New De Pere Area Chamber president reflects on first 30 days
By Heather Graves
DE PERE – Kitty Johnson described her new role as president and CEO of the De Pere Area Chamber as her dream job – following that of wife, mom and grandma – and with one month under her belt, she said she can’t wait for what’s next.
“My favorite job, honestly, is being a wife, mom and grandma,” Johnson said. “So, (being the executive director of the De Pere Chamber) is just icing on the cake.”
Raised on a small, family-owned dairy farm in Darboy, Johnson said she learned the value of hard work at a young age.
Not really knowing what career path she wanted to take, she said business was always something she was interested in.
“In high school, all I knew is that I loved business,” Johnson said. “There was just something about it. Nobody understood the word entrepreneur at the time, but business really resonated with me.”
She said she took every business class in school and was an active participant in her school’s Future Business Leaders of America program.
“I love to be in the midst of everything and understand the big picture of everything,” Johnson said.
She said over the years she found herself in different jobs in various-sized businesses.
The Jane-of-all-trades said her years of real-life experience in a variety of business-focused, community-supporting industries has prepared her for the chamber’s top job.
“The majority of what I know I learned on the job over the past 35 plus years,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she has always been involved with chambers.
“I have sat on the chamber board,” she said. “I’ve been a chamber ambassador. I’ve sat on many committees with chambers, including business advocacy, education and economic development in many different cities. I sat on their strategic planning sessions… So, I have a huge passion for chambers.”
Johnson said her role with the De Pere Chamber is that of relationship builder.
“That is really who I am,” she said. “A chamber basically is a relationship builder. You’re building relationships with your members, area businesses, the city, the surrounding area, your community. You’re building relationships with your board.”
Johnson said she isn’t from De Pere, a fact she said she doesn’t hide, but that she has already grown to admire the De Pere community and its residents.
“There’s such a variety of versatility in the community,” she said. “There’s a lot of culture. There’s a lot of different types of business. The De Pere area is not all retail, it is not all manufacturing, it is not all industrial – it’s a combination of all of that. It’s tourism, education and culture. There really is a large diversity in the De Pere area.”
Johnson said the enthusiasm residents, business owners and organizations have for the City of De Pere is second to none.
“That’s electrifying,” she said. “There is so much opportunity and potential and to be involved and to be able to be a part of that is great and I’m looking forward to it.”
Johnson said all chambers, while similar in nature, are unique entities.
She said one of the things that makes the De Pere Chamber stand out is its board of directors.
“I really walked into a position with a board that is amazing,” Johnson said. “They’re all community leaders in their own right. They really do care about the chamber and about the community. And they really do want to see the community grow, not just for themselves, but for the overall area.”
She said it’s also important to understand the difference between the De Pere Area Chamber and Definitely De Pere.
Johnson said the collaboration with the city and Definitely De Pere is critical for the future overall growth of the De Pere, however, there are big differences.
“We work together, we like to collaborate and it’s a great partnership, but Definitely De Pere, they are funded by tax dollars, whereas the De Pere Area Chamber, like many chambers, is funded by contributions from member investors, as well as some sponsorships in the events that we hold. We really do rely heavily on those member investments and the sponsorships that we have from our wonderful supporters.”
Starting in her role at the beginning of April, Johnson said she is just getting her feet wet, but has caught on pretty quickly.
“The board did a good job of onboarding me,” she said. “Prior to coming on, I had communication with the chairman. I had communication with the co-chair and other board members. They had it set up so that I met with each board member and each committee member to learn about what has been going on, what’s working, what hasn’t been working. What do they need from you, and what do I expect? What do I want from them? So that was very helpful.”
Johnson said after the first “deer in the headlights” week of meeting many new faces, things quickly began falling into place.
She said she’s had a lot of firsts with the chamber already.
“I had my first board meeting and my first executive meeting,” Johnson said. “We had our Let’s Lunch, which is our networking event. We’ve had our first ribbon cutting. We’ve had our first evening event which was UnQorked. And now we are working on our first morning Business Brew, which is our education series that is in May. My first Art in the Park coming in June, and my first golf outing coming up in July. So a lot of firsts. A lot of getting to know everything and learning who everybody is.”
Just as passionate
She said even though she isn’t from De Pere, she wants the community to know when she takes something on, she’s passionate about it.
“I truly do care about the same thing that they care about,” Johnson said. “The citizens, businesses, legislators, the municipality, what they really want is De Pere economic growth and for the community to continue to develop in a strong, healthy way. And we can do that by helping to support our businesses in the area.”
She said she encourages residents, businesses and organizations to reach out to her – noting her door, email and phone are always open.
“Come check us out,” Johnson said. “If you’re interested in the chamber, a chamber membership, but you’re not quite sure if it’s the right thing for you, let’s have a conversation about it. Let’s go over the benefits. I love to invite people to one or two of our events at no cost, let them get to know what businesses are here and let them have an opportunity to meet some people before they make a decision.”