A self-described “die-hard New Yorker,” Christine Barney now happily calls South Florida home.
“I was ‘forced’ to move to South Florida in 1989 for family reasons,” said Barney, now serving a one-year term as chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
“Kicking and screaming,” she said. “But within six months I loved it.”
Since then, Barney became a partner at her public relations firm (Rubin, Barney & Birger), sold the firm in 1997 to a global conglomerate and then bought it back in 2001, rechristening it rbb Communications.
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Miami has changed in that time, too. It is now a much more vibrant, culturally rich, urban city, Barney says.
But one constant in her time in the Magic City: the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, which Barney was chosen to lead as chairman for a one-year term that began in June. When asked how she ended up at the chamber, Barney replied: “It’s really more accurate to say how I started at the chamber.”
Her first boss, Bruce Rubin, “set the stage for the value of chamber participation on day one.”
When she returned to the firm in 2001, Barney said she realized that “no one was going to fill that role if it wasn’t me.”
As chairman, her priorities include encouraging the development of entrepreneurs, helping small and medium businesses to scale up, and bringing the chamber’s best minds together to attack the problems of traffic, affordable housing and the talent gap. She answered these questions from the Miami Herald via email.
Q: What do you see as the best role of the Chamber in Miami? Why did you take this role on?
A: The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce is the voice of South Florida business. It is Florida’s largest regional chamber, representing more than 400,000 member employees from the Keys to the Palm Beaches. The Chamber is one of our area’s most powerful entities that convenes and engages business, political and civic leaders. Our 27 committees work on international, local, statewide and federal issues to grow and improve business. Our South Florida Progress Foundation seeks to create the best urban environment for all citizens. I don’t have enough fingers to count the successes the Chamber has had in this community. Being the 108th chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce offers me a unique opportunity to have a 360-degree view of the business ecosystem and work to improve the quality of life for those who live and work in South Florida.
Q: What are the strengths Miami offers to local businesses?
A: Recently, the Chamber conducted its first executive business survey, in partnership with Kaufman Rossin, to compile insights and concerns about the business climate. Overwhelmingly, respondents felt our strengths were our location, diversity, positioning as an international city, favorable tax structure and thriving business climate. Every day new rankings come out showing Miami on top for leading indicators of success. Entrepreneurialism is in our DNA. This is a community that welcomes new ideas and we are building a supportive business ecosystem. In addition, we have world-class arts and cultural institutions, educational systems and entertainment/lifestyle offerings. This is a town that doesn’t give up or take no for an answer. We overcame obstacles to create the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, bring NBA and MLB teams to Miami, build the Port tunnel and much more.
Q: How do problems like infrastructure, a lack of affordable housing and the talent gap affect business in Miami? What other impediments do you see to doing business here?
A: The Chamber survey yielded no surprises when 45 percent of respondents reported that traffic is the hardest part of doing business here. Clearly, mobility is a key factor in attracting and retaining talent. Affordable housing is another driver in the talent equation. However, through concerted efforts of the business and educational community we are making real strides in closing the talent gap. The growth of our educational institutions has turned us into a college town that is now also recognized for its innovative K-12 education system. And the concern about our inability to attract and retain talent is being minimized by our vibrant urban core and the incredible growth in arts and cultural offerings. Miami is often criticized for its lack of a large corporate base, but we have built a community on the backs of small and medium size businesses who must not only start up, but scale up too. Any impediments these small businesses face are being eroded every day as new investors and resources come into our market.
Q: What initiatives do you plan to launch or expand at the Chamber to deal with those problems?
A: There are three planks to the Chamber strategy for the year ahead:
Miami is the entrepreneurial capital of the world. As the voice of South Florida business, the Greater Miami Chamber is the engine to drive successful entrepreneurs. To do this we will:
- Collaborate: Be the bridge to bring our members the resources they need to not only start up, but scale up. Identify and partner with organizations who can help (e.g., Knight Foundation, World Trade Center).
- Educate: Advocate for business issues among our local, regional and national political leaders. Present programming to inform and challenge our members and the community.
- Celebrate: Recognize the success of our entrepreneurs and showcase Miami as the world’s leading small business/entrepreneurial market.
- Build on the Chamber legacy as a convener and problem solver. For more than a century the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce volunteers have guided the region from a small seaside community to a global business and finance hub of the 21st century. The chamber is a force for positive change in business, transportation, education, the environment and other areas vital to this community. Our recent fly-in to Denver [to learn about transit] is a perfect example of the Chamber’s role in seeking out creative solutions and serving as a platform for many different players to come together to learn.
- Be accountable. We have created a dashboard of key performance indicators such as membership growth/retention, advocacy/idea wins, goals met and, of course, solid financial strength.
Q: Tell us about rbb, its business model and its clients. How has the company changed since you first joined?
A: When I first joined Bruce Rubin Associates in 1989, it was a small, strategic firm mostly focused in South Florida. Today, the rbb family of brands — rbb Communications, rbb Digital Park, Gibbs-rbb Strategic Communications (food and packaged goods marketing) — has 165 professionals in Miami, New York, Chicago and Raleigh and provides clients with a full range of communications services.
rbb Communications is known as the Champion of Breakout Brands working with global companies like DHL Express, Hampton by Hilton, Disney on Ice, Thomson Reuters, Cleveland Clinic, Bank of America and Duncan Hines to give them a competitive advantage and deliver business results. And locally based powerhouse brands like Florida Power & Light, Codina Partners, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and Florida East Coast Industries are among the many valued clients in our roster.
Our focus on setting new best practices has resulted in winning every major industry award in both the consumer and business-to-business sectors and being named US Agency of the Year four times in the last decade. And clients appreciate that we invest in their growth by providing up to 10 percent additional courtesy hours each month to brainstorm new ideas.
While like any business rbb Communications has seen change (including even our name this year from rbb Public Relations) it’s been change according to plan and a commitment to remaining true to our core value of being an employee-driven workplace which means employees choose, when, how and where they work. Our average staff and client tenure is 8.5 years, a rarity in this business. I always say those two numbers are not a coincidence — clients stay where the people stay and everyone wins.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
A: Do not be a jerk or tolerate jerks in your workplace or in your life. You will be happier, your business will do better, and everyone around you will benefit.
Current position: Chairman, Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce (through May); CEO and managing partner, rbb Communications (15 years).
Born: 1963 in Bronx, New York.
Education: B.S. communications, Ithaca College, 1985.
Personal: Married with three children. Author of “The Breakout Brand Strategy: An Evolutionary Approach to Creating Customer Passion.” Is an avid reader and “Christmas fanatic,” enjoying the season year round and owning a collection of more than 5,000 ornaments showcased on 12 trees. Served on boards in industry trade groups and volunteers with local schools.