Uckfield Chamber of Commerce – plans for its future: new Chamber President

How many years have you been a member of the Chamber?

Uckfield Chamber logo

Joining Uckfield Chamber of Commerce was one of the first things I did when I set up in business; it was something I wanted to do from the outset and went hand in hand with membership of professional and technical organisations.  We have therefore been members from day one of starting the company.  I’ve worked with many members of the Chamber in the past and joining the Chamber was a great way to show support and solidarity with the local business community.  It’s an enjoyable way of keeping up to date, contributing to discussions on matters of interest and meeting with other business people in a more relaxed setting.

Have you had business from your membership?

I didn’t join with the intention of generating more business directly from membership.  The networking side of the Chamber is certainly important, but to think of it solely in those terms undervalues the broader work of the organisation and what one can achieve through membership.  To my mind the Chamber exists to fulfil three main roles.  Firstly, it acts as a voice for the business community, who although they contribute significantly to national and local government through tax, have no right to vote.  The Chamber goes some way to giving businesses a voice and can lobby collectively on matters of concern.  Secondly, the networking opportunities are very much an integral part of Chamber life and our meetings are a great way to get to know other businesses and build links with them.  I know my own company has certainly strengthened its relationship with other businesses in the town as a direct result of the connection through the chamber and this in turn has helped to raise our profile.  We’ve secured a number of personal recommendations from other Chamber members and are pleased to have been able to reciprocate these.  The third element of Chamber membership is help and support for local businesses.  We have a number of truly world class companies based in and around Uckfield who are leaders in their respective fields.  We also have a very large number of smaller businesses run by local entrepreneurs.  Ask just about any business owner and they will tell you that at times it can be a lonely and challenging task.  Equally even businesses which are successful and authorities on their core products have to deal with issues which require specialist knowledge and experience.  The Chamber gives our members the opportunity to link to and work with others in similar circumstances and who may be able to offer advice and guidance.  We can’t promise all the answers, but there will almost always be someone who can help in finding the way.

What made you decide to apply to become the new Chamber president?

I joined the Chamber Committee because I felt I could contribute positively to Chamber and bring my experience of business and property to the skill set already in place.  Becoming President was never really on my radar but when our past President stepped down as a result of relocating out of the area, it was apparent that somebody had to step up to the role.  With a little encouragement I was content to put my name into the hat and then let the members decide on my suitability.  It is a very humbling experience to have the trust of others and something I am very grateful for.

How do you anticipate growing the Chamber membership further?

Before answering that, I think it is important to recognise that Uckfield has a very successful and popular Chamber, which is well supported and has done many good things to boost the town’s profile and champion the needs of local businesses.  The challenge for me and the rest of the Committee is how we build on that and preserve the best of what we have, whilst adapting to the needs of modern commerce.  A particular concern of mine is reaching out to those businesses who aren’t able to come to the general meetings or perhaps feel uncomfortable speaking in front of what can be quite sizeable audiences.  Every member has something to contribute and every view is valued.  We need to find ways to make it easier for members to engage with us.  As we do that and demonstrate the inclusive nature of the Chamber, I believe a natural growth in membership will follow.  As an organisation we need to demonstrate the benefits of membership and if we get that right, our numbers will grow.

Do you have any plans to improve the Chamber?

There are two main challenges as I see it:

Firstly we have to build on the relationship we have with our members, increase our numbers and improve our communications.  The greater our numbers, the louder our voice and the more inclusive we are in our dealings with the membership, the better we are able to harness the power of their experience, knowledge and suggestions.   I’ve said above that we need to find new ways to engage with our members.  The Chamber meetings are popular and successful, but they don’t suit all and we have to reach out to those who would prefer to contribute in other ways.  Social media offers another route which we haven’t fully exploited in the past and which I am keen to make better use of.  The Chamber’s Facebook and Twitter feeds have been considerably more active since my appointment and have been a good conduit to reach a wider section of the members.  I sent a personal note to all members immediately after my appointment to set out some of our initial aims and encourage a greater sense of community.  I followed that with various interviews in which I’ve stressed the need for the Chamber to become more inclusive and more proactive in its role.

The second challenge is how to improve the effectiveness of the Chamber as a lobbying body and organisation of influence.  We have been very vocal in our views on several local issues but it is now time to move into a more positive phase where we highlight what we can do to make things work and make the town a better place to live and do business.  We achieve that through our links with our partner agencies and by lobbying positively with constructive proposals.  There is a huge amount of experience, talent and passion in the membership and the potential to make a real difference.  I want to move to a position where the Chamber’s views are actively sought in the knowledge that the responses will be well thought out, reasoned and presented with both authority and respect.

As the Chamber has been involved with the changes in Uckfield High St, are you planning to continue with this and what are your views?


Town sign

The High Street works are clearly a major source of concern to many and the Chamber will undoubtedly be closely involved in representing business interests as the work progresses.  A great deal has been said in the past about those concerns and it is clear that there are some very strong views over the merits of the work.

Uckfield High Street

My personal view is that the scheme will lead ultimately to a better, more attractive High Street but that transition will be a painful process with the burden of the disruption falling disproportionately on a relatively small number of businesses.  It isn’t acceptable for us as a Chamber and indeed for the town as a community to expect those businesses directly affected by the roadworks to bear that issue alone.  We all want a modern, attractive High Street, but that will be of little use if it is populated by empty shops and businesses.  We need to find ways to help those affected by getting the message out that we have an excellent variety of goods and services and that Uckfield will remain a great place to shop throughout the construction phase.

There is a great deal of work going on to explore these messages and find ways to promote the town whilst the works are underway.  We’ve seen in the recent success of the Christmas Late Night Shopping event how much can be achieved when the town works together and I really want to capture that spirt and enthusiasm.  Uckfield is a strong town and I sense a real determination to overcome these challenges.  Our role as a Chamber is to co-ordinate, listen to our members and bring the benefit of their experience and suggestions to the table.  I genuinely believe we can make a positive contribution to the planning and execution of the works and have extended an invitation to the County Council and other interested parties to work with us in a spirit of co-operation.

Some small business may find it hard to budget for Chamber membership. Do you have any plans to make membership more affordable for smaller businesses?

Although we perhaps hear the word “austerity” a little less frequently these days, there is no doubt that all businesses are looking carefully at their cost base and will naturally want to see value for money in respect of all expenditure.  That said, I believe membership of the Chamber represents an excellent investment and a fantastic opportunity to be part of the local business community.  When compared to other networking groups, the cost of annual membership is relatively modest and at around £2 per week, I don’t believe the cost is prohibitive.  What I want to concentrate on is adding value, so that businesses get the very best out of their membership and can see that through joining the Chamber they have a tangible way of influencing how the town grows and develops.

Article Written by Bernard Oldfield of Oldfield-Smith for Sue Edwards Marketing

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