In historic move…City chamber looking to open membership to small enterprises

Small businesses could secure an important breakthrough in the near future if plans by the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) to make adjustments to its membership criteria to accommodate business enterprises which have traditionally failed to find a home amongst the country’s more established commercial enterprises come to fruition.

While promises of expanding the membership of the Chamber pre-dates the election of the current executive, newly elected President Clinton Urling has, since assuming the office a few weeks ago, made several references to what he says is the organization’s plans to find a  way of expanding its membership to take on board some of the more modest urban business enterprises.

In an exclusive interview with Stabroek Business on Wednesday, Urling emphasized that the Chamber’s efforts to break with its 123-year-old tradition of offering membership to only established business houses is driven by a recognition that small enterprises not only comprise the bulk of the country’s business sector but that they also make major contributions to both employment and economic growth.

Clinton Urling

Urling, himself the owner of a business that grew from a working man’s snackette to one of the city’s more popular restaurants, is cautious about the initiative, reluctant to make profound pronouncements that must meet with the approval of the Chamber’s seventy-four members many of which are steeped in tradition and will be keen to ensure the embracing of a new category of members does not impact negatively on the image of the organization.

If the Chamber agrees to make the changes to its membership criteria to allow smaller, less established organizations to join its ranks, the development would mark the second important breakthrough for the small business sector in a matter of weeks, the first being the announcement by government that funding is now available for the long overdue kick-start of the Small Business Bureau, a support entity for small and medium-sized businesses provided for under the 2004 Small Business Act.

The procedures associated with inducting new categories of businesses into the Chamber are likely to include scrupulous judgments regarding the viability of enterprises seeking membership as well as adjustments to the Chamber’s current membership fees structure to ensure affordability to aspiring members. These, Urling says, are some of the ‘nuts and bolts’ that will have to be decided upon before a more definitive pronouncement can be made on the plan.

If the proposed move to expand the membership of the GCCI is likely to benefit the small business sector, there are also advantages to be derived for the Chamber itself. Depending on what is eventually agreed as far as new membership is concerned, the likely inclusion of scores of urban enterprises in the trading, manufacturing and service sectors could significantly enhance the lobbying power of the Chamber.

The focus of the initiative, according to the new Chamber President, is on positioning the small business sector to benefit from services that can enhance their operations. Over time the GCCI has enhanced its own capacity to access services associated with business growth through international agencies and part of the plan behind the move to incorporate smaller businesses into the Chamber is to better position them to secure access to those services.

Both Urling and Chamber executive member Lance Hinds concede that smaller, less well-connected businesses are not particularly well-informed as to how to secure access to such services.
Membership of the Chamber could also provide small business owners with access to the considerable experience of existing members in areas such as mentoring while the possibility of creating lending opportunities for deserving enterprises is also under discussion at the level of the organization.

Evidence of the need for the small business sector to secure the kind of support which the Chamber is positioned to offer is reflected in the difficulties which many such enterprises have found in securing access to services associated with the growth of their enterprises. Access to lending is constrained by local commercial bank lending policies, which, though perhaps boasting more small business-oriented products these days than in earlier years continues to be limited by the constraints which the banks themselves face. More than that, attempts at creating umbrella organizations for small and medium-sized enterprises have met with little success. The now seemingly defunct Guyana Small Business Association (GSBA) failed to attract either the level of membership or, it seemed the level of leadership required to render it meaningfully effective. Other attempts at small business umbrella organizations include the Guyana Art and Craft Producers Association (GACPA) though, apart from its failure up until now to settle the arrangements to occupy a ‘home’ offered by government some time ago, many of its members continue to be constrained by limitations associated with limited capital, refinement of skills and opportunities for securing access to overseas markets.

The Chamber, it seems, is taking its time with this initiative. Not only does the new President decline to provide a likely time frame for the creation of a new category of members, he is also reluctant to list, in any particular detail, the range of services which the Chamber seeks to provide for its prospective members; this, with good reason. The GCCI is only too well aware that access to funding for growth and expansion is perhaps the primary concern of the small business sector and it is loathe to raise expectations beyond that which it can deliver. While, for example, lending policies of commercial banks have been targeted for criticism among some small business owners, the leadership of the Chamber, which includes owners of long-established businesses, are intimate with the constraints under which the banking system operates and are clearly not inclined to contribute to the imposition of what they clearly consider to be unwise and unfair pressures on lending institutions that are also numbered amongst the Chamber’s members.

Instead, both Urling and Hinds are advocates of the creation of a local Development Bank. It is not a novel idea but one that now appears particularly relevant given the significant growth of a business culture as a replacement for paid employment.

Urling accepts that if the initiative by the Chamber to embrace the small business sector bears fruit, the organization will be saddled with additional responsibilities not least of which will be to serve as a lobbying force for a new category of members with different needs. It is a challenge that will require the Chamber to expand its own current capacity and that, perhaps above all else, is what it has to do if it is to take the historic step which it envisages.

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