ELKHART — Even though it’s an election year, Rod Roberson felt a positive undercurrent in the local business community as he looked around the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce Biz-Ness Expo Thursday afternoon.
“It’s like a positive drum beat,” said the head of Church Community Services, who also serves on the Elkhart City Council. All around him hundreds of people were making connections.
Roberson’s sentiments were echoed all over the place as members of the local business community, nonprofit groups and even government agencies mingled at the Northern Indiana Event Center at the RV/MH Hall of Fame.
Patti Piscione, owner of Carter Tire on Elkhart’s north side, said that even though margins are tighter and they recently remodeled, sales are up 13 percent from last year, which was up 15 percent from the year before.
The regulatory environment is getting tighter in the tire business, she said. “Things are tighter than they used to be, but that’s OK. We just have to navigate our way through the environment.”
Richard Geraghty, a sales consultant with Carter, attributes the company’s growth to their motto: “Honest and Fair — Tell a Friend.”
As Geraghty talked, one of Carter’s customers, Bill Loftus, stopped by. “As a retail customer, I can tell you they’re excellent to deal with,” said Loftus, an insurance professional.
Geraghty explained, “It’s all about relationship and taking care of customers in this economic environment.”
Relationships brought Loftus to the event again, an annual ritual for him. “In my business it’s about meeting people and establishing relationships,” he said.
There were actually not as many exhibitors this year as there were at last year’s event, but that in itself may have been a positive sign, said Denise Polachek, who organizes the event for the chamber. Exhibitors who didn’t return told her “it’s because of staffing issues,” she said. “They don’t have enough people to fill the booth.”
A number of new exhibitors came to fill in most of those slots, though.
Within minutes of arriving at the Signs of the Times booth, Amanda Anderson said, “Business is exciting.” They jumped into the slot at the last minute. “We just joined the chamber a month ago,” she said.
Jennifer Martell Brown of Martell Electric stood at her company booth a little ways away. Like Carter Tire and Signs of the Times, it was the first time Martell put up a display at the chamber event.
“We’re realizing with the environment changing you can’t just rely on the relationships you’ve had. A lot of people are coming from out of town to bid on work,” she said. She attributed that to the effects of the recent recession. “There’s a lot more competition from all over,” she said.
Despite the shift, “Business is good,” she said. “But you’re always looking for new opportunities,” she added.
Carol Willis, who works with Roberson at CCS, said the nonprofit agency benefits from its display at the Biz-Ness Expo. “It’s just a good place to connect with the business community in Elkhart County,” she said. “We really appreciate opportunities to network with businesses.”
At a nearby booth, Brent Ferguson of the Elkhart Public Library said the library is one of the longest-running exhibitors at the expo because “It’s a great way to connect,” and to show businesspeople what the library has to offer.