What the Chamber Can Do for Your Business

An inside look at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and its new chief, Andrew Hoan, as it adapts to a quickly changing economy

Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, in front of Borough Hall (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg)

Andrew Hoan, the head of Brooklyn’s leading organization of capitalists, counts among his heroes a celebrated socialist. This might seem ironic until you learn more about them both. The socialist is Hoan’s great-grandfather, Daniel Hoan, who served as the mayor of Milwaukee from 1916-40 and is regarded as one of America’s great civic leaders, up there with Fiorella LaGuardia.

But Mayor Hoan wasn’t one of those redistribute-the-wealth kind of activists. He was “a sewer socialist,” his great-grandson explains. “He always stood for clean government, infrastructure, supporting progressive values,” says the younger Hoan, the new president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “He believed in business. He had an admiration for the entrepreneurial spirit. That if you work hard, you play by the rules, you should be rewarded.”

Mayor Hoan’s hard-working descendant, 36, was rewarded in December with the leadership of the chamber, the state’s largest such group, with more than 2,000 members. The Bridge talked with Hoan recently about his goals, achievements, and his path to the top job.

Managing at a pivot point The chamber will celebrate its centennial next year with a major bash on Feb. 10. “It’s my job to steward the institution through its 100th birthday, which is a big deal,” says Hoan, who has promised it will be “the biggest and best party the borough has seen in the past 100 years.” At the same time, Brooklyn is evolving from a borough of local businesses to a home of national companies like Etsy, Kickstarter and Vice Media, with an emphasis on technology. Employment in Brooklyn’s information industry grew by more than 23% in 2015 and netted more than 1,900 new jobs, the chamber said in a recent economic report.

Expanding its reach The chamber’s programs and services have proliferated: Explore Brooklyn (hospitality business), Brooklyn Made (local products), Navigator Program (health-insurance assistance for business), Brooklyn Eats (enjoy!), and many more. Hoan wants Brooklynites to think about the chamber as one-stop-shopping for entrepreneurs. “We’re hoping to create a place that Brooklyn business can call its home,” says Hoan, whose main office is at 335 Adams St. “Maybe it’s for a freelancer who doesn’t have a formal office, but wants to have client meetings.  Or it’s a manufacturer who wants to take out a potential buyer and have a professional boardroom setting. We would like to be that economic development hub that would include these services and co-working facilities.”

One of the chamber’s high-profile programs is coming right up: BKLYN DESIGNS, its showcase for local makers of furniture, interior design and accessories. Started in 2003 and rerevamped in 2015, the latest edition is May 5-7 at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint. The show will feature pop-up lounges, installations and hands-on demos.

Brooklyn chamber

The chamber took its largest-ever delegation to Albany in March for its annual Legislative Visit
(Photo by Adam Kilduff)

Funding for newcomers Since half of all businesses in New York City are immigrant-owned, many need help making the connections to financing sources. Hoan points proudly to the chamber’s recent launch of The Brooklyn Fund, which lends to small businesses, particularly ventures owned by immigrants and veterans. The $10 million fund, created in partnership with the New York Business Development Corp., makes loans of up to $350,000 at rates of 6% to 8% to “people that might have trouble accessing capital,” Hoan says. “We are going to serve communities that deserve and need our help.”

Building strong partnerships The chamber has entered the second year of its partnership with the Greenpoint Chamber of Commerce, seemingly a rival, but now a collaborator. “They’re using us to help give them the infrastructure of an organization, and they’re giving us access to their membership,” says Hoan. In fact, many different entities get involved in economic development–the state, city, the business districts–but Hoan feels the more, the better. “The reality is that Brooklyn is the biggest small village. If you go anywhere else in the country, there might be one or two entities that serve the business community. But this is a city of 2.6 million. When we approach funders and agencies that can support us, their jaws drop when we tell them that figure, and they say, ‘Oh, now I get it. Now I understand why there’s a Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corp., why there’s a downtown partnership,” says Hoan. “And we find ways to work innovatively with other organizations.”

Adapting to change Gentrification, rising rents, new technology. All this disruption can be challenging for business. The opportunity for the chamber, says Hoan, is to be a teacher. “We’re actively working on developing programming that helps mom-and-pop businesses to adapt to change. Sometimes it can just be knowing your customer better, or being on Google Maps,” says Hoan. “We have a program where students go into mom-and-pop businesses and put them on the map. It’s free. It takes five minutes. It’s the simplest thing you could possibly do, and we have the numbers to prove what a huge financial impact it is on their business.” The chamber’s GoDigital! project is a partnership with Google that provides on-site tutoring on social media as well, putting merchants on Facebook and Twitter.

The video This Is Brooklyn was created for the Brooklyn chamber's 2016 annual meeting, which took place at Gargiulo's Restaurant in Coney Island (Video by BIB Media)

Preparing for the job A native of Milwaukee, Hoan attended a Catholic high school and then the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he got an economics degree. He went to work at Americorps Vista in legal assistance, then at Volunteers of America in fundraising. The turning point came when Hoan got a job working for the inexhaustible Brooklyn booster Marty Markowitz and became the borough president’s director of capital funding. At the same time, Hoan went to night school at NYU to get his masters in urban planning. Working for Markowitz, Hoan had a hand in projects like the renovation of Kings Theatre and the Coney Island amphitheater.

Raising a family in Brooklyn Hoan’s support for local business has had a fortuitous effect on his personal life. One day he was visiting Brooklyn Boulders, the indoor rock-climbing mecca, when the owner introduced Hoan to his future wife. She’s an OB/GYN doctor and is the better climber, Hoan admits, except for recently because she has been pregnant with their first child, Theodore Ulysses Hoan, who was born April 24. The family lives in Downtown Brooklyn.

Making room for growth Brooklyn is “bursting at the seams for commercial office and industrial space,” says Hoan. The Downtown Brooklyn vacancy rate of 3% is extremely tight. While a wave of commercial office buildings is in the pipeline for downtown, Hoan believes that in the future, Brooklyn’s job hubs will be dispersed well beyond downtown, Dumbo and the Navy Yard. “Now people who live in Ditmas Park can commute to downtown Brooklyn,” he said. “The story 10 to 15 years from now is that you live in Brighton Beach and you’re commuting to Sunset Park. You’re in Canarsie and you commute to Bushwick.” Brooklyn booming from the East River to the Atlantic Ocean–it’s a big idea. And it may not take another 100 years.

(Editor’s Note: Readers of The Bridge can get a $5 discount on general admission tickets to BKLYN DESIGNS by using the code BKD-BRIDGE. As a business, The Bridge is a sponsor of the show and a member of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.)

Steve Koepp is the editor of The Bridge. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.