Larry Bowman never meant to finish out his career at home.
But the 1966 Cedar Crest High School graduate is retiring Aug. 1 after 34 years working with chambers of commerce — the last seven at the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce — ending right where he began, in his hometown.
“I never envisioned I'd be back here,” he said, after spending his career up until his return in New York and the Philadelphia areas. “I'm a believer in things happen for a reason, and it brought me back here.”
Before his retirement, Bowman took time to chat about his career and the future of the Lebanon County business climate:
Q: What grade would you give yourself for your performance the last seven years?
A: I'd a say a B-minus. I wish it were higher. But we're not creating widgets, producing them and getting them out to market and see if we hit our quota. We're working on community projects and issues, and we've started potting and planting seeds. There isn't a defined time frame, even if that doesn't match the time frame of the chamber or the CEO's time frame. But I think we've got some things planned and started the right way for the next person to come in. That's always the hope, that you've laid a path for the person that follows you to pick up the path and be able to see these things to completion.
What are you happy about that you did get done?
When I first came on, we did a strategic planning survey and we got the message pretty clear that the business community thought we were an OK organization. But they said we were too focused on programs and events and we weren't stepping up for the business community.
They wanted us to be a catalyst for change, speaking out on issues that matter. We needed to try to influence policy more, so we started to focus on that as well. One of the first things we spoke up for was the North Cornwall Commons project. It had been in the planning process and there were problems with zoning, but we worked to help get through that (the project is scheduled to break ground this year).
We've been more involved in public affairs, and we've been able to be out in front representing the business community on issues that matter to them. Being able to be involved in those issues was a role that needed to be filled.
In the 2013 strategic planning effort, we found that the business community felt there wasn't a brand identity for the region, so we formed a task force and came up with one, and it's going to be a major plus for the valley with long-term benefits.
When it comes to business development, we've worked with other groups — the (Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corp.), the tourism promotion agency — but the community felt someone needed to take the lead. Our board decided that if no one would, then we'll position our organization to do it.
What is the economic state of the Lebanon Valley now?
I think our strength is in our diversity. There is manufacturing, distribution, agriculture; it's a very diverse economy. But the economy is still posing challenges for our members. We have business owners who say they're ready to hire employees but don't want to add payroll because they don't know what's coming from Washington. More regulation, tighter regulation ... they just don't know what the impact is going to be and it makes them hesitant.
What can the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce do about changing Washington?
One local chamber making an impact or changing the impact of Washington isn't realistic. But what we can do is partner with other chambers across the country to educate our leaders for the right outcomes. We're fortunate here our local, state and federal representatives understand the need for a healthy business community.
About Larry Bowman
Occupation: Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce president and CEO (retiring Aug. 1)
Lives in: Mount Gretna
Wife: Kathleen Wall, married 37 years on July 9
Children: Alexis, a speech pathologist in Lancaster; Sam, a manager trainee at Hertz in West Chester
Education: First graduating class at Cedar Crest High School, 1966; Lebanon Valley College, 1970; SUNY-Albany, 1977.
Classmate connection: They weren’t in the same class, but Bowman (LVC ’70) and Gov. Tom Corbett (LVC ’71) knew each other during their time at the college.
Retirement plans: Woodworking, traveling, house projects. “I like woodworking, but I have tools my wife has gotten me that are still in their boxes.”