain a workforce. It’s called B.E.S.T., which stands for Business and Education Succeeding Together. The timing of the School-To-Work came at the same time as the Profile of Learning. The Department of Children, Families and Learning was forced to take a look at their product and how they could make it all applicable. We were very fortunate that the timing worked, and we could form very good relationships with Dave Dakken, Dick Rush, Ken Mills, Jim Rouse. All of them were willing to come to the table.

The timing of the money was very fortunate. The State was giving out grant blocks to communities willing to try partnership programs that do career exploration. I wrote that grant over Memorial Day weekend. We were the only noneducational institution to obtain one. At the time we were also considering going from a part-time leadership director to a full-time education director. The timing was perfect.

The need is there. Demographers say the population is going to decline, and that young people are leaving. In the past it was always expected that graduates from our higher education institutions would leave. We wouldn’t ask them to stay. But now we know we need them. Now we go into classes to educate students on what we have to offer. We have coloring books for kindergartners so they can color in companies and local products. We have mentoring and job shadowing programs, and career roundtable lunches. We have a great program for educators, where they tour two companies in town once a month. We want to keep our companies running by retaining talent for the area.

CONNECT: What do you like about your job?

GUSTAFSON: Every day is different. I like the volunteers. I like the scope of duties: from being on high-tech committees to tourism and social events. I enjoy a plan and watching it come to fruition.

CONNECT: People tell me you are an organizer. Perhaps you would have been a good producer of theater too.

GUSTAFSON: Sure. What amazes some people is that I’m really very organized. I have a very organized mind along with being creative. It’s a dichotomy. In college I was in two or three shows at a time. So I had to balance my classes, a job, theater productions, doing homework – it was perfect preparation for the Chamber.

CONNECT: What about the contest to rename this area Riverbend Valley?

GUSTAFSON: We were amazed at the number of responses. The fact that nine people from nine different communities came up with the same name was amazing.

CONNECT: I still think it was the wrong name. I submitted Riverbend Country, which was a far superior name to Riverbend Valley.

GUSTAFSON: (laughter.) That whole issue was one of the more sensitive ones I have encountered here. Some communities identify with their German or Scottish heritage. We have so many different events and festivals, and so many different heritages, that it is very difficult to put who we are into simple terms.

CONNECT: And no matter what you do, there will always be people who will call this area Kato Land.

GUSTAFSON: Exactly. On some of our trade shows we’ve been using both “Visit the Riverbend Valley” and “Southern Minnesota Charm.” It emphasizes that even though we’re not Metro, we’re not in the middle of nowhere either. We’ve used “Riverbend Valley” successfully in our bike trail promotions.

Mankato and North Mankato have not bought into Riverbend Valley as a name for this area. That is challenging. We’ve done our best to use it. We’re not going to give up yet though.

CONNECT: Anything else?

GUSTAFSON: I’m the first woman to have this position. I often get asked to speak at events about the challenge of being a woman and having a career. I can honestly say that I don’t think I have ever been discriminated against because I’m a woman. I’ve never been excluded or lost credibility because I’m a woman. In the beginning my age, 30, was a challenge to the traditional decision makers. This is my eighth year here. To most of those people I’ve proven myself. I’ve come to terms with the fact that no matter what I do I’ll never please five percent or so of all the people.

Of course I’m the first Chamber director in Mankato history to have a baby. There’s that challenge of balancing a family and working. Last year the Chamber received a Family Friendly Award from Child Care Resource and Referral.

We are all women here. It just happened that way. Sometimes we greet people who ask for the man in charge. In the larger communities around Minnesota the chamber directors tend to be men.

Some people don’t belong to the Chamber because they have a historical issue with us. People here are being held responsible for something a Chamber employee did ten, twenty, thirty years ago. There’s one gentleman who is still upset about service he received the year I was born. Things like that are hard to overcome, but we have had success in winning them over. We stress that we are a new group with new services.

©1999 Connect Business Magazine

Daniel Vance

Daniel Vance

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine

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