Rebecca Auer is a native Peorian who attended area schools, including Christ Lutheran School, Manual High School, Illinois Central College and Bradley University. She majored in graphic design which has served her well in her profession.
Rebecca began her business, Interior Plants and Designs, in January 1981 in a small office that belonged to her father. She established her first retail location a few years later in the 500 block of Main Street across from the Hotel Pere Marquette. Eleven years ago she moved the operation to her current location at 207 N.E. Perry Ave., and adapted the name of the retail shop to Floral Expressions. She employs twelve full-time people, though the ranks swell to more than twenty during the holidays.
Rebecca has been involved in community activities for many years, serving on the advisory boards for the Self-Employment Training Program, the ICC Agriculture Department, The Peoria Woman magazine, and the Junior League of Peoria. She’s also served on the YWCA and other boards. Her commitment to the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce began in the mid 1980s, and she presently serves as chairman of the board.
Rebecca has received the Edythe A. Cohen Business and Industry Award, the WIRL/WSWT Free Enterprise Award, the Athena Award for Business, and the Leading Edge Award.
She’s been married to David, retail advertising manager of the Peoria Journal Star for over 33 years and has two children, Jill and Jan. They have two grandchildren who live in Minneapolis. Rebecca enjoys gardening and reading and has recently taken up golf.
You’re the first woman chairman of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. How did you get started in chamber activities? When did you decide you wanted to be in chamber leadership?
I was contacted by Rebekah Bourland to participate on a retail committee for the chamber in the mid ‘80s. I went on to chair that committee and was then asked to be on the board of directors.
I do not recall a conscious decision to be in the chamber leadership. My involvement became more extensive over the years as a result of my support for what the chamber was doing and what it stood for on local issues. I have been encouraged and supported by other board members, and business leaders of both genders. I am very proud of their faith in my and my potential.
What are the main challenges facing the chair of the Peoria chamber? For example, are there challenges that are constant each year? And are there challenges unique to your year?
I believe the challenges for the chair include channeling the energies of the numerous dynamic leaders that sit on the chamber board. It is a very diverse group, representing businesses of all sizes and types. When you have this kind of diversity, it is, I feel, important to allow for open discussion without losing our focus. To discourage exchanges of ideas would diminish our ability to reach consensus, having considered all facets of the issue. We are a stronger organization as a result of our diverse leadership, not in spite of it.
The chair needs to continue to communicate more effectively with our members, our elected officials and our community regarding just what our organization is all about. We truly represent the businesses and individuals who feel an obligation to make a different in the quality of life in the Peoria area. How effective we are will be our challenge.
The community faced some serious decisions, and I knew we would have to be involved in the process. The positions we took on issues such as the Peoria-to-Chicago Freeway, the local, state and national elections, and several others were not reached quickly. Our organization’s for-profit subsidiary, Business Resource Services, faced a new era by offering workers’ compensation insurance to its members through the formation of our own Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce Trust. This was a giant step toward addressing the needs of our small business members, but not taken without many conversations and studies.
The chamber is taking a more active role in local issues, including political recommendations. What is your perception of how this is working, and what impact do you think the chamber recommendations have? What’s the track record?
I cannot say that, like the television commercial, when the chamber recommends a candidate a hush falls across the community in anticipation! However, there were only a few local, state, and national candidates who, when approached, decided not to be a part of the process. A number of them mentioned in their interviews that it would mean a great deal towards winning their races if the chamber recommended them. Those we chose to support eagerly used our recommendation in their election campaign.
I remember warnings that were shared with me even before my term began of the challenge the chamber would have with the candidate recommendation process, considering the importance of the elections and the candidates that were likely to be involved. How would we keep the level of credibility – to not appear that we were patronizing a businessperson by recommending that person? How could we provide what we wanted to provide – a credible recommendation for candidates our members could look to for representation?
I think we did that. It was tremendously gratifying that we went through that process. I can say with all confidence that we did in-depth studies with people and presented what came out of those studies.
We continue to improve the recommendation process each time, and this cements the credibility of our involvement. Our members, especially our small businesses, need to be able to depend on us. We take the time they do not always have in order to find the candidates better qualified to represent business issues.
For the first time in twelve years, Peoria will have a new mayor. How will the chamber work with Bud Grieves?
Bud has served on our board until recently and chaired a focused transportation committee whose efforts were on providing passenger train service to Peoria. Unfortunately, due to the financial instability of Amtrak, this goal was never realized. We did witness Bud’s leadership and have every confident that he will serve our community well.
Mayor Maloof has served as an appointed member of our board for some years and, I suspect, Mayor Grieves will be asked to do the same. He has already agreed to be the featured speaker at our annual meeting May 22. These are all indicators that we will enjoy good avenues of communications with him. As a local businessman he is already aware of shared concerns.
What are the main issues facing the community in terms of business growth and community progress? In what ways would you like Peoria to improve?
I honestly believe that rarely can you separate business issues from broader community wellness issues. One of our most critical concerns is in the area of education. As cosponsors of the Adopt-A-School program and the three secondary academies in District 150, the chamber has shown its willingness to better the opportunities of our local youth to be prepared for the business world. We share programs with Illinois Central College and fully support several Bradley University initiatives. We have a vested interest in a well qualified and trained work force. We have to address this now or risk the economic future of our community.
We realize the importance of supporting the Peoria-to-Chicago Freeway and share Ray LaHood’s emphasis on the need to pursue the freeway now. We also realize that our future stability depends on more air traffic, both freight and passenger, at our regional airport here in Peoria. We are involved in issues such as business responsibility to provide child care for employees, and the continuing effort to resolve the problems of the Illinois River. These are all critical to our growth and progress.
It is very exciting to witness the cooperation of private and public interests that have resulted in our riverfront development and expansion along our city’s northwest borders. Developers are now working more closely with local officials to see projects such as the Galleria Mall become a reality.
I feel we need to continue to break down any barriers to communicate better with each other. City and county officials, private and public bodies, citizens and elected representatives all have to keep focused on our objective – a better community for everyone.
The Peoria chamber is part of the Heartland Partnership. Is the Partnership living up to its potential? What could be done to increase area cooperation among organizations involved in business advocacy and economic development?
The Heartland Partnership was formed to strengthen its member organizations by coordinating and communicating the initiatives taken for economic development and business advocacy. It helps to avoid duplication of efforts. It has also been able to consolidate the support staffs of the smaller organizations and thus improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Bill Browning, president of the Partnership, is ultimately responsible for the efforts of all the organizations.
I believe the chamber enjoys a closer relationship with other chambers in our area due in part to this structure. There are always ways to improve, but I feel is it a sound approach. We need to do all we can in the private sector to think more regionally and less individually.
During the years you’ve been active in the chamber, what changes have you seen in chamber structure?
We’ve witnessed a great deal of change. When I first became active in the chamber, the board was predominantly male. It was also more representative of major companies. There wasn’t as much diversity on the board, or in the organization, that there is now.
But I think that’s reflective of Peoria – Peoria is more diversified now.
Besides chairing the chamber board, you are running your own business. How do you balance the competing demands of volunteer duties and meeting your own business obligations?
Anyone who owns a small business realizes the amount of time and energy it takes just to keep the doors open. My company is now in its seventeenth yeah in business, and I have a great, supportive staff. I discussed the time obligation of this chairmanship with them and they have been tremendous. It has forced me to do a better job of delegating responsibility, not one of my strong suits.
My husband and family have also been extremely helpful and understanding. Any volunteer job of this magnitude is really not a one person job, but an example of a team effort. I have learned to prioritize better my family, business, and volunteer efforts. I honestly believe you are a better person by involvement in your community. It is worth the extra time.
The Peoria is blessed with several well run and imaginative floral and interior foliage businesses. What special niche does Interior Plants and Designs and Floral Expressions serve?
I have always said to my employees and customers that my goal has never been to be the largest florist and interior landscaper in this area, just the best. That means commitment and service to our customers. In this era of modern technologies, that may sound old-fashioned, but I believe it is sound business strategy.
I have found that diversity has given our business stability. When I originally started Interior Plants and Designs, we rode the wave of popularity in interior landscaping, and this still remains a strong base. Our account list includes many companies that have been our customers for many, many years.
When one of my Interior Landscaping customers approached me about traveling around the United States with our services, I felt it made good sense to diversify that way. We designed and installed work at various commercial building in eight or ten different states. We provided the expertise and control, and employed subcontractors to continue to maintain the foliage on-site. Our seasonal displays around the holidays can be seen in over 100 public buildings in central Illinois. We may be the largest in that area.
Floral Expressions employs some of the most gifted designers in this area. Their reputation is creating our niche in the retail floral market.
Do you have ambitions or plans for expansion or other business ventures you could share with us?
I am proud to say we have never had a year of no growth, and 1997 is looking very good. I know that we will have to keep up with the constantly changing technologies in communications and networking or we will suffer the consequences.
We now participate in a number of marketing strategies that use the Internet. We made a conscious decision not to set up our own Web page, and instead we maintain a network relationship with several on-line systems and, through them, people can purchase our flowers.
Peoria is an excellent community in which to own and operate a business. I know that there are any number of opportunities for expansion out there, and I have been approached about several of them. We will continue to evaluate these in the near future.
What advice do you have for people who want to operate their own business?
I am a strong advocate for small business ownership. It is extremely gratifying to work closely with your customers and know that you have done a good job for them. Granted, it is not for everyone. It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and patience, especially during the early years. There are now some excellent support programs that provide training and dollars for new businesses. If you are self-motivated, it may be for you.
What other volunteer opportunities will you pursue now that your chamber duties are almost completed?
My term as a chairman will end May 31. I will serve one additional year on the board as past chair. After eight years it will seem strange not to have chamber board written on my calendar.
I have volunteered since I was very young. My parents always encouraged involvement. I have met some wonderful, committed people this past year and several have asked that I consider different possibilities.
There are a number of community issues that have really touched me such as education and its potential. Believe it or not, the political arena has also proven interesting. There are more challenges than hours in the day.
There’s been a lot of interest in and communication about “leadership” in our community this past year. How would you characterize your style of leadership and how do you size up the status of leadership in Peoria?
If I have a style of leadership I guess it is based on the premise of respect for others and their opinions and on team effort. I was taught that you get back more than you give, and I know this to be true. I try to be a good listener, but I realize I am less than perfect. I have witnessed the most effective leaders gather support for their position by displaying true character and honesty. The worst mistake that can be made is to underestimate those you are to lead. Their true abilities will always surprise you.
It is more difficult to identify a small center core of leaders in Peoria today. Our core of leadership is very diverse. Our struggle remains to correctly channel our efforts. My predecessor as chamber chair, Don White, has reminded me to question the direction of initiatives by asking myself, “What is the good for the chamber?” If I may paraphrase that in relation to our area leadership and its efforts, maybe we need to ask, “What is good for our community?” IBI