Retiring exec: Despite changes, Portland chamber will remain relevant

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PORTLAND — When Godfrey Wood steps down from the leadership of the Portland Regional Chamber at the end of the month, he’ll leave behind a group – and a business community – that are very different than when he started 15 years ago.

Wood, 71, announced his decision to retire as PRC chief executive officer last week. A former Wall Street executive and past owner of the Portland Pirates hockey team, he lives in Falmouth and is married to Karen Wood, publisher of The Forecaster.

The biggest change, Wood said Monday, is that Portland’s business community has lost some of the local leadership that it relied upon for decades.

“There’s been a huge process of businesses being sold and leadership shifting,” he said. He cited several banks and disability insurer Unum Corp. as examples of local institutions that have been acquired by larger companies from outside Maine.

“Those leadership strengths are not necessarily here in Portland any longer,” Wood said.

At the same time, decisions affecting businesses and the community are no longer driven by a few individuals in Congress Street offices or in City Hall.

“The culture here is no longer about the company with the biggest checkbook, or about government doing what it wants,” he said. “Today, we need input from everyone.”

Wood credits the PRC with helping to foster that dialogue. The chamber, representing more than 1,300 businesses, is the largest business membership organization in Maine. The group acts as a policy advocate for members, and helps educate business people through more than 100 events each year, including its popular “Eggs & Issues” breakfast meetings.

But the chamber’s most important work, Wood says, is simply forging connections.

“We’ve been talking with members, bringing people together, and it’s made a difference,” he said. As a result, he added, the chamber is “more relevant, more effective and more engaged” than it was 15 years ago.

Wood said he is particularly proud of the connections the chamber has forged on behalf of military veterans. The Portland Veterans Network, created earlier this year, allows veterans to attend chamber events, network and get mentoring help after their military service.

Wood said that helping to establish the veterans group was his “most satisfying” achievement while CEO, because it was “the right thing to do.”

He said he also feels good about the changing perception of the Portland area as a place to do business.

At one time, he admits, the region was viewed as markedly “unfriendly” toward businesses.

“That was a valid criticism … at one time it was true,” he said. “But the area has become much more friendly and balanced in its attitude toward business.” Part of the reason, he said, is the collaboration between the City Council and the PRC in revising regulations.

Still, much work lies ahead. In August, the chamber lost two of its most prominent members, Unum and supermarket chain Hannaford Bros. And the growth of social media is allowing businesses to communicate in ways not envisioned in 1997.

Retaining members is “challenging, and a logical question,” Wood said. But he insisted that the work of the chamber will remain relevant into the future.

“More than ever, people need to see each other face to face,” he said.

As for his own future, Wood is weighing his options. Not surprisingly for the head of a networking organization, he said he’s talking with many people before making any career decisions. The time is right, he said in last week’s announcement, to “move on to my next opportunity and new challenges.”

Whatever path he chooses, he said on Monday, “it has to be relevant.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

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