'A perfect storm' start for County Wexford Chamber has seen its CEO and President resign within a matter of weeks and a scramble to get interim replacements in place at a time of unprecedented challenges for around 450 Chamber members.
CEO Fiona Lewis resigned last week, her resignation following that of former president Sean Reidy, along with two directors of the fledgling chamber: Adrian Twomey and Cllr. Diarmuid Devereux. Ms Lewis said she resigned for family reasons, having taken up the role - which is understood to come with an €80,000 wage packet - in January.
Mr. Reidy confirmed in June that he had stepped down from his voluntary role as Director and President of the organisation which represents business interests in Wexford, New Ross and Enniscorthy. Chamber board member Willie Fitzharris has been appointed chairperson of the organisation, effectively taking over as president and a deputy CEO is due to be appointed this Friday at a meeting in Wexford.
Describing Covid-19 lockdown as a huge blow to the fledgling organisation, Mr Fitzharris said: 'It was a perfect storm and that means there will be casualties.'
He said working with 15 different people on Zoom calls was impossible, adding that County Wexford Chamber was just being formed when Covid hit. 'That wiped us out. There was no one on the board that wasn't affected by Covid in their own business. It was a two year process to get the amalgamation over the line. It's not easy to get people to join a Chamber board. We found we had 15 directors in a room on these calls and most of them didn't know each other.'
He said there was deep frustration at the lack of progress with the Chamber during Covid, adding that this created problems for management.
Mr Fitzharris said Chamber membership fees keep the organisation going, while acknowledging the €720,000 funding from Wexford County Council for the Chamber's first three years. He said the chambers are on a much firmer footing today than they were individually eight months ago.
'They were operating with very limited resources. They weren't funded to the same extent and didn't have the staff resources. Going forward there is a very good structure.'
He said the appointment of a new CEO will be challenging, adding that he is confident a successor to Ms Lewis can be found.
'Of course we are frustrated when good people resign. I would say thank you to them for coming in in the first place. There are ten good directors left and good work was done. We intend to be even more in touch with our membership and to target new membership over the coming months.'
He is positive that the Chamber can bounce back.
'We have a lot of experience in how not to do things. We are learning. I'll be there, along with the new deputy CEO and we'll be hiring a CEO later this year. We're not going to panic.'
Ms Lewis said she was excited coming into the role in January. She said the Chamber was a blank canvas when she started on January 20.
Ms Lewis said: 'You set out with a 100 day plan and vision that you've developed with your fellow board members and the president. We started working very well together and sadly it was scuppered by the pandemic so we didn't get to do what we had hoped to do. This was always going to be a challenge, but not an insurmountable challenge and I will look back on this chapter of my life with positivity.
'From the first day I started there were many challenges and many opportunities. The opportunity was there to amalgamate chambers which were predominantly run by women and to get them all working together from a county perspective. To see that was wonderful.'
Describing her resignation as a 'natural break', Ms Lewis said people are entitled to a return to a more normal existence, adding that family reasons were why she chose to step down. 'I was delighted to be involved in the opening of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Bridge. Reviving Wexford was a really big project and 217 people responded and had the opportunity to raise some many issues.'
Working on the reopening plan for Gorey, New Ross and Wexford was another highlight, she said.
She said she collaborated very well with Wexford County Council officials. 'They were involved as major stakeholders to support us.'
Ms Lewis said getting Enniscorthy to join into the county structure was a goal set out from the beginning. 'The goal was always to encourage Enniscorthy to join us into a one county chamber.'
She is hopeful for the organisation's future: 'There are some excellent people remaining in the Chamber. The Chamber is only a collection of people and it's all about the members, of which there are around 450 potential members in terms of the amalgamation so the loss of me or Sean for our own personal reasons will not impact..'
Ms Lewis declined to comment when asked how many members have signed up for the year.
Describing her role as intense, challenging and fulfilling, Ms Lewis said she will back on her time in Wexford warmly, thanking her Chamber colleagues for their support.