Q&A: Brian Cleary, Outgoing CEO, Clonmel and County Tipperary Chamber

Chamber CEO, Brian Cleary
Brian Cleary speaking at an event earlier this year

As he prepares for a new role outside the Chamber, InBUSINESS caught up with Brian Cleary who reflects on his seven years as Chief Executive of Clonmel Chamber of Commerce.


IB: You were CEO of Clonmel Chamber for close to seven years and headed up Tipperary Chamber for over one year. How did you enjoy Chamber life?

Chamber life for me can best be described using the phrase “never a dull moment”. Driving the development of both Clonmel and County Tipperary Chambers has been a tremendously positive project. Right now the Chamber is working on its second international network event that will take place in London at the headquarters of Sky Television, and working on an alternative plan for the revitalisation of town centres and much more. I’ve recently come back from the Associations World Congress in Berlin where I was invited to speak about the future of membership organisations and, in preparing that presentation, it brought to the fore a lot of my thinking about how Chamber executives worldwide will deal with an increasingly time-starved constituency.


IB: What are the burning issues currently facing businesses in Tipperary?

The county has faced many challenges in recent years. Some of those do not differ from those faced in other counties. However, Tipperary is now one county and there have been many challenges associated with the integration of services delivered by North Tipperary County Council and South Tipperary County Council. The integration issues have impacted on the business community. Furthermore, the county now straddles two regions and one of the greatest concerns that we had as a Chamber is that Tipperary will “fall between two stools” between the Mid-West and the South-East. Personally, I do believe that this has been the case as the county has lagged behind other areas in its ability to secure FDI and other forms of investment.

Our manufacturing sector is undergoing huge changes. In recent weeks two long established generic pharmaceutical manufacturing companies have closed with the loss of approximately 300 jobs. What many people may not know is that Tipperary has a very active pharma and medical device sector with companies such as Abbott Vascular, Boston Scientific, MSD and others and the loss of highly skilled jobs at a time like this is blow.


IB: In terms of having led the Chambers, where did you draw your inspiration from?

I have spent seven years in the Chamber industry and I have never come across an industry where people have been so willing to share and to help each other to grow. In that time I have built up excellent relationships with CEOs and staff members of Chambers in Ireland and in every part of the world. I won’t mention anyone in particular in Ireland in order to spare blushes and to ensure that I don’t leave anybody out.

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In the North American context I have learned so much from Mark Levin, who I was delighted to welcome to meet all of the CEOs of Irish Chambers in March of this year; Frank Kenny, Greg Durocher from Cambridge Chamber in Canada and many more. In the UK, I have worked for many years with Sue Froggatt who is one of the world’s leading experts on membership associations and she and I have become firm friends over my time at the Chamber. Outside of the industry itself, one of the most unique things about a Chamber is that it touches so many parts of the life of a community. As a result, having been a Chamber CEO gave me the opportunity to engage with a vast array of organisations and people who have given me ideas and that I have ‘sparked off’ to develop new initiatives.


IB: What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Now is not the time for modesty, I suppose! I am really proud of the fact that I have been able to lead an organisation that had a micro-focus on one distinct sector in a very small geographical area to being an all-county Chamber that now encompasses a wide range of business in all sectors. Last year, I was delighted to be able to bring my idea for a Chamber international chapter to fruition with the launch of the County Tipperary Chamber International Network. We hosted our first event on November 12th 2015 at the RBS HQ in Bishopsgate in London and we have developed the network since that first event.

All of this, and more, is being done to help member businesses to grow their companies and to be more successful. I was fortunate to work with a progressive board who were able to see the benefits of investing time and effort into developing the Chamber’s content marketing efforts. Our successes in this regard have been recognised globally and I was called on to deliver webinars to groups of Chambers and association executives all over the world on the issue. In short, if I was to sum up what I was most proud of it would be that I changed the perception of what a Chamber of Commerce is and what a Chamber can do.

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IB: What has been the greatest challenge in your career?

My time with the Chamber has been immensely rewarding and life enhancing. However, I joined in 2009 when the economy was turning and businesses were beginning to question the value of membership. I felt, at the time, that there was no other choice but to build an organisation anew that would be totally member-centric and ‘different’ to what was currently on offer. Doing that meant eschewing many of the ‘sacred cows’ of the Chamber world and that brought much ‘heat’ and anxiety from many. However, I believe that we have been proved right in developing the organisation in the way that we did. The challenges live on, albeit in a different form. However, the challenges that I faced in late 2009 were (to put it mildly) character building!


IB: What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given?

My mother, during her life, had much to say. However, I doubt if she ever thought that her advice to her middle son would ever end up in a business magazine. The one piece of advice that she constantly impressed on me from an early age, when I was trying to take shortcuts on my school homework and in the early years of my career when I was trying to reach a level without the requisite effort, was always that “there’s no substitute for hard work”. Those words have come to mind time and again, particularly at the Chamber, as I tried to drive the organisation forward. There is an argument to say that the world is now over-run with motivational pieces and sage advice. I think that this one simple sentence from my mother has guided me much better than any of the utterances of industry leaders.


IB: Despite your departure, what will continue to be the key objectives of the Chambers for the latter part of 2016?

The Chamber is fixated on helping its members to grow. It is not just an events company and in late 2016 the Chambers will continue to drive growth in member companies through information, connections, training and advice. The organisation works consistently to ensure that the Chamber is as member-centric as it can be and that it is working to grow their businesses every day.