Tom Hoffert stands outside the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce on Monday. Hoffert officially becomes its CEO on Jan. 2. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)
Tom Hoffert says he wants to work with everyone.
Last week, the 44-year-old was tapped to be the next CEO of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce. When he starts in January he will officially become the voice of roughly 1,200 businesses in the region.
Hoffert also arrives at a divisive time in Salem for many businesses. Ideas billed to be economic boons — a third bridge, commercial flights at Salem Municipal Airport, a shopping center in South Salem — have crashed into residents who say the community needs to be more conscientious of costs, traffic and the environment.
The Salem City Council chamber in recent months has filled with hours of debate. The third bridge’s fate is still uncertain and the shopping center was turned away, prompting the property owners to pursue a legal appeal.
Departing CEO Nick Williams said community debates are more heated than he can recall.
“I’ve been fortunate to be in this work for a little over six years and I’ve never seen it this divided before, which is unfortunate because at the local level we should be able to disagree knowing we’re going to bump into people at the grocery store,” he said. “I think the overarching theme is the way we seem to have lost our civility.”
Hoffert said in an interview he wasn’t ready to talk about such issues yet. He said he is more focused on reuniting with the organization he last served from 1998 to 2004 as director of public affairs.
“I have not walked in the door with any defined mission to create X, Y or Z,” he told Salem Reporter. “Other than to create a very strong, stable, reliable platform for both volunteers, (business) members and staff to feel very capable to accomplish our board of directors’ goals.”
Hoffert spent the last 14 years as a national account manager for Don Pancho Authentic Mexican Foods, a Salem maker and national distributor of tortillas and tortilla chips. He highlighted his time there working with a team to land deals with Whole Foods, Chipotle and Subway.
“No one individual creates that magic,” he said, lauding his colleagues at the Reser’s Fine Foods-owned company. Don Pancho employs about 350 people locally.
Leading the chamber offered the civic involvement he said he has been looking for. He iterated in talks with Salem Reporter that businesses, employees and all else are “interlinked” in local issues.
“For me everything drives back to community partnership. The business segment is your citizenry as well, it’s not a whole different segment of the community,” he said. “They’re your neighbors, your employees or employers.”
Hoffert said that is a lesson he learned in part from former chamber CEO Mike McLaran, who led the chamber when Hoffert made the leap from college intern to staffer.
“The sense of importance of the chamber and how it can influence and affect great things for the business community, as well as the community as a whole, is something that has always been ingrained in me since that position,” he said.
Hoffert’s hiring puts the chamber in “a good position” for the future, said Bruce Anderson, the chamber’s president-elect. The chamber saw a sudden wave of resignations — five staffers from late August to early October — before Williams’ announced he, too, would leave at the end of this year.
In replacing Williams, Hoffert becomes the chamber’s fourth CEO since 2011.
“Folks know we’ve had some recent staff departures. Things happen, jobs don’t work out,” Anderson said. “I think with Tom, though, we are looking at someone who has great experience, great innovation and vision to be our next leader.”
Leadership will be integral to working on behalf of businesses when it comes to community-wide issues like a third bridge and a shopping center, Anderson said.
“That’s going to be a part of the job, delving into those issues and guiding them toward a resolution,” he said. “These are local business owners, they provide jobs, they provide the economic engine for the community.”
“Tom’s going to be working and guiding us along the way,” he added.
Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.