Jeff Griffin has been president of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce since February, having moved to central Illinois from Ohio with his wife and three children. A graduate of Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and the University of Texas at Arlington with a master’s degree in social work, he spent more than 20 years in social services and youth counseling. He was recruited to become president of the Wooster Area Chamber of Commerce in 2008, where he spent four years before leaving for an entrepreneurial role with Edward Jones. Earlier this year, he returned to the role he knows well as Chamber president.
Tell us a little about growing up, your family, children, etc.
I grew up in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My two older sisters and I are blessed to have wonderful parents who recently celebrated their 50th anniversary. We went to Catholic school, and my parents involved us in our community and service work every step of the way. To this day, my dad serves as city councilman for neighbors he has known his entire life.
Rosy and I have been married 18 years, and we have three children: Max (13), Alex (12) and Camilla (8). Rosy and I have lived in Ohio, Texas and Nebraska, but the kids have always lived in Wooster, Ohio. They are excited to move to a bigger city and be closer to their cousins in Chicago, but they’re anxious as well. Rosy and I wanted them to finish their school year in Ohio, so it was very difficult being away from them since February. They moved here in June, and now we are officially a Peoria family.
What are some of the most important lessons you learned in your 20 years in social services and youth counseling?
Surprisingly, my experience with social services is very similar to work as a Chamber of Commerce president. I served as a therapist and eventually an executive for a statewide, private treatment center for children and families. At 29, I was director of a residential campus with 70 juvenile offenders. Eventually, my job was to negotiate “in lieu of incarceration” contracts/services with judges and county officials across Ohio. Simply put, we could treat children and their families better than the prison system—and at a lower cost.
My experience supervising hundreds of children has made me ready to deal with any crisis. As a Chamber president, I serve the community, and the community is diverse. I love working with the CEO of a major employer in the morning, and a “mom and pop” store in the afternoon. We’re all in this together.
How did you make the leap to president of the Wooster Area Chamber of Commerce?
No one goes to school to become a Chamber of Commerce president. My story is this: While working in social services, I also served as Wooster city councilman and president, working closely with the Chamber to develop our downtown, improve infrastructure and grow our local economy. When the Chamber job was open, they called to see if I would be interested. I honestly never thought of applying, but when the call came, it hit me that it was a perfect fit. My work has always been community-focused, and a well-run Chamber of Commerce does just that.
How is Wooster similar to Peoria? How are the cities different?
Wooster is a city of 26,000 with a vibrant economy; our Chamber served the entire county of 110,000. Wooster is home to Wooster Brush, Ohio State Agriculture Research Center, The College of Wooster, Wooster Hospital and a regional Cleveland Clinic medical center, to name a few. Similarities include a strong medical community, higher education, manufacturing, strong Midwestern work ethic and expectations, as well as the strong influence of agriculture/agribusiness. Peoria is larger than Wooster, but is still of the size that you get to know everyone.
Last year, Foreign Direct Investment magazine ranked Wooster among North America’s Top 10 Micro Cities for its business-friendliness. In your opinion, which strategies or initiatives led to this ranking?
We earned awards for community/economic development because we worked as a team. Our Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Council, Downtown Development, elected city/county/state leaders and private investors developed a plan for the 16 counties in Northeast Ohio, and we worked together. Within the framework of the plan, we were able to remain nimble with a strong inventory of projects in the region. It was not always comfortable or easy to balance regionalism, but in the end we could sell the region, and Wooster offered some very unique opportunities for businesses to develop and grow.
How did your experience in social work impact your effectiveness as Chamber president?
With a BA in criminology and master’s in social work, how does one become a Chamber of Commerce leader? As I stated before, there is no degree in Chamber of Commerce development. During my years in social services, I worked with the public and private sectors to develop community solutions: alternative schools, therapeutic foster care, residential treatment services and beyond. The lessons and skills learned in developing these collaborative initiatives are very relevant to the work I do now. Beyond that, do not forget the profound impact our nonprofits have on the economy. The experience I bring to the table means I am more effective in relating to all sectors we represent.
What accomplishments were you most proud of as Wooster Chamber president?
I inherited a very strong organization, which we were able to make stronger in terms of numbers and influence. Chambers of commerce must adapt and improve in order to remain leaders in the marketplace. In Wooster—as we will do in Peoria—our Chamber was the first stop for businesses to find solutions. We connected with state and national organizations to bring cutting-edge resources, solutions and strategies to our members. We did not shy away from the big issues or conveniently remain silent; we had the backbone and credibility to voice our opinions.
What about your most recent role with Edward Jones?
Edward Jones recruited me to fill a position at the same time I had the “itch” to explore a new challenge. I successfully completed the testing and ran a profitable office. I enjoyed working with the clients, but was not passionate about the day-to-day work. I don’t regret the move because my Edward Jones training substantially increased my financial skillset and led me back to the industry where I truly belong. One of my professional mentors recently told me that I am now the most “dangerous” Chamber president out there because I know where my passion lies. “Dangerous” would be his clever way of saying… the sky is the limit.
What lessons have you brought with you to Peoria?
A former boss of mine hung a mirror on his office wall next to the window. He told me when things go right, he looks out the window to admire his team, and when things go wrong, he looks into the mirror to see what he could do better. Inspirational, right? It would be, if done in a genuine manner. His problem was that he had these symbolic, “great place to work” strategies, but when the rubber hit the road, he was not there for his team.
I have learned to be genuine and honest with your stakeholders and your team, to surround yourself with great people and never, ever believe you are more important than the position you hold. There are cemeteries full of names, some of whom thought they could never be replaced. I am honored to be president of the 103-year-old Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, but I know that I carry the torch for now, and someday—my hope is that it is a day far from now—that torch will be passed to the next leader.
That may be a long-winded way of saying I have learned to be genuine, honest and humble, and that the sky is the limit if you don’t care who gets the credit. Perhaps more importantly, I have learned that it’s impossible to claim you are genuine or humble if your daily actions are in conflict.
Describe your initial impressions of Peoria in your short time here.
I am very comfortable in Peoria, as the economic drivers are so similar to my previous community, and my family is comfortable because of the Midwestern values with which we have been welcomed. Peoria is a proud community, and we should focus on promoting and celebrating our strengths. Someone asked me if I was ready for Illinois “politics”; I responded with a hearty smile and told them my job is to be ready for anything. Soon after this exchange, a local business leader told me this: “Jeff, you will hear that Peoria is political. It is not… It is personal.” He meant this in the most positive manner. He went on to provide examples of locally-owned businesses and local leaders who have decades and generations of commitment to Peoria. I have been very impressed with the leaders of this community allowing me and my family to become a part of its future. So I do believe it is personal, and it’s now personal for me. Rosy and I have moved our three children 500 miles from their birthplace to be part of a great future in central Illinois. I am ready for anything.
What are your top priorities for the Peoria Area Chamber? What do you see as your greatest challenges?
The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce enjoys a strong, 103-year history, and it’s my job to make sure we are out of the blocks toward another century of success. You will hear it said that the Chamber will be the voice of business in the Peoria area, but what does that mean? It means we will advocate for policies and legislation to create the most fertile economic environment for growth possible. This includes opposing the minimum wage increase, allowing the temporary income tax to expire and relieving business owners from the burdens of a failed workers’ compensation program. We will also be a support for entrepreneurs attempting to launch their dreams while navigating through the “system.” I am optimistic our county and municipal leaders want to relieve private business from some of these bureaucratic nightmares, because they have told me such. I am also very aware that the Chamber must be proactive and solution-focused to promote economic growth.
Finally, the traditional role of connecting our 1,100 members through committee work, professional networking, volunteerism, community leadership and beyond must always be our passion. A major challenge for us, as with many chambers across the nation, is to provide relevant, world-class service to our members in a very crowded marketplace. It’s already becoming passé to say, but social media, Internet shopping, a polarizing political climate and endless, 24-hour access to news across the globe creates an information filtration dilemma. At the end of the day, I believe people still want to do business with people they know and trust. The data is clear that consumers are significantly more likely to shop with Chamber members and view them as experts in their field who do business the right way. It’s our job to be the conduit between businesses and their customers. You can say this is a challenge, but I view it as an opportunity. iBi