In his first year as president of what was then called The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Tom Baldrige experienced a rush of adrenaline before introducing legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite at the business group’s annual dinner.
Some advice he got afterward made Baldrige realize he might have been a little too pumped up.
“You know, you don’t have to scream,” Baldrige recalled being told.
Since that event with Cronkite in 2000, Baldrige has learned to modulate his natural enthusiasm at the Lancaster Chamber’s marquee event, which has been headlined by world leaders such as Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush and Madeline Albright.
And over more than two decades leading the Lancaster Chamber, Baldrige has also become more comfortable being the face and genial spokesperson for the local business community, a role he will leave when he retires June 24 as chamber president and CEO.
“I’ve done this for 22 years, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and yet it’s time for somebody else, and I’m 100% comfortable with that,” the 62-year-old Baldrige said.
As he prepares to step away from the job that has defined his career, Baldrige continues to laud “the amazing business community in Lancaster County,” which he has helped guide through three recessions, including the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re there to support businesses, and it’s never more important to support businesses than when they were most in need. And that’s when they were most in need,” Baldrige said of the chamber’s pandemic response.
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Under Baldrige’s leadership, the 1,400-member chamber moved from Southern Market to East King Street, helped distributed $49 million in COVID relief funds to local businesses, and was twice named “Chamber of the Year” by the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.
Baldrige said while his goal has been to “never be viewed as polarizing,” the chamber has not been afraid to take the lead on issues that can become contentious, including the failed effort in 2008 to reorganize county government with a home rule charter, and recent advocacy for businesses to forcefully address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“It’s important that we embrace the fact that the chamber isn’t just about the business community, it’s about the community’s business,” he said.
A pragmatic approach
A native of Allentown, Baldrige is a graduate of Ithaca College, where he majored in speech communication and minored in education. His professional experience includes working as a high school English teacher and being a scheduling coordinator for the late Dick Thornburgh when Thornburgh served as governor of Pennsylvania.
Baldrige spent five years at the Lancaster Chamber as executive vice president and director of government and public affairs before leading the Lancaster City Alliance, a group of CEOs dedicated to improving Lancaster city. He was brought back to the chamber as its leader in 2000, succeeding Dan Witmer.
As he has helped plan and organize the mixers, educational seminars and roundtables that fill out the chamber’s calendar, Baldrige said he has come to believe that the chamber’s programming can have a uniting effect because businesses have strong, common interests even if they might disagree about politics or social issues.
“All they want to do is stay in business and do the best they can for their workforce and their community,” he said. “And I do believe that is a commonality that unites all businesses, and that’s the approach that I brought to the job in trying to fulfill my role with the media in being a voice for businesses.”
Such a pragmatic approach is the reason Baldrige says the chamber deals with issues such as child care, something that can seem tangential until an employee calls off because they have to stay home with their kids.
And with many businesses continuing to struggle to get the employees they need, Baldrige said there are practical reasons to take issues of diversity, equity and inclusion seriously.
“It is absolutely pragmatic,” he said. “If a business wants to maintain their ability to attract a workforce, they’ve got to position themselves with a culture that’s inviting to all workers. I think that’s critical. And I think the chamber in that way can play an important role in helping businesses learn how to get there.”
Hobnobbing at the annual dinner
Baldrige says he began talking to his board of directors about a possible retirement in fall 2019, initially saying he hoped to leave in December 2021. Part of the reason he will stay until June 24 is so he can be part of the chamber’s 150th annual dinner on June 23, where presidential historian and Pulitzer-prize winning author Jon Meacham will be the keynote speaker.
For Baldrige, the annual fundraising dinners, where he has played host and typically conducted a Q&A with the invited speaker, have been a highlight of his career. He recalls Bill Clinton charming a table of dinner guests in 2005, Margaret Thatcher escorting his pre-teen daughter to the bathroom in 2001, and a session spent brainstorming possible speech topics in 2018 with Carson Wentz, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback who arrived at the event not realizing he was supposed to give a speech.
Baldrige said he offered a variety of possible sports analogies to Wentz, who Baldrige said was actually quite pleasant and “delightful” to work with, despite his lack of preparation.
“That’s just been magical, the people I’ve been able to meet and talk with,” Baldrige said.
Baldrige said the most memorable chamber dinner experience was from 2011 after the invited speaker pointed at him and said, “You’re coming with me, Tommy” as he made his way to the greenroom to wait for his turn on stage. What followed was a one-on-one discussion with George W. Bush during which Baldrige said the former president offered some candid insights into his relationship with his mother, Barbara Bush.
“This is the president of the United States, essentially with mommy issues, sharing this stuff with me. I just couldn’t get over it,” he said.
After the dinner, Baldrige said he received a handwritten thank-you note from the former president, which he keeps in his office at home.
Baldrige, who lives with his wife, Susan, in Lancaster Township and has three grown children and four grandchildren, says he is looking forward to spending more time with his family after July 24. He’d also like to do more reading and will continue to serve on the boards of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, Thaddeus Stevens College, Lancaster History and The High Foundation.
And he plans to devote more time to continuing the section hikes of the Appalachian Trail, which he has been doing with E. Philip Wenger, chairman and CEO of Fulton Financial, who will be retiring in December. Together the pair has already hiked about 520 miles of the 2,100-mile trail between Georgia and Maine.
And for at least the first three months after he leaves the chamber, Baldrige says that’s about all he plans to do.
“As I exit, I’ve committed to three months off. It could be six months, but it won’t be less than three months,” he said.
After the self-enforced break, Baldrige says he hopes to have a better sense of what is next for him.
“I don’t think of myself as done. I think that there is another chapter,” he said. “I’m honestly excited to not know exactly what that is because I’m really looking forward to taking the time to make sure the next step is aligned with my passions and interests.”