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Chamber has its own success story as it continues to champion business community

John O'Groat Journal

Caithness Chamber of Commerce has become "a real success story" since its relaunch in 2009.

That is the upbeat message from chief executive Trudy Morris, who was speaking about the organisation's changes over the past five years.

The Chamber will continue to "lead from the front" in its bid to champion the business community, she said.

The organisation was restructured and relaunched in 2009 when it took on a different role. It adopted a more professional approach and recruited a full-time chief executive. Previously, it had been run by volunteers who campaigned on issues affecting the local businesses, including transport.

When it was revamped it was to be self-sustaining in three years.

During that period it received core funding of £270,000 - £150,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and £120,000 from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

"The core funding was for operational costs - staff and office costs. It was claimed over three years and drawn down by 2012. We haven't received any funding for operational costs since then. Our income is generated from a number of different sources such as membership fees, contracts, consultancy commissions, commission from membership products and business services," said Ms Morris.

In addition, the Chamber gets funding for specific projects such as the Make the Right Connections skills programme which is funded through the NDA, Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL), the European Social Fund and Skills Development Scotland.

The organisation also facilitates Caithness Transport Forum which is funded by DSRL and Highland Council.

In 2012, the Chamber received £482,689 in government grants plus £40,000 in other grants making a total of £522,689, according to its accounts. Its expenditure was £494,121 with £354,332 going on project costs. Salaries accounted for £97,789 and directors' salaries £42,000.

The previous year it got £103,293 in government grants and £46,587 in other grants, making a total of £149,880. Expenditure was £117,165 comprising £32,511 on project costs and £42,654 on salaries. Directors' salaries were the same at £42,000. Net profit for 2012 was £38,555 down from £40,031 in 2011.

"There was a large jump in government funding between 2010/11 and 2011/12. It was for Make the Right Connections which was original for a three-year £2.3 million project. The funding was re-profiled to be £1.71 million over four years because of the changes around Dounreay and the training budget coming in lower than originally expected. This project is running until the end of this year. The £40,000 in the 2011/12 accounts was the final instalment of the original NDA funding of £120,000 over three years," explained Ms Morris.

One full-time and two part-time staff have been employed for Make the Right Connections. The grant also covers office costs, training and consultancy and other related expenditure such as advertising and marketing. These costs cease when the project finishes.

"We employ eight staff five years on since the relaunch. We have secured contracts, are offering a wide range of services both for members and the wider business community. We have helped to put Caithness on the map and regularly represent the area at national level. These things, I believe, are a real success story."

Ms Morris believes the business community can improve the region's transport infrastucture and knows what is needed to grow and develop the economy.

Workshops, information sessions and projects such as the skills programme are assisting the diversification of the supply chain away from its reliance on Dounreay.

"These projects and activities have also brought money to the area which might not otherwise have been allocated or spent here, so we are delighted we have been able to play a role in this. There is no doubt it has all helped to secure and create employment. This is a role we will continue to play in the coming years as Caithness seeks to capture the opportunities that are on the horizon.

"Our plans for the future are to do more of the same, always lead from the front, continue to champion the business community and deliver services, products and projects which help to build and support it," she added.

A spokesperson for HIE said: "We financially assisted the relaunch of the Chamber with £150,000 to provide seed funding to allow it to engage staff, recruit members and build a sustainable business. That seed funding has achieved its purpose, with the Chamber now self-financing through a combination of membership fees and paid-for services such as the Make the Right Connections skills transition programme which it has been contracted to deliver."

Since April 2012, HIE has provided one funding package of £10,583 - including £4233 from Europe - to finance a placement as part of the ScotGrade scheme.

"We are also currently supporting a specialist advice assignment with a total budget of £3000, which is ongoing," added the spokesperson.