"It all began with a bright idea,” reads the sign on 216 West State Street, the sedate, central Trenton brownstone that houses the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. Amid our state’s governmental hub, for the last 100 years the Chamber has lobbied for, partnered, promoted, facilitated, introduced, and generally encouraged any and all business people on their paths toward survival and expansion. The new sign commemorates that century of business advocacy.
Back in 1911 state business leaders such as Thomas Edison, Ferdinand Roebling, and several others petitioned the New Jersey legislature for the establishment of a state chamber. The resulting charter stated that “We the merchants, manufacturers, bankers, and businessmen of New Jersey hereby signify our approval of the movement to form an association.” And with that the State Chamber got down to business.
On December 7 history repeated itself. The New Jersey State Chamber was officially rechartered and got ready to launch into its second century, just as vigorously as the first. At a celebratory gathering in the Newark law offices of K&L Gates, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, in her role as Secretary of State, ratified a new State Chamber charter. Beside her, as first charter member to sign, stood Dennis Bone, Chamber chair and president of Verizon New Jersey. He passed the pen to the new charter members ranging from Fortune 100 CEOs to sole proprietors.
Then, two days later, on a brisk, sunny December 9, the celebration continued. New Jersey Chamber staff, board members, and many general members made the pilgrimage to the State Capitol. Descending their headquarters’ stone stairway, they strolled the block and a half toward the impressive golden dome. An avid chamber member, this writer joined several staff members as we entered the bronzed doorways and funneled left into the security room. (Almost all of us forgot some item of metal on their person and had to give the detecting arches a second try.)
Even if it were not for the magnificence of the architecture, one instantly senses that he stands within the corridors of power. On the left, the frosted glass announces the Lieutenant Governor’s offices. In the office across the way, Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff oversees the state’s treasury. Just beyond on the marble floor Governor Chris Christie keeps offices next to his lieutenant, and just across from the governor’s legal counsel.
Gazing up at the dome, each of us tried to give name to the uniquely intriguing coloring. Aldonna Ambler, Chamber board member, president of Ambler Growth Strategy Consultants and ever ready wordsmith, won by labeling it “I’ve-stared-at-the-sun-too-long orange.” From there we moved past Boehm Porcelain’s delicate sculpture of 21 goldfinches and 13 honeybees swarming a powerful New Jersey red oak.
By the time the Chamber board members, state legislators, and others gathered in the large presentation room, the significance of the occasion was truly set. Broad and moving, the background mural of “The Good Samaritan” reminded attendees of business’ aim to be primarily a building and bettering contributor to society.
Chamber chair Bone explained how “for a century, this organization has contributed to the richness of the business culture.” Both Richard Bagger, the Governor’s chief of staff, and Senate minority leader Thomas Kean Jr. echoed these thoughts. One challenging note came from Assemblyman Alex DeCroce (R-Morris) who noted that “people have always counted on the Chamber. Now the tradesman needs a lobby, and we need to see the chamber do a stronger job of that.”
As the new legislative proclamation was read, and the cake cut, guests had a chance to wander the room and compare the new charter — and the new times — with the old.
For those who paused to take a brief digital shot of the ceremony, or step out in the halls to pass a quick text message, 1911 would truly have seemed archaeologic. A century ago, the top tune on the hit parade that year was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” New Jersey’s mere 520,000 automobiles obeyed a stately speed limit of 10 mph. Mister Edison’s lightbulb was being fitted with the first tungsten filament that year. Bathtubs stood in only 14 percent of Garden State residences, and man’s first flight (sans intrusive pat down) was only eight years before.
Many of the businesses have withered with the winds of change. Yet, while iPads have replaced the typewriters as the preferred mode of business communication, the gentlemen and ladies of business may feel a certain kinship with those century-old charter signers. William Marino, immediate past chamber chair and CEO of Horizon Blue Cross & Blue Shield of New Jersey, doubtless faces many of the same challenges as Frederick Frelinghuysen, first Chamber president and president of Mutual Benefit Life Insurance.
If you want to know anyone who does anything in the state, ask membership rep Ken Evans. He is the Dolly Levi of commercial marriages. Carol Gabel, director of business development, is constantly creating and bringing to fruition an endless array of programs that link companies and pass along vital information.
Barely a day goes by when Chamber members don’t receive some missive from communications director Scott Goldstein who reports every program and political move that affects folks in business. Overseeing it all is president Dana Egregczky, who stepped in and took over the void left by the retiring Joan Verplank. Yet under her interim leadership the number of chamber programs, including a host of new networking events, has greatly expanded.
In recent years, business has been popularly tainted with an image involving the greedy few and the oppressed many.
Certainly, the avalanche of press regarding the corrupt are enough to make us ignore the vast majority of businesses and business people who are the beneficial builders. And with the help of organizations like our state’s Chamber of Commerce, perhaps we can in fact and perception turn this view around.
The chamber’s first event of 2011 is its annual “Walk to Washington” trip to the nation’s capital on THursday and Friday, January 27 and 28. For registration details, visit www.njchamber.org.