Wanted – Rock Stars: Chamber plays new economic development tune

🕐 7 min read

Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce

For more on the Fortify plan


Fortify’s four pillars and the top goals

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Business Attraction and Existing Business Retention and Expansion

• Attract four Fortune 1000 corporate headquarters.

• Attract 2,000 new jobs and create 2,000 jobs with wages > the county average.

• Attract 20 Inc. 5000 companies.

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Talent Development, Retention and Attraction

• 5% increase in the percentage of population age 25+ with postsecondary degrees, licenses or certifications.

• 10% increase in targeted industries talent supply.

Small Business and Entrepreneur Support

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• Increase business start-ups by 10%.

• Achieve Top 20 status in national entrepreneur rankings in at least one category.


• Aid in increasing funding to implement the Fort Worth Transportation Authority’s Master Plan.

• Increase business sector diversity on advocacy committees.

• Promote Fort Worth as a center for political issue discussions.

Source: Fort Worth Chamber

“Wanted: Rock Stars”

Not many job descriptions from Chambers of Commerce begin with those words, but that’s basically what’s happening in Fort Worth.

The chamber is hiring four senior vice presidents as part of a reorganization aimed at putting a laser focus on economic development while at the same time continuing with its traditional offerings.

In a video describing the jobs, Brandom Gengelbach, executive vice president of economic development, says the chamber is seeking “energetic, autonomous and passionate” people for Fort Worth. All to a four-four backbeat that would make Tom Petty proud.

The changes represent much more than an attitude change occurring at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. The local chamber is going all in on economic development and the “rock star” senior vice presidents – four of them, like the Fab Four – will be the backbeat to implement what is called Fortify, a four-year plan that will transform the chamber internally and externally into an economic development machine.

The changes at the chamber come concurrent – if not quite in lockstep – with the recently announced Economic Development Plan unveiled by the city in early December. That plan revealed some sometimes uncomfortable truths about Fort Worth’s place in the competitive world of economic development related to transportation, education, workforce training and perception, among other factors. It also pointed to the disparity between Fort Worth’s stellar economic returns and its low perception ratings.

“Fortify responds to a very sobering reality,” said Bill Thornton, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber. “We – the chamber, Fort Worth and the region – are at a crossroads in economic development.

“We can risk gambling on business as usual to try to keep up with unprecedented growth challenges and risk missing opportunities. Or we can find new strengths for greater reach and achievement, which are Fortify’s goals.”

Not doing business as usual won’t be easy – the chamber laid off three people and is rewriting job descriptions for others. And it won’t be cheap. The target this year is a total budget of $6.5 million, up from $4.5 million, with that increasing to $8 million over the next two years.

That has meant getting the all-important buy-in from chamber members to support those budget increases. That, they’ve received, said Brandom Gengelbach, executive vice president of economic development.

“The bottom line is we’ll be fundraising for most of this year,” he said. “I think by the end of the first quarter, we’ll have a real clear idea in terms of what the funding looks like. This is the second week we’ve been out fundraising and have just had very positive feedback from the community.

“We have a real plan that we’re showing them with deliverables and they’re very excited about it.”

Gengelbach, who has been with the chamber just over a year, noted that some smaller cities far outspend Fort Worth, though the organizational structures vary around the county. Oklahoma City’s economic development budget is $16 million, Kansas City’s is $10.6 million and Denver’s is $10.3 million while Nashville, Tennessee, works with nearly $9.5 million. Neighbor Dallas has an $8 million budget while Austin’s is $10.1 million.

For the past 30 years the chamber has had separate budgets for membership dues and economic development. That is no longer the case. New programming will be developed to support the new strategic plan. The chamber has also moved its fiscal year to a calendar year to be in sync with its investors’ budget cycles.

The rock stars – senior vice presidents – will be responsible for carrying out Fortify’s four pillars:

• Business Attraction and Existing Business Retention and Expansion;

• Talent Development, Retention and Attraction

• Small Business and Entrepreneur Support

• Advocacy

The chamber will be reorganized under those four pillars with two horizontals cutting across the vertical: international and quality of place, he said.

“We really want to raise the profile of Fort Worth as an international destination,” Gengelbach said. “And so in each of our pillars, in each area of focus, we will have an international component to it. We didn’t want to put international on the side, we wanted to integrate it in everything,” he said.

Quality of place is an economic development term that basically describes what we are doing to make our community more attractive to outsiders, Gengelbach said.

“The reality is for us to be successful long term, we have to be involved in creating prosperity for all people living in Fort Worth, not just where the growth is happening currently,” he said. “The city’s strategic plan showed that 15 percent of the people that live in Alliance, work there. Affordable housing is an issue. Transit, to be able to get to Alliance, is an issue.

“So a key part of our strategy is not only facilitating the growth that’s coming and continuing to be the welcome mat for Fort Worth, but also working with our investors and stakeholders to be strategic about rising the tide for all of those in Fort Worth and allowing Fort Worth to be recognized as a community that is attractive from all vantage points. So, the quality of place piece is a brand new thing that we’re going to be doing as an organization and as part of our strategic plan.”

Thornton noted that Fort Worth is one of the fastest growing communities in the country – if not the fastest growing – since the year 2000.

“We’ve got some opportunities and some challenges out there we have to address,” he said. “And we needed a different structure, different approach and a more concise strategy in order to accomplish it.”

The chamber will be working with the city’s new economic development plan as well. According to the FAQ released with the Fortify plan,, the city’s plan focuses “sharply on Fort Worth, while the chamber’s plan addresses a wider metro area.”

The chamber will be the lead partner in establishing Fort Worth’s competitive edge through business attraction, business expansion and highly-targeted marketing strategies, according to the chamber. “We’ll be a lead generator,” said Gengelbach.

While a lot of chambers are making changes to how they do business, Gengelbach said the Fortify plan is not the norm for chambers.

“Most chambers are continuing to use the benchmark of jobs and investment and that’s all they measure themselves on is jobs and investment from a political standpoint, from a chamber standpoint,” he said.

While that is an important measurement, it leaves out issues like education, transit, poverty, percentage of the population with a graduate degree or percentage of the population with a four-year degree, he said.

“A lot of chambers are just facilitating growth, as opposed to really trying to raise the level of prosperity across the board, which then makes our community more attractive. The more people we have out of poverty, the more people we have educated, the more companies we’re going to attract, the happier our existing businesses are going to be.”

All those changes point the chamber in one direction moving to a different drum: economic development, said Gengelbach.

“Traditionally there was a chamber side of the house and an economic development side,” he said. “That is all changed. We are all one organization. We are the Fort Worth Chamber. And the Fort Worth Chamber is an economic development organization. Everything we do is about achieving or creating prosperity for all of those in Fort Worth.”

Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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