Finding a Formula for the Future
By Jennie Doyen
Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce
Jason Ball has an impressive resume. His experience includes assisting small businesses with developing business plans, working to commercialize university research, leading economic development efforts, and fostering public-private partnerships. He is a certified economic developer and was named to Development Counsellors International´s list of "40 under 40: Rising Stars in Economic Development."
When a person meets Jason Ball though, it is not his resume, but his approachability, optimistic energy and enthusiasm for his work that leave an impression.
Late last fall, following a six-month nationwide search, Ball was named as the next President & CEO of the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. On January 30, 2017 he officially became the leader of one of the strongest, most vibrant chambers of commerce in the nation.
The search is on
When Evan Nolte informed past Board Chair Paul Bruflat that he intended to retire at the end of 2016, Bruflat knew right away that finding a new President & CEO for the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce would be a big job. Rather than dive in headfirst though, he gathered with other volunteer leaders to determine the best way to approach the search.
The group quickly came to the conclusion that hiring an outside firm to manage the process would produce the best results. A professional recruiting firm would expand the pool of potential candidates and would help leadership see and evaluate factors that they might not otherwise have considered. "The whole goal was to get the best candidate possible for the Sioux Falls Chamber," said Bruflat. "Our members deserve nothing less than the best."
Waverly Partners, LLC was identified as a good match for what was needed and the firm was hired to conduct the search. The first step was to form a search committee. This group needed to be broad enough to represent all aspects of our community, but small enough to be manageable and effective. Eleven people, representing a variety of ages, backgrounds and businesses, agreed to serve.
Presiden/CEO, Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce
• Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry, Nebraska Wesleyan University
• M.B.A., University of Nebraska, Lincoln
• Certified Economic Developer
• Graduate of the Economic Development Institute, University of Oklahoma
Wife Sandy, children Bennett (4) and Sadie Louise (1)
• President/CEO, Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce, Hutchinson, Kansas
• Director of Business Development, Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, Lincoln, Nebraska
Running and reading - mostly history books.
Members of the search committee spent their initial meetings discussing their goals and expectations for the process. With everyone on the same page, the group quickly developed a high level of trust.
Focus groups were held with community members to gather ideas on the qualities needed in a leader, the strengths of Sioux Falls, and the challenges facing our community. All of this information was synthesized into a position profile. The result was a seven page document detailing the job of the President & CEO and outlining the qualifications required of interested candidates.
Current Board Chair Dr. Dave Kapaska, Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center, notes that while the position profile was detailed, the search committee understood that they needed to look beyond each candidate´s resume - they needed to find the right personality to fit the role. "We needed a broad range of work experience for sure, but we needed more too," said Kapaska. "We really were looking qualitatively as much as experientially for what kind of person can really lead us to the next level."
There were a handful of key things the committee was looking for in a candidate. With an already strong and established Chamber, the group wanted to be sure that no momentum would be lost in the transition to new leadership. They needed to find someone who would embrace and enhance the existing framework.
Another important skill is the ability to build relationships. The next President &v CEO needed to be a people person, with an ability to connect with a wide variety of people. He or she needed to have strong listening skills and a knack for fostering collaboration.
The search was extensive and thorough. Waverly took the lead in crafting the process, but responsibility for managing the execution of that plan was shared between Waverly and the search committee. Through a series of screenings and interviews, the pool of candidates was narrowed to six, then three finalists.
Both Bruflat and Kapaska are quick to point out that the search committee felt they really couldn´t make a wrong decision. All of the final candidates were highly qualified and could have done well in the job. This is a great testament to the reputation of our Chamber, the quality of the organization, and our community, Kapaska said. "In the midst of the fact that we could have hired any one of them, Jason just stepped away from the rest of the group. He just connected."
The search committee came to a unanimous agreement - they would offer the job to Jason Ball.
Ball speaks at the Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting in 2014
Road to Sioux Falls
Jason Ball earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry and spent his first five years out of college working as a bench chemist. While he enjoyed the academic environment, he quickly figured out that he preferred business related work that allowed him more opportunities to interact with people. As a chemist, he began working with universities who wished to use their scientific research to license technology for businesses. This allowed him to leverage his technical background in the development world and set him on a path into chamber and economic development work.
Following completion of his MBA, Ball was hired by the Lincoln, Nebraska Chamber of Commerce as Director of Business Development. At the time, he had no formal experience in economic development, but leadership in Lincoln saw that he was skilled in connecting entrepreneurs and building communities. They tasked him with leading their efforts to build public-private partnerships to foster economic development. It was a role that not only allowed him to sharpen his development skills, but also exposed him to chamber work in the areas of public policy, the visitor industry, community and quality of life issues, and more.
In 2012 he moved to Hutchinson, Kansas to take on the role of President & CEO of the Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce. There, he oversaw all aspects of the 760 member Chamber, including membership engagement, economic development, public policy and the Convention & Visitor´s Bureau (CVB).
When he heard about the opportunity to lead the Sioux Falls Chamber, Ball says he knew right away that he wanted to apply. "The nature of this community and the type of organization that was in placeâ€¦it was exactly the type of role I knew I ultimately wanted," he said. "I consider it a great honor and a privilege to have been selected for this job."
Opportunities and Challenges Ahead
Ball shares that his first task as he assumes leadership of the Chamber is to begin the work of getting to know all of the staff, volunteers, and community leaders who are invested in the Sioux Falls Chamber. He says it is clear, as an outsider coming in, that a large part of the Chamber´s success is the strong relationships in place across all sectors. And his hope is to build on those.
Kapaska believes Ball will have no trouble forming relationships in the community. "Jason is easy to talk to. He brings a freshness that is healthy for the organization. Our search committee all felt that Jason could effectively touch every aspect of our community, every person, to help us make Sioux Falls flourish even further."
Although the Chamber is called upon to do several important community functions, Ball says that ultimately the Sioux Falls Chamber is in the people and relationships business. "If we do those well, then we´ll be good at business, we´ll be good at public policy, we´ll be good at economic development."
Jason and Sandy Ball with their children Bennett and Sadie Louise in the fall of 2016.
The challenges facing Sioux Falls are similar to those experienced by communities of all sizes, Ball says. Communities all over the Midwest, even those doing relatively well, feel the pinch of workforce issues.
Kapaska agrees that workforce development is a key issue for Sioux Falls. He says we need to find a way to maximize the capabilities of every member of our community. Forward Sioux Falls 2021 has laid the groundwork for tackling those questions. In particular, opportunities have been identified in the areas of post-secondary education, and in a cradle-to-career initiative that has become Sioux Falls Thrive.
According to Ball, success will lie in our ability to find ways to remain relevant to people and groups that may have traditionally been less connected to chamber activity. "We cannot become stagnant. Chambers need to evolve their organization to meet the needs of all parties - entrepreneurs, small businesses, the younger generation of business leaders, and many more."
He adds, "I don´t have a magic bullet answer. But we need to follow through on the workforce development efforts that have been identified through the Forward Sioux Falls campaign."
Working together for the future
The Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce has a reputation of being a strong advocate for business and a catalyst for progress. This is not due to any one person, but rather is the result of the commitment and engagement of individuals from around the community, working together as Chamber members to build a better Sioux Falls.
For 38 years, Evan Nolte was the face of the Chamber. The significance of this leadership change is not lost on anyone involved the search process. Yet, all agree that the change represents an opportunity to combine the solid foundation of our past with new ideas for a bright future.
"We are great. We have a strong record of accomplishments and success. But there is always room for growth," said Kapaska. "We expect that our Chamber, with Jason´s leadership, will continue to be a successful advocate for our businesses and community as a whole for years to come."
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