Chris Sargisson would probably be the first to admit he doesn’t fit the mould of a Chamber of Commerce CEO.
After all, he’s sitting in a conference room at the HQ on Norwich Business Park, wearing denim jeans and looking like someone who fronts a steampunk band (which he does).
But the local entrepreneur, who can be credited with launching one of the UK’s first online estate agencies, has been the top man at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce since June 2017 and is, unsurprisingly, on a mission to make it the most relevant business membership group of its kind in this digital age.
The Norfolk Chamber is an independent not-for-profit organisation which been committed to county businesses (whether that be a small start-up or a big brand such as Bernard Matthews) since 1896. It is one of 53 Chambers accredited by the British Chambers of Commerce.
Chris was educated in Norwich, but ‘left school at 16.’ One thing he was particularly good at, however, was computers and, in the 1990s, he helped shape Norwich Union Direct before leaving to set up and launch its4me plc, one of the UK’s most successful online car insurance brokers. Chris also created House Revolution, alongside running his own business consultancy practice which has helped organisations of all sizes across the UK.
So what exactly does the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce do for businesses? ‘That’s the number one question I asked when I walked through the door on day one,’ he replies, before adding: ‘We spent a lot of time in the first part of last year giving ourselves a clear mission stating what it is a Chamber of Commerce should do.’
But he adds: ‘We have an impossibility within our mission, which is: connecting, supporting and giving voice to EVERY Norfolk business. At the moment we represent 1000-plus organisations.’
The food and drinks sector makes up around 20 per cent of members. ‘As East Anglia is the country’s food basket we have a number of organisations that we work closely with. Some of those relationships we’ve had for a very long time and some of them are brand new.’
As an example, he says: ‘We’ve worked very closely over the past year with Gnaw Chocolate.’ Gnaw won two Norfolk Chamber of Commerce awards last year, for Small Business of the Year and Export Business of the Year. It then went on to win the national title for Small Business.
Chris says: ‘It is a good example of a Norfolk organisation that’s grown very healthily and very rapidly.’
The new Food Enterprise Park, planned for Honingham Thorpe, is also a member. ‘That’s a very exciting opportunity for Norfolk,’ says Chris.
Then there are the countless Norfolk Chamber events where food plays a starring role, not least the Business Breakfasts, which are held quarterly in Great Yarmouth and Norwich and twice a year in West Norfolk.
Chris says: ‘Quite a lot of interaction we have with members will be around some sort of event, whether it be a breakfast, lunch or a dinner. They are important and some of them are very traditional and will remain very traditional.’
But he adds: ‘The more we understand the customer the more we can build events moving away from just doing a general ‘let’s get everyone together for mass conversation and mass catering’.
‘The majority of what we will be doing over next two years is having smaller groups much more frequently and we’ll be trying lots of different ideas about how we feed them and support them – such as bringing the caterer to the event rather than the event doing the catering.
‘I particularly like the idea of working with the drinks industry to enable it to showcase what we are producing drinks-wise.’
He adds: ‘For us to be seen as relevant that’s got to be the right people being in the right room having the right conversations eating the right food and having the right drinks – if you get one bit of that wrong it can spoil the mix.’
It turns out that father of three Chris, who lives in the city, with wife of 30 years, Rachael, is something of a foodie. ‘And I’m really lucky to be married to another foodie. Rachael spent a lot of time living and working in Italy and so she can turn one or two ingredients into just the most amazing thing.
‘Our favourite restaurant in Norwich used to be Umberto’s.’ Nowadays, he says: ‘I love what’s going on with Norwich Market – my favourite is Churros and Chorizo.’
Chris’s pipe dream is to convert a city centre pub into a business hub, complete with café and a bar. ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing? There are business hubs around the country that have that model but it hasn’t been done in Norwich.’ Watch this space!
- March Chamber Events include a South Norfolk Business Breakfast on March 20 and a Wine Tasting with Harper Wells in Norwich on March 28
Featured in issue 34 – March 2019