Promoting and Protecting
September 1, 2008
When the St. George Chamber of Commerce hired Russ Behrmann to take over as president, it wasn’t a matter of fixing a broken organization. The chamber had been a strong, functioning group for almost 100 years, involving hundreds of small businesses. It was basically Behrmann’s job not to mess it up.
His predecessor, Lorri Kocinski-Puchlik, had run a great operation, catapulting the organization to one of the largest chambers in the state. No one was more surprised than Behrmann when Kocinski-Puchlik stepped down from her post. He was even more surprised when he was offered the job. “A person on the hiring committee told me, ‘We really like the fact that you understand what businesses need to succeed,’” Behrmann recalls. “That was both a compliment and a challenge to me.”
A challenge he takes personally. As past president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Utah, and a director for economic development issues with Governors Norm Bangerter and Michael Leavitt, Behrmann understands there’s a delicate balance between growth and overdevelopment. With St. George’s reputation for open space, it’s Behrmann’s job to enhance the quality of life without detracting from the area’s attractive qualities.
“If we’re not careful, we’ll destroy the things that drew us [to St. George],” he warns. “That should make every one of us take pause and remember that we need to protect those. It’s the natural role of chambers to promote business in a way where businesses can thrive. It’s not development at all cost.”
During the years, Behrmann cultivated a unique relationship with members of the Paiute Tribe of Americans Indians. Always interested in the cultural history of Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and American Indians, he struck up a friendship with a spiritual leader of the tribe and was amazed by their traditions, ceremonies and reverence for the land.
Applying those same tenets to his business philosophy, Behrmann plans to find the best use of resources without creating development for development’s sake. The majority of the St. George Chamber’s members are small business owners with an invested interest in keeping the area unique and vibrant.
“In Utah, a 500-employee business would be big and 50 is a small business, but in the St. George Chamber, the average member has five employees,” he says. “We’re not a one-size-fits-all county. We need to interpret plans and adapt to individual needs.”
Although the chamber works with small businesses, its weekly meetings average 150 to 200 attendees. Behrmann’s background in Emmy-award-winning broadcast production allows him to produce a top-notch meeting with networking opportunities for everyone who attends. “I get calls wanting to know how we do it but we’re more than just a good lunch,” he says. “It goes back to my news career. We try to provide them with valuable information in a format that’s enjoyable.”
According to Behrmann, St. George is one of the fastest growing communities in the country and as he balances business needs with a commitment to the community’s environment, Behrmann definitely has his job cut out for him.
“It’s been an interesting time to be in this position and have to work things out,” Behrmann says. “It will be interesting to see the future of this county in the next five years.”