Six Experts Discuss Forming Local Business Alliances

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L. to R.: Oren Teicher, Judy Wicks, Betsy Burton, Chuck Robinson, Jeff Milchen, Dan Houston, and Matt Cunningham

On Thursday, June 3, as part of ABA's All-Day Education Program at BookExpo America, six experts who have been at the forefront of creating business alliances gathered for the panel discussion "Forming Independent Business Alliances in Your Community." The session was moderated by ABA COO Oren Teicher.

The panelists were:

  • Jeff Milchen, co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA);
  • Judy Wicks, co-founder and co-chair of both the national Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and the local Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia (SBN);
  • Matt Cunningham and Dan Houston, partners in Civic Economics, which conducted the Austin study on the economic impact of locally owned businesses;
  • Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, and a Board member of Sustainable Connections; and
  • Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English in Salt Lake City, and one of the founding members of the Salt Lake Vest Pocket Business Coalition.

Teicher had asked the six panelists to answer one question: If you had the undivided attention of every independent bookseller in the U.S. for five minutes, what would you tell them about how best to go about starting an independent business alliance in their community?

Civic Economics' Cunningham noted that the Austin study, "Economic Impact Analysis -- A Case Study: Local Merchants vs. Chain Retailers," found that the economic impact of locally owned businesses was three times greater than that of chains. For every $100 spent at a chain store, only $13 goes back into the community; conversely, that same amount spent at a local retailer yields $45 for the community. He added that Civic Economics was conducting a similar study in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago.

"From our perspective, don't do anything that doesn't help you sell books," Houston stressed to attendees. "I would say that booksellers seem to be the leaders [in terms of forming Independent Business Alliances (IBA)] because you come with a certain degree of credibility … some might call you beloved 'institutions' … joining with other businesses might enhance that. It's good for business to take the lead."

However, Houston warned, "Just keep in mind who your allies are." He explained that in Austin the Chamber of Commerce is not, as one might expect, an ally to AIBA -- it all depends on who is serving on the Chamber and their feelings about chains versus independents.

Milchen stressed to booksellers in the audience to use "existing resources to help you" begin an IBA. "Don't recreate the wheel," he said, noting that his organization, AMIBA, exists to make it easier for local businesses to form alliances. Additionally, once formed, he suggested kicking off the new IBA with a high profile event, and he explained that AMIBA has on occasion been invited to speak at such functions. "Getting a lot of people in a room [to announce the formation of an IBA] can be a catalyzing event," he said. "Involve local government from day one."

Furthermore, "organize for the long-term, and don't expect an immediate [culture] shift" in the community -- a long-term shift is more likely. "Booksellers have an important role to play in this," Milchen said.

BALLE's Wicks said that she began working on a national level after Ben & Jerry's was sold to a large corporation. "[We] envisioned a global economy made up of local living economies [LLE], a network of small [businesses] to small [businesses]," she said.

To build an LLE, businesses need to foster all aspects of community self-reliance -- encompassing everything from local farms to independent retail. Not surprisingly, this calls for businesses to reinvest in the community as much as possible. "It's creating an alternative," she said.

The King's English's Burton discussed how she and a group of local businesses formed the Salt Lake Vest Pocket Business Coalition. (For a previous story on VPBC, click here.) The mission of VPBC is to educate the government and the consumer about the importance of local businesses.

Early on, the group met with the city, prioritized "all our complaints," came up with an agenda, and created a Board comprised of highly visible local business people.

"The things we did right -- there was a [public relations] campaign that we launched," Burton said. "[In terms of city government], we hosted mayoral debates and were very vocal to help defeat a huge development that was supposed to come to the airport…. We started a Local First campaign in conjunction with BALLE." She added that there is a Wal-Mart and Home Deport slated to open in the area, and "we'll study the overall effect for one year and so on." Overall, one key benefit of creating an alliance is "government responds to 200 - 300 members."

As for mistakes, she said the real failure was not communicating all the issues of VPBC. Most importantly, she stressed to attendees, "You can't get self-satisfied."

"Take action," Village Books' Robinson said simply. "It's amazing the kind of response you will get. People are longing for community -- there is a hunger in your community." As such, an IBA or a LLE is good for business and good for the community.

Robinson then discussed the creation of Bellingham, Washington's Sustainable Connections, a local-business network affiliated with BALLE. (For a previous story on SC, click here.

"The time is right for doing this," Robinson said. "I know you didn't come here for one more thing to do, but I would put somewhere on your agenda to get involved." --David Grogan