Business Profile | John Schmitt

April 2012 View more


 The Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce (NACC) is the largest suburban chamber in Illinois. Its history dates back to the early 1900s when women were not allowed to join and its membership—65 business owners—paid $5 dues. Today the Chamber represents over 1,500 area businesses, offers four distinct levels of membership, and hosts scores of seminars, networking events, and leadership training programs.

Naperville is—undisputedly—one of the finest places to live and own a business, and the NACC deserves recognition for a large part of its success. Throughout the years the Chamber can be credited with forming many resources and institutions we now take for granted: the city’s first Building and Loan, the park district, Route 59, the post office, and ambulance services. In 1964 the first full-time executive director was hired, a post now filled by president and chief executive officer John Schmitt.

When asked once about the stress of his prior real estate career—he was with john greene for 15 years—Schmitt joked that it was easy compared to trading commodities and being an air traffic controller. Schmitt says this varied background gives him a different perspective when working with a multitude of businesses and personalities. “To be the most effective you can be, you have to try to look at something from the perspective of the other person. If people take that approach, we can get a lot more accomplished.”

Naperville Magazine recently sat down with this highly accomplished, longtime resident to learn more about the NACC and its important mission.


In November 2011 your Chamber was given a five-star accreditation rating by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a designation only given to the top one percent of the 7,000 national chambers. What was the accreditation process like?

In 2006 NACC was the first chamber in the state of Illinois to receive that status; since then Chicago and Springfield chambers have achieved it, but Naperville is the only one to have received it twice. For the reaccreditation process, it requires you to open up the entire program and look at all aspects of what makes you who you are—from your bylaws to your finances, your committee structure to your minutes from various meetings, your strategic plan to goals for the future. Our Board and our staff worked on the reaccreditation process for 10 months and, at some times, we had to remind ourselves to remember what a good chamber we are. Through this process, you’re constantly trying to improve things that need improvement, so you tend to dwell on the negative. But we were very proud to receive that call in November. You have to constantly remind yourself that you’re striving for excellence and to use best practices all of the time. It’s like retooling an automobile—cleaning it up to get ready for another 50,000 miles—and that’s what we did.

The Chamber hosted over 10,000 attendees at more than 450 events in the last year. What are some of the most memorable for you?

Probably the one that comes to mind that we’re very proud of took place in October 2011—a Hiring Our Heroes job fair that we co-sponsored with the U.S. Chamber and many of our local veterans associations. It was held at Tellabs and we had 86 businesses register. We had over 600 veterans attend and, to date, we have over 40 confirmed jobs as the result of that event. I’m sure there are more still in the hiring process.

Another event that was pretty exciting was a luncheon we hosted for Evan Lysacek when he came to town to film a hometown segment when he appeared on Dancing with the Stars. We had over 500 people at that luncheon; as a result we ended up being on national TV!

There are so many events that we are involved with that are of note . . . Every fall we have an economic forecast where John Calamos [CEO of Naperville’s Calamos Investments] is our keynote speaker—that’s always very well attended. Our annual gala recognizes and celebrates our incoming and outgoing board members, and over 500 people attend that annually.

Out of 29 events hosted by the Chamber this month, 16 of them are listed in the “Leads” event category on your website. I would assume that one of the biggest advantages to Chamber membership is networking opportunities?

Yes, many of our members join the chamber for networking opportunities, but networking is just the beginning of the process. People network, they establish relationships, they establish trust, and business will follow. If someone joins the Chamber and just goes to an event to collect business cards, it’s not going to be effective—they need to invest time to be successful. One of the things that we’re doing with our Leads and Community groups is to encourage them to host events together. When they meet to exchange leads, that’s all well and good, but if they can try to incorporate some social activities into what they’re doing, they’ll be able to build relationships better. Over the last couple of years our groups have adopted nonprofits. What that does, I think, is give the group a higher purpose with what they’re doing.

The Chamber offers a six-month Leadership Institute to both members and nonmembers. Tell us about this leadership program and why it was formed.

This is the third year for this version, or format, of the institute program. It consists of six different sessions that I like to call “building blocks of leadership.” The first session is on ethics and values—you have to build on a strong base of ethics and values. Each session consists of three phases: The beginning of the day is a session on a particular topic; the next part is a case study; after lunch, we have a panel discussion with community members to give real-life examples of that topic. We have another program that’s called Coaching Effectiveness. What we try to do is have three people that are involved in leadership share their insight—whether they lead a restaurant crew, a sports team, or a church staff.

The Leadership Institute is growing; we started with 15 participants the first year, and we have 25 this year. They meet one day per month where they are given a little assignment, and then two weeks later there is a two-hour group coaching session where they share what they’ve learned. One of the comments I’ve received in the past is that they’re able to use—in real time—what they’ve learned immediately.

2012 marks your third year as CEO of the Chamber. What are some of your short- and long-term goals for the future of the organization?

One of the more immediate goals is to prepare for our centennial celebration in 2013. Our day-to-day goals are to continue to provide programming and services for our members to help their businesses grow, to continue to work to maintain a quality community that will attract businesses to locate in this area, and improve and grow the business and economic climate for the entire region.

Photo by Mike Hudson