In his first year as president of what was formerly called The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Tom Baldrige experienced an adrenaline rush before introducing legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite to the business group’s annual dinner.
Some advice he got afterwards made Baldrige realize that he might be fed up.
“You know, you don’t have to shout,” Baldrige recalls being told.
Since that event with Cronkite in 2000, Baldrige has learned to modulate his natural enthusiasm at the Lancaster Chamber’s marquee event, led by world leaders such as Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush and Madeline Albright.
And in more than two decades leading the Lancaster Chamber, Baldrige has become more comfortable being a face and kind spokesperson for the local business community, a role he will leave when he retires on June 24 as chamber president and CEO.
“I’ve been doing it for 22 years, and I’m enjoying every minute of it, and even though it’s time for someone else, and I’m 100% comfortable with that,” the 62-year-old Baldrige said.
As he prepares to retire from the job that defines his career, Baldrige continues to praise Lancaster County’s “amazing business community,” which he helped guide through three setbacks, including the fall from the COVID pandemic. -19.
“We’re there to support businesses, and it’s never more important to support businesses than when they need it. And that’s when they need it most,” Baldrige said of the chamber’s pandemic response.
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Under Baldrige’s leadership, the 1,400-member chamber moved from Southern Market to East King Street, helped distribute $ 49 million in COVID relief funds to local businesses, and was twice named “Chamber of the Year ”in the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.
Baldrige said that while his goal is to “never be considered polarizing,” the chamber is not afraid to take the lead on issues that could be controversial, including a failed 2008 attempt to reorganize the county government. with a home rule charter, and recent advocacy for businesses to vigorously address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“It’s important that we accept the fact that the chamber isn’t just about the business community, it’s about the business community,” he said.
A pragmatic approach
A native of Allentown, Baldrige is a graduate of Ithaca College, where he majored in speech communication and majored in education. His professional experience includes working as a high school English teacher and being the scheduling coordinator for the late Dick Thornburgh when Thornburgh served as governor of Pennsylvania.
Baldrige spent five years in the Lancaster Chamber as executive vice president and director of government and public affairs before leading the Lancaster City Alliance, a group of CEOs dedicated to developing the city of Lancaster. He was brought back into the room as its leader in 2000, replacing Dan Witmer.
As he helps plan and organize mixers, educational seminars and roundtables that fill the chamber calendar, Baldrige said he believes the chamber program can have an impact because businesses have strong, common interest even if they disagree about. political or social issues.
“All they want to do is stay in business and do the best they can for their workers and their community,” he said. “And I believe it’s a common denominator of all businesses, and that’s the way I take the job to try to fulfill my role in the media of being a voice for businesses.”
Such a pragmatic approach is why Baldrige says the chamber discusses issues such as child care, something that can be looked at until an employee calls because they need to stay. at home with their children.
And with many businesses continuing to struggle to get the employees they need, Baldrige said there are practical reasons to take issues of diversity, equity and inclusion seriously.
“It’s completely pragmatic,” he said. “If a business wants to maintain their ability to attract a worker, they have to put themselves in a culture that invites all workers. I think that’s critical. And I think the chamber that way it can play an important role in helping businesses learn how to get there. ”
Hobnobbing at the annual dinner
Baldrige said he began talking to his board of directors about a possible retirement in the fall of 2019, initially saying he hoped to leave in December 2021. Part of the reason he would stay until June 24 so he could be about the 150th annual chamber dinner. on June 23, with presidential historian and Pulitzer-prize winning author Jon Meacham as the keynote speaker.
For Baldrige, the annual fundraising dinners, where he plays and often conducts Q&A with the invited speaker, have been a highlight of his career. She remembers Bill Clinton being attractive at a dinner table in 2005, Margaret Thatcher escorting her pre-teen daughter to the bathroom in 2001, and a session spent brainstorming what was possible. topics to speak in 2018 with Carson Wentz, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback who arrived at the event unaware that he was supposed to give a speech.
Baldrige said he offers a variety of possible sports analogies to Wentz, which Baldrige says are actually fun and “enjoyable” to work with, despite his lack of preparation.
“That just became magical, the people I met and talked to,” Baldrige said.
Baldrige said it was the most memorable chamber dinner experience since 2011 after the invited speaker pointed to him and said, “Come with me, Tommy” as he made his way to the greenroom to wait for his turn on stage. What followed was a one-on-one discussion with George W. Bush in which Baldrige said the former president offered some frank understanding of his relationship with his mother, Barbara Bush.
“It was the president of the United States, who was important on mom’s issues, who shared these things with me. I never got over it,” he said.
After dinner, Baldrige said he received a handwritten letter of thanks from the former president, which he kept in his home office.
Baldrige, who lives with his wife, Susan, in Lancaster Township and has three adult children and four grandchildren, said he is excited to spend more time with his family after July 24. .He also wants to do more reading and continue to serve on the boards of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, Thaddeus Stevens College, Lancaster History and The High Foundation.
And he plans to spend more time continuing the hikes section of the Appalachian Trail, which he did with E. Philip Wenger, chairman and CEO of Fulton Financial, who will retire in December. Together the pair have already walked about 520 miles of the 2,100-mile route between Georgia and Maine.
And for at least the first three months after he left the room, Baldrige said that was exactly what he planned to do.
“When I came out, I was committed to a three-month vacation. It could be six months, but not less than three months, ”he said.
After the self-imposed rest, Baldrige says he hopes to have a better sense of what’s next for him.
“I don’t think to myself it’s over. I think there is another chapter, ”he said. “I’m really excited not to know what that is because I’m really looking forward to taking the time to make sure the next step is in line with my passions and interests.”