On July 1, Heather Cavanagh became president and CEO of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce, replacing John P. “Jack” Condlin who retired after 20 years at the helm. Cavanagh was previously the chamber’s director of events and marketing for 18 months before taking on the role of chief executive. She is no stranger to running a chamber of commerce: she twice served as interim executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce and was executive director of the Darien Chamber of Commerce.
In this edition of Suite Talk, Business Journal reporter Phil Hall talks with Cavanagh about her new job and the state of her city.
Since you began as president and CEO of the chamber, what has been your primary focus?
“I’m still managing my former role, as well, so I am also managing events and marketing, which are a large part of what we do. Through the transition process, from July to September, I had the chance to look at the internal operations of the organization while looking at options to move our office — the building we are currently in has been sold and will be residential shortly, so we need a new home. I had a meeting with the executive board on Sept. 5 and met with board of directors on Sept. 10. In between all of that, August is our nominating process. There is never a dull moment in this place. I always think there are never enough hours in the day to get things done.”
What is the current state of Stamford’s business environment?
“Stamford is growing. It’s a robust community. We’re the largest-growing city in the state of Connecticut — we were just shy of 200 residents from becoming the second-largest city in the state. With so much growth with the Fortune 500 companies and large corporations, the international companies and small businesses coming into the area, many are looking to live within the community — and there is a diverse abundance of residential opportunities. The millennials are moving out of New York City and want to move to the suburbs and they look at the apartments here and say, ‘Wow, this is double the size of my place in Manhattan.’ It is changing landscape and demographics.”
It seems like you can’t drive around without seeing construction.
“Absolutely. Charter Communications is building its 500,000-square-foot new building and Henkel is adding positions. When you look at the growth areas in Fairfield County, it’s all happening in Stamford.”
But there is still a great deal of vacant office space in Stamford. What can be done to get those vacancies filled?
“You have the Fairfield Five (the regional marketing initiative consisting of the mayors or first selectmen and the economic development heads of Fairfield, Greenwich, Norwalk, Stamford and Westport) and I believe they had 150 or 160 guests at a meet-and-greet the other evening at the rooftop of Indeed. There is a lot going on regarding Fairfield County related to how we can attract new business here as a whole. We’re all working together, so we have a stronger voice and more of a presence. We can do more together, cooperatively and collaboratively, to bring in new business to Stamford.”
The big corporations are a highly conspicuous presence in Stamford, but what is the small-business community like today?
“Mayor (David) Martin and I have done several ribbon cuttings, and one will be at Spavia next month. That is a day spa based out of Colorado and a local couple decided to open up a franchise. It’s right by Bobby V’s at the end of Atlantic Street. Another couple that we just did a ribbon cutting with last week opened Hottie Oasis, which is in the Hubble Point area. We are seeing a lot more smaller businesses developing. People are looking at the community to what services are needed, because we are also seeing a lot more people who want to in a work-live-play environment.”
Of course, Stamford has I-95 running through it and it seems that everyone complains about the highway traffic. But are those complaints truly justified?
“It is one of the main things to complain about and it depends what time you are on I-95 and possibly what day of the week. In summer, Thursday night has all of the traffic heading north — I’m originally from Rhode Island and my family says everybody from Connecticut comes for the weekend. I know it is a big topic of discussion with the chamber — it is because we need to get people here and up-and-down the I-95 corridor.”
Up the road on I-95, there is the new SoNo Collection mall that is slated to open in Norwalk next year. How will that impact Stamford’s retail scene?
“You have to create an experience regardless of what type of business you are. You can’t wait for people to come to you — anybody can shop online. You can buy a car or a house — you don’t have to see anything up front anymore. The Stamford mall’s management has been doing all sorts of great events and promotions to bring people into the mall and create a sense of community, as well as a reason to come and shop.”
And for the local businesses and professionals who have yet to join the chamber, what are they missing?
“They are missing a lot. You have an opportunity to make a lot of connections. Everybody thinks social media is the way to go. Obviously, that’s a great way to tweet out and send invites, but think about how deals are done. They aren’t done over social media — they are done by knowing a person that comes through the face-to-face relationship building.
Social media is great for getting your name out there, getting your product and service known. But the other half of social media is the face-to-face meeting of people. We bring people together and it is amazing when you get to see the results of the partnerships. We want to see everybody, regardless of business, thrive because we are all in it together.”