Are you a member of your local chamber of commerce? If not, then you’re missing out on an indispensable opportunity to make your voice heard. In this episode, Gene Marks and Tom Sullivan, Vice President of Small Business Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, discuss how small business owners can advocate for change through active participation in their local and state chambers of commerce.
Key Podcast Highlights
- How Will Joining a Chamber of Commerce Benefit My Small Business?
- Every small business owner needs to be a part of a chamber of commerce so that they can make their stories and concerns heard.
- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the largest business advocacy organization in the world and joining it would enable you to interact with prominent individuals who have the power to relay your needs directly to our policymakers.
- Meeting your fellow business owners in person and hearing about their experiences can give you a more accurate sense of what is happening in the business world rather than the distorted version often presented by the media.
- Joining a chamber of commerce will give you an opportunity to learn about other inspiring business owners who are making a difference.
- How Does the Government Advocate for Small Businesses?
- Both the House and Senate Small Business Committees draft, negotiate, and propose the legislations that get presented on the House and Senate floor. Once approved, these legislations eventually make it to the President’s desk.
- These committees also bring their perspective as business owners to their leadership, which can help better inform their final decisions.
- How Can I Keep Up With the Latest Business Policy Developments?
- Watch and listen to the news
- Read business updates from social media
- Visit Washington D.C.
- Who Should I Speak to If I Want to Advocate for Change?
- Try to connect with your local member of Congress, either through direct communication with their office or through your local and state chambers of commerce.
- It’s also a good idea to reach out to people on the House and Senate Committees of Small Business.
- Lastly, contact the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well.
- How Can I Ensure That Policymakers Will Hear My Message?
- When you do communicate with Congress, make sure to get that same communication to the person you’re working with at your local chamber.
- Take advantage of social media platforms, like Twitter or LinkedIn, to get your point across.
- If you have an important story to tell, take it to a local or national paper.
- Why Is It Necessary to Keep Up With Small Business Policies?
- You need to keep up with all the latest business policy developments in order to create an effective five-year plan.
- Staying up-to-date on the latest business policy developments allows you to advocate for your business accordingly; in fact, small business owners should be actively engaging in the policymaking process instead of merely sitting on the sidelines.
The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are for informational purposes only, and solely those of the podcast participants, contributors, and guests, and do not constitute an endorsement by or necessarily represent the views of The Hartford or its affiliates.
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Gene: Welcome to the Small Biz Ahead podcast. We interview great experts that offer advice and tips to help you run your business better. Hey, everybody and welcome to the Small Biz Ahead podcast. My name is Gene Marks and thanks for joining me again. I’m very glad that you are here either listening to us or watching us as well. I’m here with Tom Sullivan. I have to look, Tom is the Vice President Small Business Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Tom and I have known each other for a number of years and does amazing work for small businesses all around the country. So first of all, Tom, thank you so much for joining me.
Tom: Thank you, Gene. It’s great to see you again and great to be here.
Gene: Yeah, we have a lot to talk about.
Gene: I mean, your job is to really have the sort of pulse of small businesses around the country and your members of the Chamber. So first of all, let me just give you the opportunity. Tell us a little bit about the U.S. Chamber, what you guys do. And give us the pitch as to why every small business should be a member of the Chamber.
Tom: Well, thank you. I’d like to say my pitch is every small business should be a member of a chamber. If we’re lucky enough at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to attract that membership, that’s great. But there are thousands of local and state chambers across the country who partner with us. And so I don’t discriminate versus a local chamber member or U.S. Chamber member. They’re all our members. With that in mind, I’ll explain a little bit about our breadth and depth. We are the largest business advocacy organization in the world and have about three million members of all size, of all geography, every sector. Roughly 96% of our membership, which includes the membership of about 1,600 state and local chambers of commerce, as well as 500 trade associations, 96% of those businesses have fewer than a hundred employees. About 75% of those members have fewer than 10 employees. That makes my job extra fun.
Tom: I know that whenever I run into a Chamber member, chances are pretty high, I’m not very good with math, but the chances are pretty high that it’s going to be a small business who I meet with. And I have the best job at the Chamber of Commerce. I get to tell stories of small business owners. I actually get to tell your story. A lot of folks don’t know that you’re a small business owner who also advocates for small businesses. So I tell your story in the story of millions of other small businesses every chance I can, primarily before lawmakers and policymakers in Washington D.C.
Gene: It’s funny because I can never imagine working for a company after being out on my own for as long as I’ve been doing this, but there are some jobs I definitely am envious of. And I know the grass might always be greener, Tom, but you do have a great job. It’s really a fun job.
Tom: I do. I do. I have a lot of fun and I consider myself blessed as far as the journey that I’ve had. I got to work for the President of the United States doing the same job, advocating for small business, but you as a taxpayer paid my salary. And there were times, I called them pinch me moments, there were times where I had to pinch myself and say, “A. I can’t believe I’m having this opportunity. And B. I’m getting paid for it.”
Tom: And so you’re right. It is a great job and I’m happy to take that same skillset here at the U.S. Chamber.
Gene: And how often are you on the road?
Tom: Not too much. I mean, luckily with Zoom and Teams and other video, I’m able to meet a lot of small business owners virtually. But once or twice a month I get out into the real world, which in my view is anywhere outside of the Washington D.C. Beltway. And I got to tell you, and I’m not sure what your experience is and I’d love to hear it.
Tom: But I get three to four times more energized every time I meet with small business owners outside of Washington D.C. than I do working the day to day here in the nation’s capital. And it’s so much fun. I do come back quite energized, which I’m told can be a little annoying. I am sometimes characterized as over caffeinated, but it is that energy from small businesses that I bring back and it’s exciting and a lot of fun.
Gene: I get energized by it as well because I don’t know, man, it just gets you out of the house. You watch too much TV or followed too much in the media and your sort of viewpoint gets skewed a little bit and you realize there are a lot of really good people all around the country that are trying to run their businesses, take care of their employees, look after their families, regardless of whether they vote on the left, they vote on the right. We all are Americans and we all share very much the same principles. And it does, it inspires me when I meet these people. I don’t know if you feel the same way.
Tom: I certainly do. And the optimism that is part and parcel of entrepreneurship is contagious. So for me, to be able to kind of absorb some of that optimism is wonderful. And I will get in a little bit into kind of the advocacy component, but what I find really, really neat are telling the stories of individuals on like Yassin Terou.
Tom: Who runs Yassin’s Falafel in Knoxville, Tennessee. He’s one business owner and he is making a difference. He’s a Syrian refugee, he was just over in Turkey giving out baby formula and diapers to folks who have been horribly affected by the earthquake. And because of his passion for humanity and his passion for entrepreneurship, is making a difference. And so this sense sometimes that one small business owner can’t make a difference is bologna. And I get to tell the story of Yassin and millions of others to turn that around, say actually you can make a difference in people’s lives. And from my work perspective and in the way policy makers view small business and treat small businesses, one small business owner can actually make a difference.
Gene: Small business in this country also, Tom, it’s a bipartisan issue. I mean, there’s no politician that is going to run for office saying that they’re running against small businesses. I do not support small businesses. It’s kind of not something that you hear very often.
Gene: I got to ask, being somebody inside of Washington, you know, you deal with the Small Business Administration, and I know you also deal, there’s two committees in Congress that I want to make our viewers aware of. The House has their House Small Business Committee, the Senate has their Committee on Entrepreneurship and Small Business as well. And I’m just kind of curious, Tom, do you feel that these committees in both the Senate and the House are effective? Is my part A of the question. And part B is, do you feel that small businesses themselves can be doing more to become more aware of what these committees are doing, how they can help their businesses? What is your take on these committees in Congress?
Tom: So the House and Senate small business committees are really, they’re effective in two ways. One is the traditional civics lesson of drafting legislation, proposing legislation, coming together to negotiate that legislation, getting it to the House and Senate floor, and eventually to the President’s desk. And the same scenario of opposing legislation, which is kind of the opposite. So in the traditional sense, the committee does make a difference by either supporting or opposing legislation. The other impact they have is bringing a different perspective to the table.
Tom: And I think that’s where we didn’t learn in our high school civics class about what happens in leadership. So in the House for instance, the leader is the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy. In the Senate, Senator Chuck Schumer from New York. Leadership brings together committee heads and they brainstorm, much like large corporations have a board of directors. And I guess I’ve never thought about this until this moment, but the board of directors for the House and the Senate really are the chairs and ranking members. The ranking member is the highest level in the opposite political power, who’s in power at the time.
Tom: So for instance, the Democrats are in the Minority in the House. But when the leadership convenes its board of directors, which are the chairs, ranking members of committees, then they actually offer their perspective. And the value to that is that many other chairman and chairwoman of different committees, they just simply never take the time to step back and think, “Oh, well, that’s how it affects small business.”
Tom: And so there’s a lot of value in the House and Senate small business committees, simply bringing that small business perspective to their leadership so that they can better inform decisions. And I am biased. I think the more small business members in Congress, small business owners in Congress, the better off we are. And there’s a good bipartisan group of small business owners. So for instance, the chairman now of the House Small Business Committee, Roger Williams from Texas, just outside of Dallas, he is a lifelong car dealer. Now he also had a remarkable career in baseball, but he’s a car dealer.
Tom: And so he brings that perspective to his board of directors meeting with Speaker McCarthy. Hugely valuable. Dean Phillips, a democratic congressman from Minnesota. So he actually is an entrepreneur and has coffee shops and pastry cafes in Minnesota. And so he brings that perspective to his leadership in the House of Representatives. And it actually does make a difference. And you see different policies start to reflect a better understanding of how small businesses own and operate. I’ll have to, I can give you an example of I think how I’ve matured it as a professional.
Tom: But how I look at it. And it’s something that I’ve learned mostly as a husband. And that is wanting to be helpful and actually being helpful are two different things.
Gene: Right. Right.
Tom: And I honestly don’t believe, like you said, people don’t wake up in the morning and say, “How am I going to shaft small businesses?” No one says that, especially not politicians. And they want to help small businesses. The committees in the House and the Senate help divine what people want to be helpful and then forward those policies that actually are helpful.
Tom: And hopefully kind of put the not helpful things on the cutting room floor. Now how do people find out more about the House and the Senate? These things, we’re in the age of 24 hour news cycle and accessibility.
Tom: So when you travel around the country, you can no longer BS about what’s going on the House and Senate floor because people are watching CSPAN all day.
Tom: So there’s certainly, they have filtered out the BS factor from people who travel around and talk with small business groups. But Twitter has certainly made news on a particular committee easier to access because you just kind of access the committee’s Twitter feed. So that’s usually helpful. I personally like to try to look at those thought leaders in the House and the Senate that are more objective than others. And I try to regularly scan what’s going on there and then dig down deeper. And most of all, for those small business owners who want to share their story with Congress, and believe me, that makes a difference, schedule time to come to Washington D.C.
Gene: Yeah, yeah.
Tom: And if you can’t, because I mean, it’s hard to take time away from your business.
Tom: Washington D.C. is not a inexpensive city. Every member of Congress has local offices. And when Congress is not in session, elected members don’t take the days off. They’re actually working harder in their home states and home districts. And connect with your local member of Congress’s office. And if this is too intimidating, it’s one of the reasons why people join local and state chambers of commerce is because these types of things that are second nature to me because that’s been my whole career, maybe it’s not second nature to a small business owner. And local and state chambers of commerce are there to help get those audiences with the members of Congress. And believe me, members of Congress want to meet with the small business owners.
Gene: They want to meet and they want to know.
Tom: More than they want to meet with me. And that’s a good thing.
Gene: And just to sort of go further on that point, because so many of my clients, so many of the people I speak to are not really aware that these committees even exist or even the activities of what a chamber does. That means that if you’re listening to this right now or you’re watching this and you’ve got an issue that is really impacting your business, it could be a regulatory issue, it could be supply chain issue, it could be some issue that you’re having trade overseas or just something that you feel like some law legislation that’s really having that negative impact, you’re not powerless at all.
Gene: And again, contradict me if you think I’m wrong, I’ve noticed that the House Small Business Committee is quite active. They’re meeting all the time and they’re constantly looking to hear from small business owners. They have certain issues that they’re covering as well. The Senate committee a little bit less active, although they also performed a very important role. They were instrumental in PPP during COVID. So that’s important. But I guess my point is that if you’re a small business owner, even if your representative, your local representative is not on the House Committee for Small Business, that shouldn’t stop you from not only reaching out to committee members and the committee itself, and you could easily find their webpage with all the contact information. Say, “Hey, this is happening in my area and it’s really having an impact on me and other businesses. You should have a hearing on this.” And also to reach out to not only your local chamber but to you. Right?
Gene: To the U.S. Chamber as well. There’s stuff that can be done to impact policy. Is that right?
Tom: It is right. And I’ll give a couple of tips because you mentioned earlier that that’s part of the value of us talking and having this discussion. One tip is that when you do communicate with Congress, make sure to get that same communication to the person you’re working with at your local chamber.
Tom: It’s my job many times to amplify what our small business owners are saying. So I am not putting words in their mouth, but I don’t know how good you are on email, but if I get an email three or four times, I’m much more likely to read it than, sometimes I miss just getting an email once.
Gene: Also true.
Tom: It’s my job to make sure that member of Congress sees the communication maybe three or four times and work with their staff to make sure that they saw that and they’re responsive. And my job is actually mirrored by thousands of professionals who work on government relations in state and local chambers of commerce.
Gene: And if I can interrupt. I know you’ve got other tips, which I’d like to hear, but you mentioned email, but I’m assuming it’s not just limited to email. We could be reaching out to you on Twitter, we could be reaching out to you on LinkedIn as well. We could be picking up the phone and calling you. Right?
Gene: So it doesn’t have to be just that one way.
Tom: No, no. Email, well, I’m told by my teenage sons, it’s a dying art.
Gene: I’ve been told that for the past 15 years. I’m still waiting for it to die.
Tom: But the method is the same.
Tom: So for instance, if you tag someone in a tweet, you can’t just assume everybody has seen it.
Tom: There’s some value in capturing that, getting it to your government relations professional. And I mean, you are certainly a skilled advocate in communicating with the news media. If you have a story to tell, and this is a lot of what I do and work with our communications team here at the U.S. Chamber, we take stories and we help place them to tell that story in a local paper or perhaps a national paper like the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post of the New York Times. But I don’t want to get away from that original point that you made, which was one person, one small business owner can make a difference. It’s my job to magnify it, that narrative. But it starts with the small business owner story. Sometimes it’s a pet peeve, sometimes it’s aggravation, sometimes it’s just pointing out some common sense that may be absent, a policy coming from Washington D.C.
Gene: And you bring up a really good point as well about the story. I get pitches from business owners and even their PR people all the time about, “Oh, you know, Susan just opened up a cookie shop,” or “Bob just got this new customer, you should write about it.” Which is great and it’s nice that it’s all this going on, but honestly guys, I mean, the thing that attracts media, people like me, the thing that I want to write about is problems and issues. I like to write about the business owner that all their business went away because there’s been some new local ordinance that closed off the streets all around them.
Tom: I credit you for taking the time to look for those things that get people’s attention.
Tom: Because what might be an ordinary run of the bill business operation for a small business owner may be actually addressing a challenge. I’ll give you an example that happened last year. There’s a small business owner who does Sheetrock up in Massachusetts, Sheetrock guy.
Tom: And he was telling the story about how when he was doing his tax returns last year, his wife came in and said, “I didn’t know we were millionaires.” And I mean, this is a Sheetrock guy, a small business who hangs Sheetrock. And he said, “Well, what do you mean?” She says, “Well, it says on the return from an assets perspective, we’re millionaires.” And so he went through what does it mean.
Tom: Like actual liquid assets and real estate and the trucks that he has and the salary, the payroll that he is responsible for. But the Sheetrock guy in Massachusetts, that’s just what he knows.
Tom: He didn’t realize that actually that story was instrumental in opposing a set of tax proposals that were coming up in the Senate at the same time that he was just kind of giving this story.
Tom: I think that’s kind of a good example of looking within stories for what we know are addressing challenges.
Tom: But a small business owner just thinks it’s the day-to-day operations of what they do.
Gene: They are. And it’s funny because I plan on writing this story, there’s a lot of political narrative about taxing the wealthy. And there’s been talk, another president had proposed limiting the small business deduction, the qualified business income deduction, which is where we could take a 20% deduction for pass throughs. It was from the 2017 Tax Reform Act. And they want to start limiting that for people, business owners that make more than $400,000 a year. And I know there’s a lot of people listening or watching saying like, “Oh my god, 400,000 is,” whatever.
Gene: This gets back to your Sheetrock guy. There was a difference between the $400,000 you’re putting on your tax return and what’s actually in the bank. Because business owners might show whatever they’re making in profits, but I can assure you, and I can do this based on my clients as a CPA, most of them are not, they’re not sitting there with piles of money all around them. They’re taking out money and plowing it back into their business. They’re hiring people, they’re buying equipment, they’re buying inventory. But when you raise taxes on them, it makes it that much more difficult to do that. It’s one of those things I plan on writing about it. The Sheetrock guy is a perfect example. You might look at somebody’s balance sheet like, “Oh my god, this guy’s worth a million bucks.” And you’re like, well, yeah, but there’s a lot of nuance to that definition.
Tom: There is. And you hit on something in your explanation that I think is very, very important. It’s not only a lack of understanding of what a balance sheet is.
Tom: But it’s also what small business owners do with savings.
Tom: That 20% deduction led to enormous reinvestment on Main Street.
Tom: I mean, that’s how I became best friends with Mike Zaffaroni in Jacksonville, Florida. He runs a landscape supply company. I met him during a National Small Business Week event here in Washington D.C. He took the savings and bought a truck.
Tom: And we kind of nicknamed it the Tax Cut Truck. Since then, he’s actually purchased five more trucks. But that is not unique to Mike.
Tom: When a small business owner gets a tax break, they reinvest it. They don’t have an account in the Cayman Islands where they’re secretly planning for some early retirement. That just doesn’t happen. They try to scale, they try to up the benefits they’re providing their employees, they upgrade their facilities. All of these things. And that message is something we struggle with as an advocacy organization because outside of an anecdotes, like Mike Zaffaroni, not able necessarily to capture exactly how the money is reinvested. This is something that you’ve seen certainly as a CPA. But that’s going to be a message extremely valuable in the next two years as we’re preparing really to make permanent this 20% deduction that small businesses take advantage of.
Gene: There is going to be a big fight over the next two years and it’s going to become a bigger and bigger issue as these deductions come due. And it’ll be very, very important, I think, for business owners that have been enjoying that deduction and many other tax deductions to pay special attention in the next round of elections because that’s going to impact them specifically. Which brings me to my last question. Boy, there’s so much more time I wanted to talk to you about. But we get talking about policy and government and it’s what you guys do. So this question is about policy. Warren Buffett and a few other very famous entrepreneurs are famous for saying that you shouldn’t worry about policy in your business. Good business owners should be able to operate their business. It shouldn’t make a difference who is president, who is in Congress, who is in the government. You should just focus on running your business.
Gene: And clearly there’s some truth to that point of view. But I don’t know, man. I speak about this stuff all the time and all I see is I see my smartest clients and the smartest people running businesses paying attention to this stuff, the stuff that you and I are talking about because they’re trying to plan ahead over the next three, four years. And policy, regulations, taxes, what the government is doing, even just a pro or an anti-business sentiment from a government has a big impact on demand and how you’re running your business. And I was wondering if you can, in the last minute or so, share with us your thoughts on should we be paying attention to policy and why?
Tom: Well, the counter to Warren Buffett’s advice is you can have a seat at the table or you can be on the menu.
Gene: Yeah. That’s good.
Tom: It’s up to you.
Gene: That’s great.
Tom: And from a real life example, I’ll share with you a story of Lay-n-Go. They’re some friends of mine, they’re part of our small business council here at the Chamber, which is a hundred small business owners who I rely on as kind of my kitchen cabinet. So several years ago, they were sourcing the material for their cosmetic bag from China.
Tom: And through really their engagement in federal policy, they learned that the tariffs would affect their bottom line in a way that they were better off sourcing from Cambodia. So they moved their operations to source their material to Cambodia. Keep in mind, they have always been looking for a domestic source.
Tom: They just haven’t been able to find one. And hopefully, with kind of reshoring and better attention in this country to building up our own capabilities, hopefully that will change. But they really don’t have a choice from a price perspective. They switched to Cambodia. Well, right now, because the generalized system of preferences has expired, they have to go back to China.
Gene: Right. That’s a problem.
Tom: I know that’s a kind of a bad ending right now, but the story continues. They have become national spokespeople, a husband and a wife running a very successful company selling cosmetics bags, on renewing what’s called GSP, the global system preferences. So the tariffs reflect the national policy of Americans not over-relying on China.
Tom: And so it’s kind of an example of how business operations are affected by government policies.
Tom: And the opportunity to actually inform those policies. And I’m convinced that GSP is going to be renewed. And in part because of Adam and Amy’s advocacy to renew global system preferences. Because policymakers, they thought, “Oh, well this is Nike and Under Armour and those other. This doesn’t really affect the little guy.” Well, it does.
Tom: Big time. In fact, probably disproportionately. And so that is just one of thousands of examples of how important it’s for small businesses to become engaged in policy. Because you don’t want to be on the menu, but you do want to be at the table.
Gene: That’s just great advice. And it’s funny because you say Nike and Armour, maybe they’re the ones that are targets that policy. But let’s not forget when there are restricted policies against larger companies and corporations, there are always countless small businesses that are relying on those corporations as well for their own livelihoods, for whatever reason. So it does have that trickle-down effect. Tom, it’s great speaking with you.
Tom: Good speaking to you.
Gene: So happy that you joined me. Like I said, many more questions and things to talk about with you, but we’re out of time for now. I have been speaking to Tom Sullivan. He’s the VP of Small Business Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which does just great work. And Tom, if you can just give us your website to direct people that might want more information about the Chamber.
Tom: Sure. The Chamber’s website is uschamber.com.
Gene: Very good. Thank you very much. Everybody, you’ve been watching and listening The Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. Thank you so much for doing just that. If you need any advice or help or tips for running your business, please visit us at smallbizahead.com or sba.thehartford.com. My name is Gene Marks. Again, thanks for joining. We’ll be back to you soon with another episode. Take care.
Gene: Thanks so much for joining us on this week’s episode of the Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. If you like what you hear, please give us a shout-out on your favorite podcast platform. Your ratings, reviews and your comments really help us formulate our topics and help us grow this podcast. So thank you so much. My name is Gene Marks, it’s been great spending time with you. We’ll see you again soon.
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