“Working collaboratively” is a phrase Jan Schweitzer is fond of when describing her new role as chair of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.
That’s because she has to work with a diverse array of 820 Chamber members and other business organizations to find common ground on a wide range of issues, from workforce shortages to a lack of affordable housing.
“I think we can work together with all these organizations and help solidify what the common goals should be based on community needs and community feedback,” she explained.
The Chamber of Commerce is the “voice of business” for its members, she said, and acts as the front organization to advocate positions on certain topics.
“We are one of a lot of very different organizations that are trying to move Missoula forward and become a vital piece of the collaboration of doing that,” Schweitzer said. “I think we’ve made a lot of great strides. My job function is to make sure members of the board and the Chamber management team work collaboratively together in terms of what they see. If members have a specific goal or challenge or issue in mind, they look to us, quite honestly, as part of that collaborative piece, that advocacy piece.”
Schweitzer graduated from Montana State University, but don’t hold that against her. She worked for a large accounting firm in California right after college, but decided she didn’t like that and went into private industry. Then she switched to the public side, helping nonprofits and other entities navigate the financial world.
“So I’ve seen both sides of how it should work in a business,” she said. “So that helps me consult with my clients and let them know, based on experience, here’s what I think should happen. So I’ve got both-sides-of-the-fence experience.”
She’s lived in Missoula with her husband for 15 years now and has developed a lot of relationships and insight into the business community through her work as a certified public accountant with Anderson ZurMuehlen, one of the largest certified public accounting and business advisory firms in the state.
She will now oversee a board of 24 and a Chamber staff of eight, including longtime president and CEO Kim Latrielle. For Schweitzer, who served as the Chamber’s treasurer, the opportunity to become just the eighth woman to hold the board chair position in its 126-year history was one she couldn't pass up.
“I’m always up for challenges,” she said. “Realistically, just seeing the different things that I didn’t know about the community and how the Chamber works in conjunction with these other organizations that are also trying to move Missoula forward, if you will. That just really became an enticing thought for me, to see if that was something that would fit well within my challenges and my goals.”
One of her top priorities will be just to listen to the different concerns brought forward by businesses and other entities.
“There’s several different challenges,” she said. “There’s workforce, there’s (finding) a quality workforce. Affordable housing, transportation, I mean all of these things that are challenges.”
As a CPA, Schweitzer often helps business owners achieve efficiency and find flaws they didn’t even know existed.
“I just think that (sometimes) businesses don’t know that they have issues,” she said. “So that’s what we’re there for. What keeps them up at night.”
She has a positive outlook for Missoula’s economy, but she knows that the picture isn’t entirely rosy. The effects of the recession linger, and Missoula has challenges such as budget shortfalls at the University of Montana and job cuts at Montana Rail Link.
“It’s getting better,” she said of the economy here. “I don’t know as though I would say it’s good, but it’s getting better. There are some industries that are lagging and (some that are) booming. It depends on industry sectors.”
Schweitzer said the Chamber of Commerce is valuable to businesses because it can act as an advocate when an issue is controversial or complicated. That way, the Chamber can collaborate with others to make sure its stated position on any one topic isn’t stepping on the toes of any other members or industries. In recent years, the Chamber has conducted surveys of its members and then advocated, for example, for the passage of the schools bond and for construction of a new hotel at the site of the Missoula Mercantile.
Schweitzer said she's already got a list of things she's ready to work on.
“We’re energized,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of great ideas that have come out in the last few weeks with that goal of collaboration in mind. We’re pretty excited.”