Edmonton Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Janet M. Riopel
Edmonton Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Janet M. Riopel poses for a photo in her office in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015. The Chamber is undergoing a new branding initiative and Riopel is their new president. She previously sat on the board of directors in 1996. (Ian Kucerak/Edmonton Sun/QMI Agency)

As its brand-new president and CEO Janet Riopel would agree, running the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce is a complex thing.

So many possibilities, so many requests, so many mandates, so many members – 2500 of them - wanting this, that and everything else in return their $400 per year membership.

Yet the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce has been one of Canada’s most successful, being the collective voice for Edmonton business, and transcending that role to be a knowledgeable and respected advocate for the city and region as a whole.

Leadership has been pivotal to the chamber’s high profile. The executive director is given the lofty title of President and CEO. The board chair may be front and centre, but it’s only a one year term. Chairs come and go. The real power in the chamber of commerce lies in the office of the President and CEO.

Marty Salloum ran the chamber very well for 18 years, building its profile, reputation and credibility. Salloum’s successor in 2013 was James Cumming, a most successful entrepreneur and corporate CEO, a former NAIT board chair with a community-leadership resume as long as your arm. But after 16 months on the job, Cumming has opted for another form of civic service and is now the Edmonton-Centre Conservative candidate for the upcoming 2015 federal election.

Riopel didn’t think about the job until urged to apply. Then, of course, it became apparent to all that her skill-set was custom-designed for the position.

Community involvement – Past chair of MacEwan University, the United Way campaign and of the chamber itself, many moons ago. Check.

Business track record – land developer for several decades, most lately as general manager for sub-division builder Walton Developments. Check

Communicator and proven problem-solver – Riopel was brought into the city government by past Mayor Steve Mandel, to be Edmonton’s point-person in re-building the then-shattered relationship with Metropolitan Edmonton’s 23 other municipalities - constructing what has become the Capital Region Board. Janet ran community consultations for the Katz Group leading up to city council’s approval of the now-under-construction downtown arena. Check.

Political savvy: A behind-the-scenes strategist, Riopel has been a key player on major political campaigns, of different parties, at the mayoralty, provincial and federal levels. “I do like politics,” she says with a smile. Check!

Network: Is there any political, social or business leader in Edmonton that Riopel does not know? Check.

Officially introduced at the annual Chamber Ball on Friday, Jan. 30, and only on the job since late December, Riopel is in full-bore listening mode.

But within the Chamber’s well-defined Strategic Priorities going into 2015, she has thoughts.

Northern Relations: Riopel sees youth across the Edmonton service hinterland – Northern Alberta, Northern B.C., Northwest Territories and Yukon – as a barely tapped resource in meeting the on-going skilled labour shortage. “If we can develop their talent, provide the education, they will have meaningful careers.”

Great Northern City: Riopel emphasizes the intangibles of taking pride in where we live, of building that pride for both social and business purposes. “We have great quality of life, great social systems, lots of disposable cash. We live in a great city and region.” The chamber, she says, will be a big part of all city-building initiatives.

Workforce Development: Northern Alberta’s top priority, says Riopel. Chamber members put a secure and skilled labour supply at the top of every needs questionnaire.

Strengthening the Region: Probably the initiative that is closest to becoming reality. The chamber has long advocated that Edmonton be marketed as a metropolitan region of 1.2 million, not a city of 800,000. The Capital Region Board is now exploring ways and means to bring Metropolitan Edmonton together as one big happy family, at least for marketing purposes. The chamber is all-in, Riopel says, with other regional Chambers of Commerce.

Expanding our Markets: It’s a no-brainer. If Edmonton is to be a world-class city, it must be out there in the world, selling our products and expertise to Eastern Canada, the United States, from Chile to China.

“No one person, no one organization, can do these things on their own,” says Riopel. “Partnerships and collaborations to achieve these priorities are at the top of my list.”

As for the price of oil - $44 and dropping – Riopel is reflective. “This could be a year to take a deep breath, for sober second thoughts. I personally think it (low oil and gas prices) won’t be long-term. There’s always a positive – our members might have more stable work forces. This could be a year to plan for the future, and be ready to kick it back up when prices recover.”

FACTOIDS

The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce

  • 126 years old in 2015
  • About 2,500 members
  • Average cost of membership, $400 per year
  • Advocates to all three levels of government on behalf of Edmonton businesses.
  • Provides business services to its members
  • Policies currently under development: Building out the downtown pedway system; movement by trucks and rail around the city; diversification of the manufacturing sector; advocating regulatory policies to enable the moving of energy and energy products to world markets; tax simplification.