Speaker Jeffrey Tobin

On the heels of its selection as the Chamber of the Year for 2020 in Pennsylvania, the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce on Friday celebrated its 108th year in business, rallied its members for ongoing recovery from the burdens and challenges laid upon them by the COVID-19 pandemic, and offered encouragement for not only surviving but thriving in post-coronavirus years.

Due to the pandemic, the chamber’s annual fete lacked the formality of a suit-and-tie and heels-and-pearls attire and the informality of meeting up with friends and associates, perhaps for the first time since the last chamber luncheon. Missing were the holiday season overtones and the sumptuous meal traditionally served to guests numbering in the hundreds.

Instead, scores of chamber members and guests logged on through the Zoom app to the business session and keynote remarks by Jeffrey Tobin, former owner of Henry Hall Office Products and an ex-Verizon franchisee in Indiana, now making a name and career as a coach and motivational speaker for events around the globe.

Two keys that he offered business leaders for rebuilding their organizations following the havoc wreaked by the pandemic are to abandon the past and be selective about moving forward.

Tobin compared the destruction of coronavirus to the devastation of tsunamis, such as one that without warning in 1876 slammed the coast of Japan and killed 25,000 people and another, with only minutes of notice, that ravaged the coasts of Indonesia in 2004.

“That wiped out 230,000 people in one day. Now we have lost 250,000 people just in this past year in the United States,” Tobin said. “That COVID monster that has arrived was a surprise like those tsunamis.

“Everything that we have known has kind of been raked back into the ocean never to be seen again, and our lives have been disengaged. We have become disoriented … and disintegrated. We used to have a normal integrated life before COVID came along … and took away things we have always known. … Things will never be the same — not just loss of life, but financially for our businesses, and in our personal lives — mentally, physically, spiritually, in all these ways, that COVID monster has come out of the ocean and we will never be the same again.”

Rebuilding became a necessity for tsunami-stricken areas. Today, American business owners must follow the lead after the pandemic.

“You can’t say, ‘I wish we had all the things the way they used to be.’ You can’t hang onto that anchor of the past because it’s gone,” Tobin said. “Maybe some of you want things to go back to normal, for things not to be disintegrated but to be reintegrated to the way they were. But we know they can’t be, and it’s hard to let go of the past.”

Tobin challenged viewers to take an immediate and heartfelt accounting of their lives and assets and to imagine starting over, subjecting their lives to a “mental tsunami” to realize such a stark situation.

“Imagine your business being on the shore of Indonesia and suddenly the warning signals go off. You have 40 minutes before the tsunami hits,” Tobin said. “The first thing you do is worry about loss of life and tell everyone to go inland to high ground. Next, you have 20 minutes. ‘What can I salvage before the tsunami comes and takes everything away? What are the things that are the most important to me?’”

Computers, data, cash, product molds, Tobin suggested, are obvious. But take people and relationships, he said.

“That’s the way to think of it, psychologically,” he said. “What can I do to rebuild in the future based on what I have today, not the anchor of the things that got washed away. Not the things that may be holding me back psychologically.

“Think about what would happen if you would walk away with the most important things that you have,” Tobin challenged his audience.

He compared it to his own experience as the new owner of Henry Hall Office Products in 1992, when he had some warning of a tsunami-like force that had already begun to destroy half the office supply shops in the U.S.

“They didn’t get bought out. They were demolished — by Staples. This was the new thing and it was wiping out businesses. I planned, I prepared, I thought about what am I going to need to take with me into the future. I had the time,” Tobin said. His plan included getting rid of stock and inventory, dealing products nationally through warehouses and consulting other small companies that had survived Staples for their advice.

“So that’s what I’m asking you to consider right now. For your own business, for your own life, I’m asking you to have a mental tsunami and to consider for yourself, for your organization, for your business, what would happen if you had 20 minutes to grab the most important things that you have. Write those things down and keep track of those things. And not only that, what new mission might you have?”

“What kind of future can you build for your company or your life? Look to the future where you give up the stuff that wasn’t necessary, devise your own future and some amazing things can happen for you.”

In other business Friday:

• Chamber Chairman Jim Kinneer, the board’s leader the last two years, welcomed Vice Chairman Steve Drahnak to take the reins for a two-year term starting Jan. 1. Dave Reed will succeed Drahnak as vice chairman.

Kinneer counted the Indiana County Ready soft-skills advocacy program for area high school students, the revision of the chamber’s membership dues structure and the chamber’s first women’s summit as hallmarks of his term.

“Coming into my second year, we had many plans and initiatives in mind to build upon what was accomplished in my first year,” Kinneer said. “Our plans, like many others, were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the crisis of the pandemic also created an opportunity that he chamber embraced.

“The chamber has pivoted in the past year to be a resource and an advocate for local business, and to help sustain our local economic base during this time. It has helped to connect businesses to resources on reopening and access to financial assistance. During this time, the chamber has served members as well as non-members toward the greater good of our community, and I think we should be very proud of the efforts that have been made.”

Kinneer told chamber members that the executive committee produced statements of mission, vision and values for the chamber, and reset the chamber’s priorities and initiatives.

“The value of this process really has been in the conversations and discussions that have occurred during its creation and that will continue,” he said.

President Mark Hilliard, who assumed the post in mid-2018, said he relied on Kinneer as he took over the job.

“I feel fortunate during my first two years that I had his experience to guide me, and I think we both can say that neither of us would have predicted how these years would have gone, both the ups and the downs,” Hilliard said. “I’m thankful that there were a lot more ups.

“But Jim’s passion for workforce development really helped to launch Indiana County Ready and our workforce initiatives.”

• The chamber members approved the Nominations Committee’s recommendations to retain Clinton Smith and Robert Walbeck for their second three-year terms and to elect Eric Neal, CEO of the YMCA of Indiana County, and Mark Bolovich of Indiana Regional Medical Center as new members of the board.

• Hilliard said the agency would work hard to remain a reliable resource for its business members in Indiana County and thanked the office staff and corporate sponsors who helped to sustain the chamber through the pandemic.

He said the next honorees to be enshrined in the Indiana County Business Hall of Fame — the 2020 class, which was to be inducted at a banquet in June — would be celebrated at an event to be scheduled as pandemic conditions allow, sometime in spring 2021 at the Kovalchick Convention & Athletic Complex.

The class includes John Glass, Fred Musser, Christine Toretti, the late Frank Gorell and the late R. Hastie Ray.

• Hilliard said the chamber’s Healthiest Employer Challenge was hampered by the pandemic but was completed in part.

“With 49 participants, we logged 27,723,364 steps and we lost a combined total 155 pounds,” Hilliard said.

The individual step challenge winner was Melanie Matson and individual weight loss champion was Karla Blair, both of Elderton State Bank, who both won $50 gift cards, Hilliard said. The overall Healthiest Employer was the team from Hilton Garden Inn.

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.