Business

Iowa City chamber leader talks layoffs, bitcoin and regionalism

What they're thinking: Chamber President and CEO Kim Casko embraces change - and 'penguins'

Kim Casko, President & CEO, at the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 21, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Kim Casko, President & CEO, at the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 21, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Kim Casko is about a year-and-a-half into her role as president and CEO of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce.

It’s been a time, she said, when the chamber has had to look at its role in the community, especially with the advent of new technologies, such as cryptocurrencies, and a regional brand known as ICR Iowa pushing Corridor economic development groups to work more closely together.

For instance, the chamber has accepted its first member who pays in bitcoin and is in talks with the Iowa City Area Development Group on whether they should combine forces, an effort known internally as “Project Penguin.”

“It’s Phase 1, which is exploration,” Casko said.

A number of large companies, including Procter & Gamble and ACT, have announced layoffs for their operations in the metro area in recent months.

Casko, who holds a master’s degree in higher education and administration and policy from Northwestern and who previously was an organizational effectiveness program manager at ACT Inc., discussed all of this with The Gazette in her Iowa City office.

Questions and answers have been edited for length.

Q: Are you worried about the recent layoff announcements?

A: To me, it seems like you’re always going to have some of this as businesses streamline. That’s the trend nationwide, doing more with less. ...

I’ve been impressed with the support program (Procter & Gamble has) put in place for their employees. They’re not letting anyone go this first year, which now has become tricky, because they’ve announced it so people are wanting to jump ship, but they’re hoping to get people to stay. …

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We’re kind of waiting in the wings to figure out ‘OK, what can we do to support,’ but they’ve left us with a huge runway.

On the flip-side, we’ve got a number of organizations that are growing. Mark Nolte and his team (at Iowa City Area Development Group) did a survey about a year ago, and they found that our area employers expect to hire over 2,000 jobs in the next three years.

Q: It doesn’t sound like you view them as indicative of a problem in Iowa City?

A: I don’t think so. If they were saying, “We’re leaving because your taxes are too high or you don’t have enough incentives,” then I’d be worried. But in P&G’s case, it had nothing to do with this community, and the same in ACT’s case.

It’s solely about their business and their industry is undergoing a lot of change. It’s part of them staying alive. If they didn’t do these things, it could possibly impact more people.

Q: With ICR Iowa, what’s the point of bringing all of these organizations together?

A: The sheer presence is the benefit there. Not just within Iowa … but, more importantly, it gives us presence outside of the state.

I know a lot of people say, “Well, our cultures are so different, and we need different things.” That might be true, but I think that there’s opportunity in leveraging those differences.

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Q: Are you supportive if, at some point, there is just one Corridor group that handles economic development?

A: I’m supportive of exploring it. … The way I was seeing it when I first started in this job is, we all kind of work for the same organization, and that’s the community. We’re all different departments in the same organization. And, I say I’m open to exploring because the devil is in the details.

Q: Why call conversations with ICAD “Project Penguin?”

A: There’s a book that I shared with Mark Nolte, it’s one of my favorite books on organizational change. It’s called “Our Iceberg is Melting.”

It’s a book about proactive change, and there’s a penguin who discovers some fissures underneath the iceberg … then he goes up, and he tries to convince others that that’s the case, that we really should be looking for a new home. … We’ve kind of started using the book as a model.

Q: Why did the chamber accept a bitcoin payment from a member?

A: Really, we used it as a learning opportunity. We want to see how this works because if this becomes more prevalent, we want to be prepared. We want to be prepared to support our business community on here’s how you do this.

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; matthew.patane@thegazette.com

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