Chamber Founder Bill McLaughlin
“Never let not knowing something get in the way of getting something done.”
Those have turned out to be words to live by for Bill McLaughlin, founder of the Irish American Business Chamber and Network in Philadelphia. And they’re his words, first uttered when the organization was a just six-month-old fledgling and was approached by members of the Governor Tom Ridge administration to help fulfill a promise Ridge made to Irish business leaders.
“Back in 1999, Ridge was on a trade mission in Ireland and he told business people there, ‘Come to Pennsylvania, we’ll help you launch your business here.’ And about a dozen companies said, ‘We’re coming,’” recalled McLaughlin with a laugh, as he dug into a crabcake platter at the Union League’s Meredith Café one frigid afternoon recently. Suddenly, there had to be a there there—and there wasn’t. “And someone said, ‘Well, there’s an Irish business chamber in Philadelphia. Let’s call them.’”
At the time, the Irish Chamber was a corner of McLaughlin & Morgan, the marketing and public relations company McLaughlin started with his wife of 31 years, Natalie. He had plenty of business and personal friends “whose names were Mc or O something” to get a chamber started, but he’d also worked hard to bolster membership by compiling lists of and cold calling other local business leaders who might have Irish genes in there somewhere.
He used the same strategy to connect the Irish companies with the right potential partners here. “We had a young guy in the office at the time, Rory Wilson, and we made him our first fulltime chamber employee,” McLaughlin recalls. “We told him for the next few weeks, spend all your time lining up meetings for all these Irish companies and that’s what we did. We knew who to call and it was just a matter of getting in the trenches and doing it.”
Knowing who to call—and calling. It was that simple. And it always seems to work.
Sixteen years ago, as the result of roping in friends and calling business leaders he didn’t know, he lured about 120 people at the first event the Chamber held—with a local CEO as guest speaker –at the Union League. At last year’s Ambassador’s Awards, an annual luncheon honoring local companies, nonprofits and business leaders, there were almost 400 people in the grand ballroom of the Bellevue on Broad Street.
He grew his own business that way. McLaughlin and Morgan morphed into a business development firm and, in 2006, spawned a marketing arm known as McDay, which he and his wife sold recently.
McLaughlin tells a story of the time one of his clients wanted to know if his firm could build their company a website. This was 20 years ago when the information highway was full of empty acreage, ripe for new construction. “I said yes we can,” laughs McLaughlin. “Of course, we couldn’t. But we could learn how to.” And he knew who to call: the then Philadelphia College of Art and Textiles (now Philadelphia University). He hired several of their instructors who taught the McLaughlin and Morgan staff how to build websites.
And when the client of a Chamber board member asked McLaughlin’s help in solving a labor dispute in Ireland, “I said yes.” He laughs again. “I said, I don’t know how to solve it, but I know people who know how to solve it.” And it got solved.
Making connections is what the IABCN has always been about. It offers an opportunity, through its seminars and workshops, for members to not only hear the ideas and success stories of CEOs and business leaders but to meet them personally, as well as to learn ways to do or increase their business with Ireland, which has always been a business-friendly economic environment.
“I know that millions of dollars worth of business has taken place because of our connections,” says McLaughlin, “business that benefits both our members and Ireland.”
Just one example: A Chamber member whose company operates call centers in Ireland was convinced to locate one of his centers in the Gaeltacht, the term for those parts of Ireland where the Irish language is still spoken, as the result of a visit to the Chamber by Udaras na Gaeltachta, the Irish regional authority responsible for the economic, social, and culture growth of these unique regions.
The Chamber’s work is clearly valued by the Irish government. Every year, the Irish Ambassador travels from DC to the city to give the Chamber’s Ambassador Award to a local business that has strengthened the ties between the US and Ireland. Past honorees have included Aramark, Children’s Hospital, Wyeth, and the Vanguard Group.
This year, QVC, the home-shopping network headquartered in West Chester, will receive the award from Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson on March 5 in the Lincoln Ballroom at The Union League, in recognition of the many hours it devotes to promoting Irish goods and crafts.
Two other awards are given that day.
The Taoiseasch or “chieftain” award recognizes an individual of Irish descent who exemplifies leadership and compassion. This year, Frank Reynolds, chairman and CEO of PixarBio, is the recipient. After suffering a spinal cord injury, Reynolds founded InVivo Therapeutics and later, PixarBio, and is the co-inventor on more than 50 pending or issued patent applications on using biomaterials for the central and peripheral nervous systems.
The Uachtaran or “president’s” award, honors Ireland’s president whose office helps build economic and cultural alliances. This year’s winner is CBS3 and CWPhilly, the local networks that have, since 2003, broadcast the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade live.
Creating the Chamber was more than a good business decision for McLaughlin. Many Irish-American families have no more than a passing interest in their heritage—resurrected once a year in March. But McLaughlin developed a passion for Ireland from the time he was a little boy, listening to his Irish grandmother talk about her homeland. He visited there for the first time in 1968. A graduate of LaSalle University, he was teaching high school history. The experience he had mirrors that of many Irish-American family historians on their first trip “home.” It all seemed so. . .familiar.
“I was 23 and was hitchhiking around and meeting people and I kept thinking to myself, ‘These people look a lot like my family,’” he says. He even ran into a woman he was sure he was related to. “She was a dead-ringer for my grandmother.”
He fell in love with Ireland and remains just as smitten nearly 50 years later. Today, the McLaughlins own a little piece of Ireland. In 1991, while on a business trip to Germany, he bought his family farm in County Mayo, where his grandmother Mary Murtagh was raised, from a Murtagh cousin. He and his wife try to spend three or four weeks there every summer, but they also offer it to many nonprofit organizations as an auction or raffle prize. This past year, a raffle raised more than $20,000 for the Camden Catholic School Partnership.
He understands that not everyone connects with their Irish heritage on the same level. “My sisters weren’t interested in visiting Ireland until we bought the farm,” he chuckles. While he loves the literature and theater, a theater outing he planned early on for Chamber members didn’t go over. “We had six couples,” he says.
“There are people who like Irish music, for example, and others who don’t. Some people really aren’t interested in Irish history or literature, but they like business and that’s how they connect.”
Since it’s all about connections, says McLauglin, “it doesn’t matter how or you make the connection.” It just matters that you do.
The photos below are from last year’s Ambassador Awards’ luncheon.