ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Little did Tom Antram know when he took a college job answering phones at a
funeral home that he had embarked on a lifelong career in the mortuary industry.
“I didn’t have that aha moment that I just went ‘Ooh, I know exactly what I need to do (for a living),'” he said.
His professional arc revealed itself more gradually as one position at French Funerals & Cremations led to another. He found meaning in the work, even when he was simply transporting flowers between the service and the cemetery.
“I could observe what was happening, listen to the services and listen to life stories,” he said. “I still get chills when I hear different stories about how people affected others all around them. For me, it was just like ‘This is really cool’ – an opportunity to serve, an opportunity to walk home at night feeling like I have done something of value for another human being.”
He scrapped plans to go into sports broadcasting and continued on with French, where he has since risen to the position of president and CEO.
Antram is about to take on another role with long-term implications, although this time he has a better sense of direction.
He becomes board chairman of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce on Friday with a clear agenda. He will help guide the chamber through a carefully planned, less-is-more evolution that will carry forth for years to come.
In a move that reflects the chamber’s changing place in the community, the organization is cutting down on events and devoting most of its attention to a winnowed list of goals – improving education and public safety, and sparking Downtown development – a refined advocacy approach and better communication.
“We’ve kind of been doing a lot of things as a chamber, but we wanted to narrow it down to what are the three things – not this year, not next year, but over the next number of years – that we need to fix and that, as a chamber, we need to have a voice in,” Antram said. “Each of those tie back to our viability as businesses and (matter for) economic development in our community.”
Antram, 44, said he comes to the role both as a businessman who leads a company with 136 employees, but also as a father of two. He wants his two teenage daughters to build their careers in Albuquerque if they so choose, just as he has since moving here from his native Alamogordo to attend University of New Mexico.
“I’m passionate about that and I care about what Albuquerque looks like (in) the future,” he said. “It pains me when I hear negative stories coming out about our community because I believe this is the best community out there.”
The facts can be sobering. Albuquerque Public Schools’ four-year graduation rate has fallen to 61.7 percent. The city’s unemployment rate is improving, but was 5.6 percent in April compared to 5.0 percent nationally. Downtown Albuquerque’s office vacancy rate was 34.8 percent during the first quarter of the year, according to CBRE’s analysis.
And although the city saw a small drop in property crime based on the latest available FBI data, its overall crime rate has been trending upward for years.
Antram sees the chamber as a great way to effect the necessary change, especially with a refined approach that plays on its strengths as an advocate for business causes.
He said the chamber’s new vision was born during informal breakfast meetings he had with outgoing chair Liz Shipley and her predecessor Del Archuleta as far back as two years ago. They started bandying about ideas for what the chamber should look like in the future.
Antram said participation trends across all types of membership organizations, including the chamber, provided one impetus for the self-evaluation. The chamber has about 3,300 members today, down from about 4,000 five years ago. Officials attribute the losses in part to the recession, as well as the chamber cutting its health insurance plan. The organization’s annual budget sits around $2 million currently, but had once been as high as $2.5 million.
Shipley commissioned a group to work on the strategic plan. Antram said the process entailed studying other chambers around the country and focusing on “best practices.”
As a result, the chamber has decided to limit some activities – specifically in the events arena – in order to better tackle the problems deemed most detrimental to the city’s overall economic health, the ones with no simple fixes.
“We sat down and tried to focus on what are the issues we want to make the needle move on going forward? … It would be strategic and continue on, so that we wouldn’t have a change in focus from year to year from one chairperson to the next,” Antram said.
Terri Cole, the chamber’s CEO since 1983, said the association has had a fairly standard agenda for the past decade. But, with a board composed of about 60 people and thousands of members, the chamber generally tried to cover a lot of ground. Zeroing in on a few priorities makes it easier to find meaningful solutions to some of the community’s most fundamental problems.
To tackle more industry-specific issues, the chamber also has created eight “sector advocacy teams” that will meet regularly and steer the chamber’s advocacy in their individual areas, such as manufacturing or health care. Leaders say it will keep the chamber connected to each industry – and also more nimble and quicker to respond when concerns arise – but allows the larger body to maintain a day-to-day focus on the three key areas.
Diverting extra attention to those areas will mean eliminating many of the chamber’s more social activities. The annual event calender will shrink to 24 from 54, but Antram said the gatherings that remain should be “more meaningful for the members.”
Cutting back on events is indicative of a larger societal shift. Businesses no longer rely on the chamber to forge connections to other businesses, Cole said. Technology helps foster those relationships today.
And the chamber should be taking advantage of the same technology too, Cole said. The chamber has a new communications strategy that includes boosting its social media activities.
Antram said social media can be a tool for promoting the chamber’s advocacy and programming, and also potentially a way to reach a younger audience.
“We need to be engaged and active in all forms of social media to connect with that community, but we haven’t done a really good job of it until (recently),” Antram said.