By Paul L. Gaba
A familiar face is taking over as the new CEO of the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce.
Mary Lou Bedford, who has served as executive vice president of the Central Palm Beach County Chamber since October 2013, was appointed its new chief executive officer on June 30.
Bedford, a resident of Wellington for the past 22 years, said she is excited to take the leadership position and is looking forward to building the chamber’s membership and involvement in area communities.
“Our role, in the big picture, is to make decisions that will positively impact the business community,” Bedford said. “The role of the chamber is to be advocates for businesses. We want to be informed on the initiatives and issues in the central county that can affect businesses and make sure we are getting behind these issues, and driving economic development initiatives that will help sustain businesses.”
Bedford replaces former CEO Wayne Burns, whose 18-month tenure was marked by many changes at the chamber, including less of an emphasis on producing community events and more emphasis on business-to-business programs. Under Burns, the chamber also sold its building on Southern Blvd. to the Town of Loxahatchee Groves and moved into new offices in the original Wellington Mall.
“Mary Lou has a heart for small businesses and a passion for the community and businesses we serve,” Chamber Chairman Thomas Bean said. “The board selected Mary Lou because she has the ability to successfully lead this organization and advance our strategic economic development initiatives and member services.”
Bedford will meet with the 29-member board monthly, and will work with her team of five staff members and two interns to build membership and help member businesses be successful.
“What is important right now is to reach out to the municipalities in our footprint and find the issues and initiatives they are focusing on,” Bedford said. “I’ve already had talks with [Business Development Board President] Kelly Smallridge about reinforcing our role in helping them to achieve their goals. I think the most important thing is that there needs to be collaboration and open communication.”
Bedford said one of her first goals will be to sit down with local leaders and form collaborative groups. The Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce covers roughly one-third of the county, from the Glades area east to Lake Worth and West Palm Beach, including here in the western communities. “It’s a huge area, but I think it’s important, because every area has its unique needs and character,” Bedford said. “We certainly can be aware of the issues in each of these areas and help put forward initiatives and groups that can work together for sustaining businesses.”
While the chamber avoids political endorsements, it is active in working with elected officials to determine how their policies impact local businesses and business owners. Bedford said she looks forward to setting up an economic forum where local businesses can meet with elected representatives from the area for an overview of how initiatives in Tallahassee will affect them.
“It’s important, no matter who is in office as your governor, that you have good communication with the governor’s office. But it’s important as a chamber that we remain neutral,” Bedford said. “Anything that is pro-business or has an economic development impact, we will get behind, but we do not get involved in backing candidates. We’re Switzerland when it comes to that.”
One big issue has been the Affordable Care Act and its impact on businesses in a variety of ways. Bedford said that she has been working with area hospitals and medical leaders to get a better handle on how the ACA affects businesses large and small.
“The hospitals, the doctors, the insurance companies, are all working collaboratively… on where healthcare is going,” she said. “What they’re finding is, obviously, better healthcare, preventative healthcare, working with your doctor, sharing records for patients, so you’re making sure you’re aware of what’s exactly going on with that patient.”
While the chamber has moved away from hosting festivals and events in favor of business-to-business workshops and economic development, Bedford said that the chamber has been putting together several community programs, including one that will be tied in to area high schools, because the youth of today are the business owners of tomorrow.
“We have a program through our Central Palm Beach Community Foundation called the YEA program — the Young Entrepreneurs Academy — and this is a nationwide chamber-based program,” Bedford said. “We will be doing a launch of the program in October. It’s a 10-month program for 24 students throughout central Palm Beach County and is an opportunity for these students to create their own businesses.”
Bedford said that at the end of the 10-month period, the students would be licensed and go before a panel to discuss and present their businesses or services. The chamber would also help these young entrepreneurs go back to their home schools and “pay it forward” by working with students in marketing groups such as DECA.
“I’m very excited for what we can do as a collective, as a chamber, to make an impact,” Bedford said.
Bedford holds a bachelor’s degree in communications, with concentrations in public relations and media, from California State University, Sacramento. Prior to taking over as executive vice president in 2013, she served as the marketing and public relations director for the chamber, where she led the rebranding initiative for the chamber’s creation through the merger of the Palms West and Lake Worth chambers of commerce in 2012.
For more information about the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, visit www.cpbchamber.com.
ABOVE: Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce CEO Mary Lou Bedford.