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Hartford Chamber’s New Chief

Former Simon Pearce, VINS Exec Leads Business Group

PJ Skehan poses for a portrait in the Quechee Gorge Visitor Center in Quechee, Vt. on December 12, 2013. Skehan was recently hired to head the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

PJ Skehan poses for a portrait in the Quechee Gorge Visitor Center in Quechee, Vt. on December 12, 2013. Skehan was recently hired to head the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

Quechee — P.J. Skehan seems well-suited for his new job.

The affable Skehan is the new executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce, and he’s bringing to the position more than three decades of management, sales and budgeting experience as well as the aplomb of a native of Kilkenny County, Ireland, and the charm of an accent — qualifications that will come in handy while overseeing the day-to-day operations of the 300-member business organization.

He’s a man with a pleasant smile and a subtle playfulness about him. He doesn’t look his 58 years. He’s fit and stays that way through his passion for soccer, a game he plays three or four days a week with adult teams and helps coach at Hartford High School. Although he lives in Hartland where he and his wife, Tina, raised three children, he has spent almost his entire working career in Hartford.

And P.J.?

“I’m Irish. Everybody in Ireland is named Patrick. I’m Patrick Joseph, Paddy Joe, but to keep it from being confusing, they started calling me P.J., and it seems to have worked out OK, so I’ve just kept it.”

At the moment, Skehan is a bit of a one-man show at the Hartford chamber. He’s manning the information desk at the Quechee Gorge Visitor Center, greeting tourists, answering the telephone and occasionally popping downstairs to the offices to conduct chamber business.

The Visitor Center, which is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers and operated by the chamber, serves as the chamber’s headquarters as well as the welcoming point for the gorge and the state park. The almost 10-year-old building, with its exposed wooden beams and expansive windows overlooking the woods and trails to the gorge below, is an attractive setting to showcase Hartford businesses, activities and opportunities.

“I plan to hire an administrative assistant soon, but during this time of year, the center is not very busy. Mostly people come in to use the bathroom,” he said last week.

“This job gives me a chance to use all of my people skills, and it comes at a time when chambers of commerce in Vermont are challenged with a loss of revenue from the change in the health care law,” Skehan said. Health insurance had been offered by chambers to members, and the sale of the policies was a major source of income. “We don’t have that now, and we’re looking for ways to find money.” The amount of the lost revenue won’t be fully known until the Affordable Care Act is fully operational, he said.

The chamber represents the five villages of Hartford, and one of the best ways to increase revenue is to build membership.

“We’re trying to get people to invest in being members, and to do that you have to give them value for their involvement, not a lot of pipe dreams,” said Skehan, who has spent most of his working career helping build Simon Pearce into a multimillion-dollar business and tourist attraction.

Hartford is a diverse town with a variety of businesses with different needs, and Skehan has spent much of his first eight weeks at the chamber getting to know business people around the town.

“I’m a good listener, but I also have the gift of gab. I like people and getting out and talking to them. We’re advocates for businesses, and we need to be in touch with what they’re thinking.”

Skehan started as a glassblower at Simon Pearce — he and Pearce are from the same area of Ireland and knew each other there. He rose through a series of different jobs to become general operations manager. He left Simon Pearce in 2004 after more than 20 years and joined the nonprofit world at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science overseeing the completion of the 47-acre Quechee center. He got back into private business for a few years, working for a fledgling Woodstock beverage company and with a startup New Hampshire firm that sells corporate memberships to private golf clubs, a job he described as a “learning experience.”

As one of his first moves at the Hartford chamber, Skehan is going to increase the organization’s presence on social media, a platform he sees as a good way to disseminate information to members and others.

“I want this to be a visible, active chamber. I think that will make it a lot easier to recruit new members. I want people to want to join the chamber, to create a scenario where we become really relevant to the members. …

“And I think we really need to have fun. It’s important to have fun. This is a place to socialize and get to know other business people. That’s why we get together for business after hours and other events.”

The Upper Valley is a small area, and Skehan plans to work closely with the chambers in the surrounding towns and the city of Lebanon and to work on such common problems as selling the area as a good place to live and have a business and seeking ways to improve the skilled labor pool.

“I don’t have any problem selling this area. I love it here.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.