Chambers of commerce and trade organizations offer numerous benefits to their members: Networking opportunities, legislative influence, professional development.
Lately, several midstate companies have been working to add another: Lower energy prices.
Lancaster's Rhoads Energy Corp. and York's Shipley Energy Co. are among suppliers that have reached out to business groups to set up affiliate programs. The suppliers get exposure to potential customers among the groups' membership; the members get discounted rates, generally 5 percent off or so.
"Chambers are always looking for those value-added programs," Rhoads' Vice President of Operations Scott Burky said.
Last May, Rhoads began offering discount natural gas pricing to Harrisburg Regional Chamber members. The organization had offered an affiliate program for electricity for several years through Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, now a subsidiary of Chicago-based Exelon Corp. The chamber wanted to offer a similar program for natural gas, chamber President David Black said.
The chamber put out a request for proposals, and "Rhoads was very aggressive in their response," Black said.
A unique feature of Rhoads' program is that the employees of participating companies can receive the same discount on their residential use, Rhoads President and CEO Michael DeBerdine said.
This January, Rhoads rolled out an affiliate program with the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau. In addition to offering discounted rates, Rhoads will make a one-time contribution of up to $50 toward companies' membership dues to the bureau as a reward for switching.
As with the Harrisburg chamber, the discount offer extends to residential use for participating firms' employees.
The Rhoads affiliate program is the bureau's first, said Dan LaFauci, the bureau's operations and human resources manager.
Shipley Energy has affiliate programs with several chambers, including the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, said Vice President of Marketing Bret Hoffmaster.
"We have quite a few folks who are customers through those programs," he said.
Small companies can save money by shopping for energy, but the plethora of choices can be daunting, he said. Partnering with a chamber helps Shipley stand out from the pack, he said.
"In 2011, the average Lehigh Valley chamber member saved over $3,000," reads a Shipley banner ad on the Lehigh Valley chamber's website.
Shipley began its programs about six years ago, Hoffmaster said, well before Rhoads. Rhoads is a relatively new natural gas supplier, having entered the market two years ago after generations as a heating oil delivery business.
It continues to maintain that business, as well as its heating, ventilation and air conditioning sales and service division.
In February, Rhoads launched a fleet-fueling affiliate program with the Lancaster chamber.
Companies receive a card valid at 230,000 gas stations nationwide, Burky said. When used at Sheetz, the card registers a discount of 2 cents a gallon. Card use is tracked electronically, and companies receive monthly reports.
About a dozen companies have signed up so far, said Beth Miller, the Lancaster chamber's membership director.
Lancaster has six value-added programs in all, Miller said. The programs and their providers are:
• Business insurance, Horst Insurance
• Electricity procurement, Constellation Energy
• Employment screening, Credit Bureau of Lancaster County Inc.
• Fleet fueling, Rhoads Energy
• Health insurance, Stoudt Advisors
• Natural gas procurement, Shipley Energy
The chamber has a separate board that handles affiliate programs, Miller said. Once a need is identified, the board sends out a request for proposals, evaluates responses and signs off on offering programs to members.
"We're pretty cautious about entering into these types of relationships," she said.
The electricity program is among the chamber's most popular, with about 290 participants, she said. That's a little more than 10 percent of the chamber's 2,400 members.
Rhoads is continuing to study opportunities for affiliate partnerships, Burky said.
The company recently created a fundraising promotion with the Penn Manor Junior Comets youth football team. Supporters can switch to Rhoads via a link on the Comets' website; in return, Rhoads makes a donation to the organization.
Rhoads sees a lot of opportunity in promotions of that type, and they fit with the company's commitment to community causes, Burky said.