Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, West Ottawa Board of Trade members agree to merger

Ian Faris
Ottawa Chamber of Commerce CEO Ian Faris, seen at the 2018 Orléans Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards gala in March. (Photo by Shawn Peters)

Members of Ottawa’s two largest chambers of commerce have voted nearly unanimously to merge their operations into a single organization.

On Tuesday, 78 of 80 voters at the West Ottawa Board of Trade cast their ballots in favour of a union with the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, and their Ottawa counterparts followed on Wednesday with a unanimous 43-0 vote for amalgamation.

The 123 total ballots cast represent about 10 per cent of the organizations’ combined members.

The heads of both organizations praised the outcome of the votes, saying Ottawa businesses will have more clout with one group representing their interests to various levels of government.

“It’s important that the business community speak as a strong voice.”

“It’s important that the business community speak as a strong voice,” said Ian Faris, CEO of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re able to better service our membership, we’re better able to represent those members at City Hall, at Queen’s Park and on the Hill in an advocacy fashion. Frankly, we want to have better, more cohesive policy created in those governments, and we want to be able to help fashion that. I think we can do that with a more consolidated group of businesses.”

This week’s votes were the culmination of a year-long drive to bring together the city’s three chambers of commerce. The Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and the West Ottawa Board of Trade signed a memorandum of understanding on May 22 to formally consolidate the two groups into “one strong chamber” pending the approval of their members.

One of the city’s three chambers remains on the sidelines, however.

Door still open for Orléans

The board of directors of the Orléans Chamber of Commerce refused to sign the MOU last month, citing concerns about lack of representation on the combined organization’s board and a desire to maintain control over its own finances. A membership vote on the question has been postponed until after the Orléans chamber elects a new board later this month.

Faris said the door is still open for Orléans, noting the MOU allows for the east-end business organization to join its two counterparts before Aug. 22.

The newly amalgamated group, which will be renamed the Ottawa Board of Trade, will see WOBOT’s membership, funds and operations largely folded into the Ottawa chamber’s. The combined entity will retain the OCC’s membership structure and primary downtown headquarters.

Faris said fears that the organization will be dominated by larger companies based in Ottawa’s core are unfounded.

“There seems to be a sense that the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce is the downtown chamber of commerce,” he said. “We’ve got a number of our board members that actually live and work in the east end, in the south end and in the west end. Already, there’s a fairly diverse representation in the Ottawa chamber board.”

WOBOT executive director Sueling Ching said some smaller members of her organization did express concerns about being overshadowed by larger companies in a bigger entity. But she said the benefits of being part of a larger, more influential business advocacy group far outweigh any potential drawbacks.

“It is important for Ottawa as the nation’s capital to have a stronger voice in business,” she said. “That can be achieved by working together instead of being fragmented.”

Ching, who spoke to OBJ after an event unveiling the results of the latest Ottawa Business Growth Survey, said the survey’s results reflect a host of issues facing local SMEs that a stronger chamber can help address, such as the need for better infrastructure, strategies to attract more top talent to the city and boosting the region’s competitiveness in global markets.

“I believe there is an opportunity for us to be better advocates, to help the decision-makers make better decisions and to be a more influential stakeholder at economic development tables,” she said.

A provisional board made of up 11 members from the Ottawa chamber and seven from West Ottawa will be established by July 1 to start hammering out the details of the merger. Among its tasks will be to set guidelines for a permanent board of directors that will be formed in the next 12-18 months and feature representation based on region, gender and business size and sector.

Although voter turnout was low, Faris said the organizations held nearly a dozen consultations with members and made the MOU public for them to read.

“I think the membership is fairly content that due diligence happened and that they had a good chance to be consulted and to get their viewpoints across,” he said.

– With files from Craig Lord