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Responding to diversity with efficiency
Matt Pitcairn is young, experienced and open to new ideas in his role as CEO and President of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. In that sense, he embodies the future of Chambers of Commerce.
Pitcairn’s approach is one of reevaluation, and he leverages his past experience and education in politics to adapt his Chamber’s services to the changing demographics in that community.
A Richmond native, Pitcairn took over as the Chamber’s manager of communications and policy four years ago, and in July of 2015, accepted the top job as President and CEO. Although one of the youngest in the country, Pitcairn doesn’t see that as a downside.
“My board chair is also in his 30’s – a young man as well – so I think the two of us are trying to bring this new energy and enthusiasm, different ideas, that maybe some chambers haven’t seen in the past,” he said. “In an attempt to reach out to the generation of tomorrow we’re trying to do things a little bit differently.”
At a major Canadian distribution centre, made up of an incredibly diverse population, that’s becoming increasingly important.
Getting everyone together
Prior to the Chamber, Pitcairn worked for a Richmond MLA, in Victoria at the legislature and spent some time working within the Richmond City Hall environment, giving him an understanding of how different levels of government work, and how policy transforms from idea to action.
“As a political science major, policy is definitely a key strength that I bring,” he said. “Finding businesses that have common challenges or opportunities and seeing how we can work together to leverage that. I think also the knowledge to build the meaningful relationships that foster trust, and the ability to have those frank discussions about what needs to be done to fix the problem. Whether that’s relationships with city hall, the province, Ottawa or with members, I think having strong personal relationships is another strength that I bring.”
Part of the Chamber’s challenge – and opportunity – is Richmond’s diverse demographic. Half of the community is made up of immigrants from Asia, and a large majority of Richmond speaks Mandarin and Cantonese.
So what is Pitcairn doing to bring the Chinese and Caucasian business community together? Lots.
Four of his seven staff speak Mandarin and Cantonese. They’re translating more and more of their services and information. When they put out a press release, one is in English and another is in simplified Chinese, and sent to ethnic media publications. They even hosted a bilingual dim sum luncheon. “We’re really trying to adapt how we do things to make sure we’re connecting to our business community, because it’s evolved immensely in the last 20 years,” he said.
The lay of the island
Richmond is a North American transportation and shipping hub. It is home to YVR, Canada’s second largest airport.
The airport is predictably a major part of the Richmond landscape. That’s what prompted an initiative led by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce and Greater Vancouver Board of Trade in partnership with the BC Chamber of Commerce, Prince George Chamber of Commerce and Whistler Chamber of Commerce to lobby Ottawa to lower taxes and fees and improve air access in order to make the domestic airline industry more globally competitive. The effort was approved at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce AGM last month.
“We’re fortunate to have this massive economic generator right in our back yard,” said Pitcairn, adding that it employs about one in four Richmond workers. “Naturally, we have a very strong policy focus on ways that we can support YVR – and not just YVR but airports across the country.”
But there’s more to Richmond than the airport. The island city also boasts the largest small craft fishing harbor in the country, a rich agricultural sector, logistics companies and a growing clean tech sector.
Pitcairn is especially proud of one event that his Chamber started earlier this year after he and his chair ran into famous Vancouver chef Vikram Vij on the SkyTrain. The conversation inspired Pitcairn, and that night he racked his brain to figure out how to do a Chamber event with him. The result was “From the Kitchen to the Boardroom,” an event featuring four prominent Vancouver chefs: Vikram Vij, Brett Turner, Jackie Kai Ellis, and Quand Dang.
“We put them on a stage, and we had an hour long discussion in front of 325 people about life as a chef and the business aspect behind being a chef,” explained Pitcairn. “Then the four chefs got off the stage, we took over the kitchen at the River Rock Casino, and each chef and their team prepared one of four courses. We had a phenomenal, fun evening connecting over food – some of the best food the lower mainland has to offer – and it was just very unique and different. The response we received from those who attended was outstanding. We’re bringing it back this January.”
All of these initiatives are ways to solve what Pitcairn sees as one of the biggest challenges facing chambers everywhere: competition for people’s time.
“Time is the most valuable commodity people have,” said Pitcairn. “You have really got to be at the top of your game, because if you’re going to ask someone to give you an hour or two of their time, you’d better make it worth their while.”