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Bill Connors

In the business of business

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A year ago, business guru Bill Connors left his Washington, D.C., job as the executive director of the National Business Travel Association, which he stewarded for six years. Connors' colorful resume includes stints as a teacher and a steamboat captain in upstate New York, as well as work with the United States Chamber of Commerce. Now, he serves as the CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. One of Connors' most notable changes has been to cease the chamber's candidate endorsements, replacing them with issue endorsements.

The move from Washington, D.C., to Boise: How'd that happen?

My wife and I came out here a couple years ago, just on a little vacation, and fell in love with the place. Matter of fact, I remember, we were sitting in the Grape Escape downtown and said, "Boy, if anything ever opened up here, we ought to take a look at it." Back in Washington, D.C., I was fairly active in the United States Chamber of Commerce, a friend of mine said, "Hey, aren't you the guys who's always yappin' about how great Boise is? Well they got an opening for the CEO job." So I threw my hat in, and here I am.

You were a steamboat captain?

I've got a weird resume. I started off as a teacher in upstate New York and worked my way through the chairs and became a school administrator. The ultimate summer gig there ... would be to work for the steamboat company. It's the same company that runs the Natchez down in New Orleans, so it's real steamboats. And the coolest of the cool jobs would be a captain, and I spent 14 years working my way up to become captain of the ships there. From there, I got into the membership association business, which took me to Boston, and then the last 12 years in D.C.

What exactly does the chamber do?

Our basic mission is to promote businesses here, expand the business that is here, attract business from elsewhere to come here, and provide a business-to-business network for folks to expand what they're doing here. So it's a very pro-business kind of organization. We're made up of 1,800 different businesses up and down the valley, and 90 percent of those are small business--by definition that's any business under 100 employees.

One of the things about a "chamber of commerce," just those three words, conjures up some Old-World images. You know, the bunch of bankers and three-martini lunch crowd. We want to be more than that, and I think we're becoming more than that and engaging some of the entrepreneurs and these new exciting industries, and reaching out to folks that weren't traditionally part of chambers of commerce.

What business does the chamber represent?

When you're from the East Coast and mixed up like I am as an East Coaster, you have this impression of what this place is like. You think it's fairly agrarian based ... but I can't believe some of the things that are made here. We make all the commuter locomotives here, up at Motive Power. We make tea, Bigelow Tea is here, Scentsy Candles. It's all sorts of cool businesses are here. I think the opportunity for our future growth is very positive.

What do you see in the future of Boise?

There's just a lot of opportunity. I look at our airport, for example, and I was in the travel biz, and that airport has tons of potential. I could see us being the Memphis of the West. Now, we've got better weather, we're better at doing business, we haven't got encroachment issues--we'd certainly be a better hub from the West to Asia than a Seattle or a San Francisco or an L.A. in terms of air cargo operations.

I really see us being a key player in the alternative energy arena. Wind, solar, obviously we have 300 and-whatever-it-is days of sun a year. This movement of this big Australian company that just moved into town, doing a joint venture with Micron making solar panels, that's a great thing. And that's helping to establish us as a key alternative energy player here.

Does the infrastructure exist for that?

You can only widen I-84 so much. Transportation infrastructure is big. And it's a big draw as far as economic development goes. You've got to have good transportation systems: You need air, rail, road in place to attract businesses.

There's an outfit here in town now called the Boise Valley Railroad. This was a big national company that's come in and bought some of our short-line rail here, and they're trying to find customers up and down the valley, and they had sort of a welcome-to-town rail ride for some VIPs. What really struck me is, we went out toward Micron out on that side of town, and that was the confluence of the I-84 exit, a rail spur and a new road that's going to shoot off to the airport. So you've got your basic planes, trains and automobiles. It just made me think: We've got to think more like that. We've got to think in terms of comprehensive transportation resources, for people and for businesses.

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