Reposted from the January 28, 2015, Daily Herald:
by Susan Dibble
Joe Henning says he’s a shy guy who finds it hard to talk about himself.
But his work on behalf of the Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce for the past decade has made him well-known among businesses in the Fox Valley area, local elected officials and educational institutions, and chamber officials on the state and even national levels.
Henning, president and CEO of the Aurora chamber that he has led since 2005, was named the 2014 Illinois Chamber Executive of the Year late last year by his peers in the Illinois Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.
“I was completely surprised. It was a great honor,” said Henning, who serves with the Aurora chamber full-time. “It’s something I love doing.”
A Kendall County native and Aurora resident since 1998, Henning didn’t seek out the chamber job. He had a background in organizational development, had worked in health care for 15 years and was employed with a nonprofit school in Elgin when he received a recruiting call.
Henning said he wasn’t ready to relocate, but might be interested if there were a position in his own backyard. “It is your backyard. It’s Aurora,” the recruiter said. Henning agreed to talk, and the rest is history.
“I absolutely love the community,” he said.
During the 10 years Henning has been with the Aurora chamber, he has led it through national accreditation twice, reached out to elected officials to push for business-friendly legislation in Springfield, and worked with employers, local high schools and Waubonsee Community College so students can be better prepared for the workforce.
In the process, he’s built collaborative partnerships with dozens of other organizations. Henning said when he started, the Aurora chamber had about a dozen partners and last year it counted 58.
One is the Quad County African American Chamber of Commerce that has about 150 members in DuPage, Kendall, Kane and Will counties.
Clifton E. Mason, executive director of the Quad County Chamber, said Henning has served as a mentor and coach. The two chambers cooperate in holding a monthly Before Hours/Business Diversity Network, holiday celebration, bimonthly Coffee Connections and Leadership Academy.
Mason said one reason the partnership works so well is that Henning doesn’t feel a need to take credit for himself.
“He’s an advocate for all businesses. He’s a collaborator,” Mason said. “He’s well-known in the community, the Fox Valley region and highly regarded.”
The Aurora Regional Chamber serves as the primary chamber for Aurora and North Aurora, but includes members from 65 communities stretching from Chicago to DeKalb County.
Its membership, which stood near 1,000 before the 2008 economic crisis, has climbed back to around 900.
Henning — who holds designations from the Institute for Organization Management, the Illinois Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives as a Chamber Accredited Executive and from The Center for Association Leadership as a Certified Association Executive — has been interested in not just recruiting members, but developing them.
He led the Aurora chamber through a monthslong process in 2007 to be accredited by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Aurora Chamber was accredited again in 2012 with a five-star designation, an honor earned by only 1 percent of the chambers in the United States.
“It’s an opportunity for us to make sure we have a strong organization for our business members,” Henning said of the accreditation process.
Henning is interested in developing not only business leaders, but a strong workforce prepared to fill the positions demanded by today’s economy.
“That’s my passion — lifelong learning, workplace development,” he said.
The chamber has been an active participant in the Aurora Regional Pathways to Prosperity Project, formally launched in January 2013 to target career readiness for students. The cornerstone for the project is a 2011 report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that challenged the overemphasis on four-year colleges as the best pathway to success.
Aurora obtained assistance and funding to form its own Pathways project with partners that include the mayor’s office, the chamber, four school districts and Waubonsee Community College.
A community assessment done in 2012 had shown that area employers needed workers with skills in health sciences, information technology and advanced manufacturing. The high schools are expected to implement those career pathways in fall 2015, and Aurora-area businesses have agreed to provide internships and student workplace opportunities.
Jill Hlavacek, curriculum director for Indian Prairie Unit District 204, said the Pathways project builds on what the district already was doing to expand career opportunities for students.
“Joe Henning has been a positive force on this (Pathways) committee,” she said. “He brings a wealth of knowledge about the Aurora business community and the skill sets that are needed by students entering the workforce. He is passionate about involving all parties in the process. He keeps our work moving forward.”
Lesa Norris, dean of workforce development for Waubonsee Community College, said Henning also has been instrumental in making area businesses aware of the workforce training opportunities and knowledge of funding resources that the college can provide to employers.
“We’re here to help employers connect the dots and the chamber helps us do that,” Norris said. “I can’t speak highly enough of the collaboration between the chamber and Waubonsee.”
Henning said the Aurora chamber also has reached out to state legislators during the past five years to create a more business-friendly economy in Illinois.
The chamber’s legislative agenda includes workers’ compensation reform, economic development, opposition to a progressive income tax, and support for new transportation and infrastructure construction programs. It opposed the minimum wage legislation as it was written in the Illinois General Assembly.
“We’re primarily looking at high school students entering the workforce,” Henning said. “We understand what fair compensation is, but we also know there’s a direct impact that we’re going to see.”
State Sen. Linda Holmes of Aurora, a Democrat elected in 2006, said chambers of commerce are better known for cultivating relationships with Republicans, but Henning has shown a willingness to work with legislators from either party.
“Joe reached out to me right away,” she said. “I’ve appreciated how he’s always worked with us no matter what side of the aisle we’re on.”
Henning said he hadn’t yet met newly installed Gov. Bruce Rauner, but had talked with his staff and knows people on the governor’s transition team.
“He’s got a lot on his plate. We’ll make sure we do everything we can do to help him turn the state around,” he said.
Henning was appointed by former Gov. Pat Quinn to the Illinois 21st Century Workforce Development Fund Advisory Committee and serves on the River Valley Workforce Investment Board. He has been named to serve a two-year term on the national board of trustees of the Institute for Organization Management, the professional development program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
With his interest in learning and professional development, Henning served as an adjunct instructor at a local community college for four years, but he said any further teaching will have to wait until he’s no longer working for the Aurora chamber.
“It really does keep me busy,” he said.
Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner said Henning’s dedication to Aurora goes far beyond serving the business community.”
“Even beyond his official capacity, Joe Henning is a resident who loves and believes in this community, Weisner said. “He regularly attends community events and volunteers countless hours to helping others in Aurora.”
When not working, Henning said he enjoys travel, reading and all Aurora has to offer with his wife. He applauds the city’s efforts to bring traffic into the downtown with the promotion of venues such as the Paramount Theatre and RiverEdge Park.
“There are so many opportunities,” he said. “There’s just so much to do.”