Chamber President is All About Business
By Tracey Dewhurst
Seacoast Scene, Wednesday, June 30, 2010
[The following article is courtesy of Seacoast Scene.]
When B. J. "Doc" Noel took the job as President of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce, he was told it was an interim position, due to last for a year, maybe a year and a half. His goal was to run it like a business. Even though The Chamber is a non-profit organization, it needed to be solvent, "in the black" according to Doc, to function properly. There were utilities to pay and rent for the in-town offices, staff salaries and monies needed for up front costs like insurance and tent rental fees for the Seafood Festival, the biggest annual event the Chamber puts on, before most of the revenue from the event had been generated. And there were cuts that needed to be made.
"Supermarkets net 1% of sales as profit," Doc, the former owner and operator of the chain grocery Prescott Farms says. "You count paper clips, literally."
It was at his father's general store, F.H. Prescott's in Auburn, New Hampshire that Doc started to learn the workings of the grocery business. At eight years old he was sweeping floors, trimming the lettuce and putting out the bananas. "My father was a strong-willed man, but I had tremendous respect for him," Noel says. "He gave me the opportunity to learn and make money. It was small dollars, but it taught me to save."
After attending Northeastern and working for a spell in San Diego, Doc launched Prescott Farms retail grocers in 1962 in Seabrook, New Hampshire with his father and two brothers. The store eventually grew to a fifteen unit chain of supermarkets throughout New England. They were one of the top 50 employers in the State of New Hampshire, with 400 people on staff at one time and one of the top 50 revenue grossing independently owned grocers in the state as well. His family simultaneously owned dining and lodging establishments which they sold in the early 1970's. Doc started to divest Prescott Farms in 1997 when his brother Richard died, but with so many successful years in business he learned efficient operating practices, how to delegate responsibility and place confidence in his employees.
Ten years after he took the 'interim' job as Chamber President, Doc Noel is still heading up the organization, unobtrusively managing his staff from the second floor office on Lafayette Road with views of the salt marsh and Hampton Beach in the distance. At 72, he considers retiring at the end of every season, "...but that is up to the Board," he says with a hint of a smile. His role at Prescott Farms was overseeing the operations of the fifteen stores. He was always on the road, managing people, dealing with sales reps and planning the advertising. He enjoyed the fast pace and his energy level, without exaggeration, still rivals any twenty something. He jumps up to show off one brochure that details sponsorship opportunities for the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival or a flyer listing all the benefits of Chamber membership.
With approximately 65% of the Chamber's budget devoted to promoting tourism, The Hampton Chamber differs vastly from most Chambers of Commerce in the State. The beaches, from Rye to Seabrook, bring people to the area all year long and those people spend money in restaurants and supermarkets up and down Route One, not just at the beaches. "I never realized how important the Chamber is to Hampton Beach," he says, until he became President.
The Chamber Beach Office is open seven days a week from 9:30am to 8:30pm during the season as a resource for tourists and locals. The staff there answer questions about lodging options, weather or tides in addition to recording formal complaints or praise of local businesses and supplying information about dining and shopping on the Seacoast and special events like Children's Week in August and Seafood Festival in September.
Still, one of the first changes Doc proposed to the Board of Directors when he took over was to lose 'Beach' from the organization name, making it the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce. One of the hardest parts of his job is keeping all 420 business members happy, and the new name reflected what Doc saw as a more inclusive moniker for the varied communities the Chamber represents. As far as keeping all the members happy goes, "it's impossible, but we listen, try to adjust and make subtle changes where we can," Noel says.
Reluctant to talk about himself or take credit for his leadership role, he makes sure to emphasize the "collective team effort" that drives the Chamber, from his Assistant Katie Curran to Pat Morgenstern's role as the Director of Membership Development, Ginni McNamara as the Director of Special Events and Seafood Festival Chairperson Jude David among a number of other staffers like longtime Beach Information Center employees Julie Leonard and Joe Bolis. Doc's approach is hands-off when it comes to managing his staff. He trusts them to run with any project that he assigns and their longevity working for him speaks volumes about his leadership.
Part of the Chamber's mission statement is to promote the economic growth of the service area, which Noel sees as moving in a positive direction. The state's commitment of nearly $15 million dollars to improve the Sea Shell Stage and Beach Information Center will be a major improvement to the Beach and hopefully inspire some of the surrounding businesses to modernize as well.
"We're glad to see Mrs. Mitchell's Gift Shop is rebuilding after the fire," Doc says. "The whole area is going to have to upgrade. You can't wear a $1000 suit with a fifty cent tie."
In a snappy quip, Doc Noel can diagnose problems and recommend solutions with the perspicacious eye of a neurosurgeon, but he is a "Doc" in name only. Since he was 12 years old, he had wanted to be an MD and everyone from his Mother and Father to his siblings called him "Doc". After realizing that studying wasn't one of his favorite pastimes, he gave up the calling, and took up business management. The name stuck - the community should be glad that the calling didn't.