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Jones Leads Chamber of Commerce, Connects Businesses, Builds Community

By Uriah Kiser May 21, 2014 8:00 am

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There was very little to look at when you traveled a two-lane Route 234 in the early 1980s.

Driving with her sister to her parent’s new house they had just bought in Woodbine Woods, Debbie Jones, then in her early 20s, wondered why her parents gave up their lives in Vienna to move way out here.

“Can you only imagine in 1981?” said Jones. “We’re driving down 234 and the two of us are like ‘oh, my god, where did they move to?” said Jones.

At that time, Prince William County was still very rural. There was no massive Potomac Mills mall, and Manassas had recently only just became a city. Her father was one of the original employees at IBM in Manassas, now BAE Systems.

It’s 33 years later and Jones still lives in Prince William County with her husband, in Nokesville, an even more rural area than her parents chose. Route 234 has been widened to four lanes and Jone’s sister still lives on Purcell Road, just a stone’s through from her parents house in Woodbine Woods.

Listening to chamber members

For Jones, who is now Acting President and CEO of the Prince William Chamber, it is the experience of living in Prince William, the knowledge of what make it tick and its local politics, and her extensive relationships with area business owners, is what she believes makes her the right person to permanently fill the job. The Chamber’s appointed Executive Board is in the process of hiring a new a new CEO after Rob Clapper stepped down in February.

After Clapper left, there were some members of the Chamber, as well as some who chose to drop out, left feeling as if the organization that was supposed to represent them did not actually listen to them.

After being appointed acting CEO, Jones immediately set out on a “coffee and conversation” tour where she listened to what business owners had to say. They told her they liked the calendar of events the Chamber sends to keep them informed, but they didn’t like traveling more than 10 miles to attend a Chamber function.

She also learned that there is a misconception out there that the Chamber holds most of its functions on either the western side of Prince William County, to include the Greater Manassas area, or the eastern side in Woodbridge. That prompted Jones and her staff of nine to take a closer look at where Chamber functions are held, and how they could serve more people.

The merger

In 2010, The Greater Manassas — Prince William Chamber of Commerce merged with the Region’s Chamber in Woodbridge. Shortly thereafter it was dubbed the largest chamber of commerce in Virginia. But keeping all of its members satisfied by catering to everyone’s needs can be a challenge.

“It’s been turmoil for a while. Any sort of merger would be that way,” explained Jones. “But we really have come through to a point where we have great services to provide, and we have events that are more tried and true, and we have councils and committees that we’re looking at, and continually updating and tweaking as we go.”

Business owners who came to the listening tour found it therapeutic, she said, because they felt as if, once again, they were connected to their chamber of commerce.

What is this?

Under Clapper, who oversaw the merger of the two chambers and openly admitted he stayed with the organization longer than he planned to, the Chamber spent much of 2013 arguing about a road. The Chamber positioned itself a big supporter of building a Bi-County Parkway linking Dumfries with Dulles Airport in the name of greater economic development, a function already funded through county government. Clapper served on the front lines of the fight pitted against county residents who live in and near Manassas National Battlefield Park, as well as Route 234, who don’t want the highway built.

That hailstorm has since died down, and that has allowed Jones to do more of what a chamber of commerce should do – connect its members with other businesses to help them succeed.

“It could back to what I learned when I was 5-years-old: You treat people how you want to be treated,” said Jones. “That thought process has opened doors, allowed for mutual trust, and has allowed me to work with a variety of different people.”

Back to basics 

Since February, the Chamber has been getting back to basics with a customer service mindset. Long bombarded with sales calls to small businesses seeking them to sponsor a Chamber event or buy an advertisement at a Chamber function, every month Jones gives all nine of her employees a list of members to call — not to sell them anything, but to simply ask how they’re doing.

She’s also started a series of “ambushes” where Chamber Ambassadors drop by a member business to surprise them with balloons and smiles, which can go a long way in making a busy small business owner feel appreciated.

“It goes back to ‘what do you really want?’ ‘What’s your expectation?’” said Jones. “Can I guarantee you’re going to get a lot of business? No. I can’t guarantee that. Can I show you the ropes of how you can work an organization like this to get the most out of it to help you improve professionally or improve your business? Sure.”

What’s next? 

Looking ahead, there will be more networking events where Jones can do what she does best – connect people. She jokingly calls it being “Debbed In.”

Topics for educational webinars have been explored, and the Chamber’s series of business academy classes will continue.

While the Chamber’s appointed Board of Directors will make the final call as to who will lead the organization permanently, Jones says she’ll continue building in this community.

“We have the opportunity to guide this community into whatever it wants to be. And it really needs to be its own entity,” said Jones. “We’re just prime for the picking.”

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