In an article in the Marin Independent Journal, written by Richard Halstead wrote, “The CEO of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce has been selected to head the North Bay Leadership Council, a regional business advocacy organization.
The council’s longtime president and CEO, Cynthia Murray, is retiring. Joanne Webster, president and CEO of the chamber has been named to take her place.
“I had planned to retire in 2020,” Murray said, “but then the pandemic hit, and I decided that I should stay with the organization and see them through it. I have seen them through it, and I’m now 73, and I think it’s a perfect time to retire.”
Webster said, “It took a very special position for me to leave the chamber because I love San Rafael, and I love the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce. I’m going to be able to advocate for businesses on a larger platform and on a regional level. I’m very excited.”
Murray has headed the 33-year-old council for the last 17 years. She doubled the organization’s membership after serving only a few years in the position. The nonprofit, employer-led public policy advocacy organization has a little over 50 dues-paying members.
“We’re the voice of employers, not just the voice of business,” Murray said, “because we do have many nonprofits and public members. We look for the leaders in their sectors.”
Collectively, the council’s members have over 25,000 employees.
Murray’s tenure with the council has been eventful. Two years after she arrived, the nation lapsed into the Great Recession. The recession was followed by major wildfires in the North Bay fueled by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s becoming more and more apparent,” Murray said, “that having organizations that represent employers at the table when you’re trying to formulate public policy in a time of uncertainty and change is really important.
She added, “I’ve really seen an increased need for business, government and nonprofits to all work together to achieve goals.”
Murray said her experience as a Marin County supervisor from 1999 to 2006 prepared her well for leading the council.
“It gave me an advantage in understanding how decisions are made,” she said, “what works and doesn’t work when you’re trying to present new ideas.”
Webster began her career in business before being introduced to local government.
After growing up in Swampscott, Massachusetts, and earning her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science at Boston College, Webster moved to California to operate a Double Rainbow Cafe franchise together with her husband Charlie Garfink, whom she met in college.
“I was really excited about coming to the Golden State,” Webster said. “When you’re a little girl and you grow up in New England, you have visions of what that means.”
Webster and her husband opened their first Double Rainbow Cafe in Los Gatos and then a second one in San Rafael in 1988. They sold the Los Gatos franchise after the cafe suffered damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. They bought a house in Fairfax and focused on the San Rafael cafe, which they would jointly operate for 23 years.
“One of the hardest things you can do is meet a payroll,” Webster said. “You can be a business with 10 employees or a business with 100. You have similar challenges. It’s just on a different scale.”
From 2001 to 2011, she also served as director of San Rafael’s business improvement district. The city devoted revenue derived from a portion of its business license fee to promotion of the downtown business district, and Webster helped guide how the money was spent.
“I really got to understand how the city was run and had the opportunity of creating very strong relationships with elected officials and city staff,” Webster said. “I got them to understand how challenging it is to run a business.”
When Webster and her husband sold the Double Rainbow franchise to a former employee in 2011, Webster became director of marketing for the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, and in 2014 she was named president and CEO of the chamber.
Webster said her biggest challenge as chamber CEO was responding to the pandemic. She is proud of the fact that San Rafael was the first chamber of commerce in Marin to create a disaster relief fund for local businesses.
“We were able to solicit a quarter of a million dollars in donations so we could give out over 75 grants to small businesses,” Webster said. “I still have a lot of those businesses thank me for that because they were able to pay rent or pay their employees and keep their doors open.”
Webster said the pandemic took a heavy toll on sole proprietorships in San Rafael, due to difficulties they experienced getting Paycheck Protection Program loans.
“We kept as many businesses open as we possibly could,” Webster said, “whether they were chamber members or not.”
Webster said the biggest challenge North Bay Leadership Council members face is finding employees.
“What we’re hearing from employers is that the cost of living in the North Bay is making it really difficult to recruit,” Webster said. “We’re seeing a lot of positions remaining unfilled. It’s having an impact on the efficiency of companies’ operations. A lack of housing at all price levels is driving the problem.”
Beginning in November, Webster will work alongside Murray, until Murray departs at the end of the year.
“Joanne leaves the chamber on solid footing,” said Carol Parks, who heads the chamber board. “Our membership is strong with over 500 member businesses, representing over 26,000 employees across 25 different industry sectors.”
In a statement, Murray said, “There is no one more capable of leading NBLC into its next iteration than Joanne.”