New role, same goal: Retired executive still stresses customer service as chamber chairwoman

Phyllis Norris serves as the new chairwoman of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phyllis Norris knows full well the importance of customer service. Norris worked for City Market for 40 years, the last 10 as president overseeing the operations of 38 grocery stores.

Although she’s now retired, Norris continues to stress customer service in a leadership role of a different sort as chairwoman of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. It’s essential, she says, that  the organization determine what its member businesses want and meet those needs. “You have to provide what your customers want.”

To that end, Norris expects the chamber to continue to play a proactive role in advocating for the interests of its members at the local, state and even federal levels. The chamber will remain equally proactive in promoting economic development that not only attracts new businesses to the Grand Valley, but also helps existing businesses to survive and, ultimately thrive. “The chamber has taken this very seriously,” she says.

Norris succeeds Lois Dunn as head of the chamber board for the coming year. Norris has served on the board for three years, but long has been involved in the chamber. She also served on the board during the late 1990s, although not as chairwoman.

Norris brings to her term as chairwoman four decades of experience in the grocery industry. She started working for City Market as a checker and advanced through a series of positions as assistant manager, store manager, district manager, vice president and president. By the time she retired earlier this year, Norris oversaw a work force of 4,200 employees and the operations of 35 stores in Western Colorado and a total of three more stores in New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Norris attributes her success in large part to her work ethic. “I always worked really, really hard.” She also says she always wanted to learn more about the business and was fortunate in that she had mentors who were willing to teach her.

 In addition to her business experience and involvement in the chamber, Norris has been active with other organizations. She serves on the Colorado Workforce Development Council. The council advises the governor and the Colorado Legislature on policy matters related to programs and activities funded by the Workforce Investment Act to support the training and placement of workers. The council also works to coordinate the efforts of government, educational and business interests to promote job creation and economic development. Norris also serves on the investment board of Hilltop Community Resources, a Grand Junction-based organization that provides a wide range of services to people in Western Colorado.

Norris says she expects to spend a lot of her time as chairwoman of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce board listening to what members want and then working with the board and chamber staff to meet those needs. Technology has made the process considerably easier, she says, with e-mail and especially the online surveys the chamber uses to community with members.

What members value most, Norris says, is an organization that advocates on behalf of their interests, monitoring regulations and legislation and lobbying for and against various proposals and policies.

The chamber tracks business-related measures before the Colorado Legislature and also hosts twice-monthly videoconferences that offers local business owners and managers an opportunity to meet with state lawmakers.

The videoconferences are important, Norris says, in not only maintaining connections between Grand Junction and Denver, but also offering the business perspective to lawmakers. “We help bring up the things that are important to business,” she says.

The chamber also takes positions on local issues and candidates, Norris says.

While large businesses and the executives of those operations have the resources and time to monitor and respond to state and local measures, small business owner’s often don’t, Norris says. And that’s where the chamber can help.

The chamber also can help in promoting economic development and has  been an active participant in efforts to develop a new development plan for Mesa County, Norris says.

Through a series of public meetings, three major goals have been incorporated into that plan: establish an epicenter for energy research and development, support the growth of existing businesses and create and promote a community brand.

The chamber has been working with other groups, including the Grand Junction Economic Partnership and Business Incubator Center, to develop plans to achieve those goals.

For its own part, the chamber continues to offer assistance to existing businesses, Norris says, including presentations on how they can sell goods and services to local government entities, Colorado Mesa University and other large institutional customers.

The Great Recession has been very different from the bust that followed the oil shale boom in the 1980s, Norris says.

The 1980s bust was localized, meaning people and businesses could relocate to other areas of the state and country. The Great Recession has been nationwide in scope, leaving few places unaffected, she says. At the same time, though, the housing downturn was much worse in the 1980s than the present, she adds.

Thanks in part to the efforts following the oil shale bust, the Grand Valley economy has become more diversified, although cycles in natural resource development still hold sway, Norris says. The growth of what is now Colorado Mesa University has been a big benefit, she adds.

As for the future, Norris expects the economy to hold steady in the near term, although many business owners remain too uncertain to significantly expand operations or hire additional staff. “It’s a little more stable and, you know, stable is good.”

Meanwhile, the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce will continue to strive to determine what its member businesses want and meet those needs, Norris says.

“We’ve got a good chamber here. If we keep listening to our customers, we’ll keep succeeding.”