Tech, politics and growth: The new BK Chamber president’s plan for the future

Randy Peers has a plan to transform the 101-year-old organization.

November 5, 2019 Michael Stahl
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The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce has a new head. With an eye on the long-term, he’s rolling out a programming slate to transform the 101-year-old organization, engage the tech community and beef up its political clout.

The organization’s new president, Randy Peers, presented his leadership agenda during the Chamber’s annual meeting and trade show Oct. 23, emphasizing a strategy crafted around the borough’s changing industry, and a plan to aggressively challenge anti-business policies from local legislators.

Peers told members that the organization will offer new microloans to small businesses, establish a political action committee for pro-business candidates, launch a smartphone app and take additional measures to “strengthen the borough’s business community and build the best Brooklyn we can build.”

The proposal appeared to chart a path for redefining the Chamber, shedding a little light on the thinking of its newest leader, a Brooklyn native who may finally provide a stabilizing presence in the president’s chair, which has held five occupants the past three years.

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“Sorry if I get a little choked up about this, but a lot of who I am is wrapped up in this place,” Peers told the Brooklyn Eagle in a recent interview at the Chamber’s 335 Adams Street headquarters.

Peers, 49, served as the body’s vice president for economic development between 2002 and 2006. A self-described “Canarsie kid,” Peers attended Brooklyn College and, later, New York University, where he earned an MBA in public administration. He then became chairperson of Sunset Park’s Community Board 7. After his first stint at the Chamber, he served as CEO of Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow — a Brooklyn-based workforce development organization that has since expanded to Queens and the Bronx.

Two-and-a-half years ago, however, Peers shipped out to Southeastern Pennsylvania to lead the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance, which supports business development in Berks County.

But now, Peers is back in his native Brooklyn, filling the Chamber president’s chair after several rapid leadership changeovers at the organization.

“The Chamber has got a really proud history, and I think there’s no doubt they could benefit from having a leader that is going to be able to stay there and grow the organization for years to come,” Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, an independent policy organization that focuses on economic growth in New York, told the Eagle. He called Peers an “exceptional” choice as president.

After a nearly five-year stint as Chamber president, Carlo Scissura stepped down in December 2016 to head up the New York Building Congress, a citywide construction industry trade group. Scissura’s successor at the Chamber, Andrew Hoan, left in May 2018, after his wife, Karina, a gynecologist, accepted a position at The Portland Clinic in Oregon. (Hoan is now the president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, a local business advocacy organization whose mission is not unlike that of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.)

Five months later, Hector Batista, former CEO of the New York branch of the youth mentorship organization Big Brothers Big Sisters, was named Chamber president, becoming the first Latino to hold the position. Like Peers, Batista is also from Brooklyn and, also like Peers, called his appointment a “homecoming.” However, Batista resigned this past June to become Chief Operating Officer of the City University of New York. Peers then replaced interim president Samara Karasyk on September 9.

“Yes, it’s important that the next president stay there for a while,” Scissura told the Eagle. “It’s my hope that Randy will stay five to 10 years, will help solidify the organization, will work with the Board [of Directors] to take it to the next level.”

Such frequent turnover at the president level in the Chamber does not appear to have rattled its Board of Directors.

“In terms of the programming and legislative results we provide our members, we are as effective now, if not more so, than we’ve ever been,” Ana Oliveira, the Board’s Chair, said in an email. “Dynamic leaders with vast experience and talents have served the Chamber in recent years and each of their tenures left us stronger as an organization. … Randy’s leadership will drive the Chamber’s mission to grow the borough’s economy and will ensure that our businesses have the support and resources they need to thrive.”

In spite of the quick-paced presidential baton passing of late, Chamber membership does not appear to have diminished — though no head since Scissura has overseen a notable heightening of membership either. The Chamber currently represents approximately 2,100 businesses across the borough. According to a December 2016 press release, that’s roughly the same number of members the Chamber retained when Scissura — who was credited with boosting membership about 200 percent over his five years as president — stepped down.

As perhaps the borough’s prime business advocate, Peers has now been reinjected into a booming economic landscape, and already has an eye toward greater membership cultivation. He sees real estate and tech as the two key industries that have built up Brooklyn’s unprecedented economic growth the past decade or so, and told the Eagle that in his role as the Chamber president he will “assess how well-represented we are by those two sectors.” Still, he admitted the Chamber faces particular challenges in partnering with the new tech companies that have flocked to the borough.

“Tech and Chambers of Commerce, historically, don’t have a lot of interaction,” he said. “When you think ‘Chamber of Commerce,’ you think generally of your grandfather.”

He said that his vision for the Chamber going forward is one that consists of a better understanding of tech business’s needs, while seeking ways in which the Chamber can “break the communication barrier” between itself and tech industry stakeholders to show them “that what we do can be relevant.”

Peers also wants the Chamber to explore any opportunities it has to work with burgeoning businesses, big and small, while remaining sensitive to the needs of the borough’s legacy companies and long-time residents as well. He believes the Chamber can accomplish that through “empowerment” and finding ways to incorporate born and bred Brooklynites like himself into the shape-shifting job market.

During his address last week, Peers outlined new Chamber programming that included the creation of the Brooklyn Free Enterprise Political Action Committee, a fund that will support business-friendly political candidates; a new program called Leadership Brooklyn that fosters professional growth and increases volunteerism through education initiatives; the launching of The Brooklyn App for smartphones; and the publishing of a new print magazine, Brooklyn Onward. Peers also said the Chamber will become a Community Development Financial Institution that will dish out microloans to the borough’s small businesses that do not typically qualify for commercial bank loans.

Such endeavors sound as though they’ll take a Chamber of Commerce president some time to implement and promote, too.

“I’m here to stay, for sure, in Brooklyn,” Peers told the Eagle in his office, before wryly adding, “Even if I wanted to go elsewhere, I don’t think my wife and my daughter would allow it.”

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.

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