A Decade at Dorset Chamber

It’s been a decade since Ian Girling was appointed as the chief executive of Dorset Chamber. To mark this milestone, he has shared some of the highlights of this ten-year tenure:

The Dorset Chamber AGM and Christmas lunch on 7th December 2023 marked 10 years to the day that I became Chief Executive of Dorset Chamber. I still recall my nerves at having to make my inaugural speech at the AGM and then again to a bigger crowd at our lunch event. It was a daunting prospect and I felt very apprehensive but also incredibly proud and honoured to have this position.

When I was interviewed for the role, I had a very clear vision for our Chamber; to become a modern, inclusive and engaging Chamber for the future. Over that time I have set about delivering that vision. I’d like to reflect on some of our achievements over the last 10 years.

It’s been a period of huge uncertainty. In that time, we’ve seen 5 Prime Ministers, 8 Home Secretaries, 6 Chancellors and I’ve served under 8 Dorset Chamber Presidents. In the last 4 years we’ve also experienced Brexit, Covid, the invasion of Ukraine and a cost of living crisis.

One of the first areas of my focus was to build links with town Chambers across Dorset to strengthen the voice of business. This took time to achieve and Weymouth and Portland Chamber of Commerce were the first Chamber to become an Associate of Dorset Chamber and we now have Associate relationships with most town Chambers in Dorset.

In 2014, after several clandestine communications with the Cabinet Office, we were asked to organise and host a visit with then Prime Minister David Cameron. We were given literally 2 working days’ notice to bring 100 people together only with the knowledge it would be an event to remember. I met the Prime Minister at the event and was asked with literally a few minutes notice to speak on stage with him. There was widespread media coverage and regardless of politics, I felt immensely proud of our Chamber with the positioning and PR this gave us.

One important step for me was repositioning our then ‘Patrons’ to ‘Business Partners’. To me, the term ‘Patrons’ felt a little old-fashioned and passive and I wanted a term that would suggest a more dynamic and active relationship. We consulted with all our Patrons and with universal agreement, we rebranded our Patrons to Business Partners. These are long-standing relationships over many years and our Business Partners are positioned as Champions of our Business Community and our Chamber. I’d like to record my thanks to our Business Partners for their great support.

By 2016, Brexit was clearly on the agenda and Dorset Chamber held a major conference with several expert speakers to discuss and attempt to comprehend the implications of leaving the EU. This was a groundbreaking event exploring a highly political and controversial subject and we received widespread media coverage (including from BBC News). We also approached both local authorities and were successful in securing funding to deliver a Brexit Advice Service, offering advice and support on the issue to any Dorset business.

In 2016, we also launched our Young Chamber programme, helping build links between education and business in preparing our young people for their future careers. The programme was funded entirely through business sponsorship without any public sector income. The programme ran for 3 years and many employers, young people and schools in Dorset were involved and benefited from the programme.

As we modernised as a Chamber, it became increasingly clear that our office was very dated and not portraying the type of business we wanted to be. In 2016 our office had a complete refit in our colours of magenta, white and blue and to this day, provides a much fresher, modern and brighter environment to our team and visitors. 

2018 was an important year for Dorset Chamber as we successfully tendered to deliver the Dorset Gateway Service on behalf of the Dorset LEP, a valuable business advice and signposting service. This was significant in underlining our position in the centre of the Dorset business community and we were well placed to deliver this. Open to all businesses across Dorset, the Gateway served a huge number of businesses over 4 years, providing particularly vital support to so many businesses in distress during the pandemic.

It had become clear to many of us that it was time for a rebrand for Dorset Chamber, a move away from the lengthy italic name with a new logo that was fresher and much more digital friendly. Working with our Business Partner Digital Storm, we soon had a new, contemporary logo and had also lost the “of Commerce and Industry” in our name. The new brand and logo bedded in seamlessly and still looks great today.

2019 was an important year with the launch of our new monthly printed magazine Dorset Business Focus and it seems incredible that the magazine is now exactly 5 years old. The magazine is a glossy coffee table publication and appears in venues and offices across Dorset. Content is supplied by our members and the magazine is an important platform in telling the stories of the incredible businesses we have in Dorset.

The following year saw further success in tendering for business support programmes with the award of a contract from Dorset LEP for the delivery of a series of Peer Network programmes, open to businesses across Dorset. With highly relevant and topical content, bookings were strong and the programmes filled quickly.    

Early in 2020, we saw Covid begin to reach the UK and quickly take hold. Recognising the risks to our members through events, we were the first Chamber in the UK to suspend our events programme in March, stating we would return in June. Incredibly it would be 577 days until we did another in-person event. We moved our events online and saw a tremendous response, with upwards of 100 people regularly attending. Those events provided a great opportunity for people to connect, catch up and mutually support each other. The sense of community and friendship in a crisis was incredible.

With several of my team furloughed and others all home-based, I spent a year alone in the Chamber offices and it was during this time that I began to record videos for sharing on social media, explaining the support and guidance that was available for businesses during this incredibly difficult time. The videos gained huge traction and were welcomed by the business community. I ended up recording around 50 videos and people still sometimes comment to me how helpful they were. I believe we were possibly the most visible Chamber of Commerce in the UK during the pandemic.

Back to work, 2021 saw our acclaimed menopause awareness campaign, raising awareness for both men and women on the impact of the menopause on women in the workplace. The campaign took the form of events with experts for both women and men “Let’s Talk About the Menopause” as well as a social media campaign, articles in the media and people being honest and sharing the impact of the menopause on them. The campaign was an incredible success and we were hailed as leaders in tackling and talking about what still is a highly taboo subject.

2022 saw us really develop our focus on ESG and wellbeing. With support from both local authorities, we ran a series of events all covering different aspects of ESG. We also launched our GU6 programme, supporting the positive mental wellbeing of our business leaders who can so often be overlooked. Huge thanks to our wellbeing sponsor Lester Aldridge.

To close, 2023 has also been another great year for Dorset Chamber. We launched the Future Leaders Forum with the support of Mazars, a specific forum to support the personal and professional development of people in the workplace under 30. The programme has been a huge success. Thus year also saw the launch of the Dorset Business Festival, a major series of business events culminating in the return of the prestigious Dorset Business Awards after a 4 year hiatus. The festival was a huge success with over 800 people attending over 4 days. 2024 will see the return of the festival.

After 10 years I feel incredibly proud of our achievements and this was recognised this year with being in the top 5 for Chamber of the Year. I am proud of the connected, professional, inclusive and approachable community we have developed and will absolutely continue to focus on doing the absolute best I can. There is still so much we want to achieve.

A huge thank you to everyone who has supported me over the years.

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