Change Agent

By Randy Noles

Photographs by Rafael Tongol

Betsy Gardner Eckbert says she has “a strong bias toward action.” The Type-A overachiever is planning some outside-the-box programs at the chamber.

When Betsy Gardner Eckbert decided that she wanted the job as president of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, she didn’t go after it meekly. “I write this letter to declare my candidacy,” reads her statement of interest, which was
accompanied by an accomplishment-laden resumé.

“With strong roots and 35 years of participation in the life of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, I feel I have the right mix of readiness and expertise to bring to the new role of president,” her statement continues.

Of course, about 220 other candidates felt the same way about themselves. So Gardner Eckbert had to stand above and apart from the competition — which is nothing new for this Type-A overachiever.

She was a campus leader at the University of Florida, a pharmaceutical-sales superstar, an executive at a U.K.-based consulting firm that mentors executive women and, most recently, cofounder of a company that markets UV-protective swimwear for kids worldwide.

Gardner Eckbert’s combination of salesmanship, entrepreneurship, leadership development and grassroots advocacy landed her the job at the chamber, which is best known regionally for such signature events as the Taste of Winter Park and the Autumn Art Festival.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that she’s also a dynamo with seemingly boundless energy, strong opinions and a relentless compulsion to retool complacent or outmoded operations.

Perhaps most importantly, she has the skill set required to sell others on her vision. “I was definitely asked to be a change agent,” she says during a rapid-fire interview over lunch at the Power House restaurant on East Lyman Avenue, just steps from the chamber’s stately headquarters across from City Hall.

Gardner Eckbert burns more calories exercising her intellect — and describing her goals — than most people do jogging. “I have a strong bias toward action,” she says, noting that today’s chambers must be more than social clubs.

“You have to deliver value to members through everything you do,” she adds. “And you need metrics to back it up. After all, if the chamber can’t quantify its value to itself, then how can it quantify its value to members?”

As is often the case in organizations when new leadership arrives, the chamber has had some turnover. Most notably, vice president Debra Hendrickson, who held the chamber’s No. 2 post for 13 years, resigned shortly after Gardner Eckbert was hired.

Gracious statements were issued by Gardner Eckbert and Hendrickson, who was the force behind the chamber’s popular Leadership Winter Park program, which seeks to groom up-and-comers by offering a curriculum related to the city’s civic challenges and cultural assets. Gardner Eckbert, in fact, is a graduate of the similarly structured Leadership Orlando.

“I’ve know Betsy since she was in high school,” says consummate mover and shaker Jane Hames, president of Embassy Consultants and chairman of the chamber’s board of directors in 1985. “She has a magnetic, high level of energy.”

Adds Hames: Anyone who doesn’t know her today will soon be drawn to her. She’s a task-oriented problem solver. She has a keen laser focus, a flattering gift for listening and an innate ability to prioritize efficiently. Oh, and she is scary smart.”

Catherine Hinman, director of public affairs at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, says she thinks that Gardner Eckbert’s “energy and global perspective” will be good for the chamber. The museum, which attracted some 72,000 visitors to downtown Winter Park last year, is perhaps the city’s most widely known cultural asset.

“There’s a very important marketing role to be played by the chamber,” adds Hinman, who thinks chambers in general need to become less event-focused. “My sense is that Betsy will have new ideas about ways to accomplish that.”

Gardner Eckbert continues a purely coincidental tradition at the chamber of employing the offspring of politically powerful women. Her predecessor, Patrick Chapin, was the son of Linda Chapin, the first Orange County chairman (now called county mayor).

After six years at the chamber’s helm, Chapin resigned last summer to take a job as CEO for Business High Point Inc., the merged entity of the High Point Chamber of Commerce and High Point Partners in North Carolina. Shortly before his resignation, Chapin garnered national attention when he donated a kidney to a chamber member whom he barely knew.

Gardner Eckbert is the daughter of the late Lydia Gardner, a teacher who was elected to the Orange County School Board and later as Orange County Clerk of Courts. Gardner, after whom the chamber’s Citizen of the Year award is named, died in 2013, just months after winning her fourth term as clerk. “I got my social consciousness from my mom,” Gardner Eckbert says.

The newly minted chamber president may not donate any bodily organs — although you can’t rule anything out with her — but she does plan to help Winter Park’s business people thrive in other ways.

For example, Gardner Eckbert says it’s time to look at each of the organization’s more than 100 events and programs with fresh eyes. Those that are demonstrably good for business will be made even better, she says, and those that aren’t may be revamped or replaced.

She wants to create more “touchpoints” between the chamber and its members, and between chamber members themselves. That sounds like old-fashioned networking, but Gardner Eckbert says it’s important to get more CEO-level members participating in chamber programs. With key decision makers in the room, connections can yield a more immediate payoff.

Gardner Eckbert meets with chamber member Christopher Colli, who’s a project manager for design and construction at CTF Development International.

Among her new ideas is to promote entrepreneurship through a “maker faire,” perhaps in partnership with the Winter Park Public Library, which has a “makerspace” that includes a 3-D printer and video production equipment. She also envisions the chamber’s first floor becoming a co-working space — a sort of incubator for new ventures that will be made available on a competitive basis.

Gardner Eckbert was born in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Her family moved to Winter Park when she was 11 years old so that her father, Jerry Gardner, could take a position at UCF as a music professor and organizer of the school’s fledgling marching band. He also directed the Florida Youth Wind Ensemble. Her mom taught at Maitland Middle School before embarking on a political career in 1986.

As a Winter Park High School student, Gardner was a strong enough bassoonist to perform with in the UCF orchestra. She also played high school soccer and was active in student government and service clubs before graduating in 1987.

She got a Bright Futures scholarship to attend the University of Florida, where, among many other activities, she was active in the Panhellenic Council, heading a diversity task force aimed at fostering collaboration among sororities. In particular, she sought to strengthen bonds with historically African-American chapters.

“I thought about ways to bring people together,” she says. “You can become overwhelmed when you see what needs to be done. But we just started planning programs that bring women of all races together. And it all starts with hospitality; with asking, ‘How can I get to know you as a person?’”

Gardner Eckbert, who graduated with a degree in history, was named UF’s Outstanding Female Leader in 1991. That same year she was elected to the University of Florida Hall of Fame, which recognizes seniors and graduate students for scholastic achievement and outstanding campus and community involvement.

Although her history professors urged her to remain in school and work toward a history Ph.D., Gardner Eckbert accepted a position with Merck & Co. in pharmaceutical sales. She shattered sales records, eventually becoming a senior immunology specialist with an expertise in drugs for HIV treatment.

One of her key clients was the Florida Department of Corrections. “At the time there were 7,000 people in the prison system who had tested positive for HIV,” says Gardner Eckbert, who worked with the state to create a model program for providing HIV treatment to incarcerated patients. “I went in the prisons and did seminars for the inmates.”

HIV, she says, “didn’t put me off” because she had become personally close to several AIDS sufferers through her church, even helping to provide in-home care for friends who were dying of the disease.

In 1992, she married investment banker John Eckbert, who served as a Winter Park city commissioner for four terms. She managed all four of his campaigns, and worked on all of her mother’s campaigns as well. There’s nothing like local politics, she says, to teach the value of grassroots organization.

In 2009, the couple and their two children, Haden and Lucy, moved to London, where John was CEO of Five Guys UK, the European division of the U.S.-based burger chain. Betsy was later named director of business development for Mentore Consulting Ltd., which provides mentoring programs for women in leadership roles who are being groomed for expanded responsibilities.

While living in London, Gardner Eckbert met two other women with whom she launched Long Wave London Apparel Ltd., a line of UV-protective swimwear aimed primarily at children aged 8 to 16.

Harrods, the iconic London department store, agreed to carry the line, and inventory sold out almost immediately. The brand subsequently expanded to 14 countries, including China, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates. It’s available in the U.S. through such major resorts as the Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton.

Then Gardner Eckbert’s marriage ended, and she returned to friendly and familiar Winter Park with her children in 2014. She remained active with Long Wave for a brief time, selling her shares in 2016. So, as it turned out, the timing of the chamber opening couldn’t have been better.

“I think when you’ve had the privilege of growing up in Winter Park, and the privilege of living in London, you don’t hide your light under a bushel when you come back home,” Gardner Eckbert says of her decision to apply — rather, declare — for the chamber job. “You try to take what you’ve learned and bring world-class ideas to the place you love.”

That’s an elegant and undoubtedly sincere explanation. But there’s usually something else — something personal — that makes super-achievers like Gardner Eckbert tick. She reveals it almost as an afterthought.

“I had heart surgery when I was 22,” says Gardner Eckbert. “Ever since then, I’ve set an escalating set of dares for myself. I’ve run two marathons. I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail for six weeks — 500 miles — and did a winter camping expedition on Outward Bound.”

Heading the chamber, of course, couldn’t be described as a dare. But it is a challenge in an era when many kinds of membership organizations have become passé. People have so many ways to connect now, she notes, that traditional chambers are no longer essential for success.

So, she says, Winter Park will not have a traditional chamber. Gardner Eckbert plans to incorporate her experience as a sales professional, a community activist and an international entrepreneur to keep the chamber relevant and engage younger, tech-savvy members “whose ages start with a two.”

But she knows that certain time-tested benefits are as valuable today as they were in 1887, when the Winter Park Improvement Association, the chamber’s predecessor organization, was founded.

“There’s still room for handshakes and personal relationships,” she says. “You can’t email your way out of a toxic business relationship.”

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