Whether it’s a small family-owned company opening a co-working space, or a large corporate expansion in the city, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Chris Steinocher is bound to be there with a large pair of scissors, celebrating the ribbon cutting. The Chamber staff, under Steinocher, has worked diligently for years to grow and amplify the St Petersburg business community.
Despite years of improvements and wins, it wasn’t until this past week that Steinocher handed a check to Hancock Whitney Bank that finally cleared a long-term debt that once had the organization on the brink of bankruptcy and dissolving.
Steinocher first connected with the St Petersburg Chamber in the 1990s when serving as COO and Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a job he held for 17 years. In late 2010 he left the Partnership to become President and CEO of the Chamber.
During those early Chamber meetings, members were working to save the Vinoy hotel, which had been closed for two decades and had fallen into disrepair. Steinocher was impressed by the efforts.
“I was amazed with the can-do pioneer spirit, but when I returned in 2010, I realized how morally, spiritually and financially bankrupt we were,” he said.
“When I got here, we did not have a clear financial picture. On Day 3, I realized we were the largest Chamber in the region with 2,400 members, but only 666 paying members.”
With the limited fee collections and crippling debt, the Chamber struggled to pay its roughly 20 employees.
“My payroll for the first month of January was going to be over $100,000, and I only had $54,000 in the bank. I owed $798,000,” Steinocher recounted.
“Board members came up with different options. One was to go bankrupt, which we already were, another was to close operations or sell the building,” he explained.
The building, located at 100 2nd Ave. N., was purchased in a $2.5 million deal. Today, that decimal has shifted and the property is now valued at $25 million, according to Steinocher.
“Selling the building would’ve solved the financial issues, but now you have left your city and organization with no place to go. We decided to hunker down,” he said.
Through an existing relationship with Hancock Whitney Bank, Steinocher drafted a financing and internal reorganization plan.
The new plan cut costs, including jobs. Executives re-interviewed to retain their positions.
Steinocher led by example. To save on custodial work, he’d pick up a broom himself and get to work.
Members claim that he also forfeited his personal paychecks.
“At the moment, I didn’t have enough money for the first and second payrolls and was scrambling,” he said. “But there were good guys willing to step up.”
Fast forward: Today, the Chamber now has over $400,000 in the bank.
“We asked everybody to reconstitute under new high values. I valued my life, my brand and staying transparent,” Steinocher said.
He also worked to rekindle severed relationships with neighboring organizations and to form new initiatives.
“I asked the Leadership St. Pete team to come back to the table. We treated them so poorly under the previous administration. They are a 54-year-old group creating some of the best leaders in the community,” Steinocher said. Today, LSP is a division within the Chamber.
Additionally, the Chamber was instrumental in establishing The Greenhouse, a resource center for startups. It originally operated as the Business Assistance Center and was re-named by former mayor Bill Foster.
The organization also created the Grow Smarter economic development strategy in 2014, which lead to the formation of the St. Pete EDC and the Innovation District in 2016, according to the Chamber’s website.