Q&A: Chamber’s Colburn retiring — again

Ernie Colburn will attempt to retire for a third time when he departs the Chamber of Commerce next month. (Todd Dudek Photo)

When the board members of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce were faced with the surprise resignation of their Executive Director in 2012, the group that helps promote and empower Salisbury businesses knew where to turn for help.

Ernie Colburn, the Chamber’s previous-year president and community leader, was tapped to run the business group on an interim basis. Colburn told the board members he would only stay a few years, as the Chamber completed a number of organizational transformations.

In fall 2016, Colburn advised the board to search for a replacement. Earlier this month, a search committee selected Calvert County Chamber CEO Bill Chambers as Colburn’s successor, meaning Colburn will say good-bye in April.

Born and raised in Oxford, Colburn has traveled the world. A communications executive, Colburn has overseen commercial radio empires, worked in cable television sales — and even worked as a disc jockey, radio station owner and air traffic controller for the U.S. Air Force.

Colburn lives in Quantico, right off the 12th green at Green Hill Country Club, and said he is eager to begin his third attempt at retirement.

Q. Many people are upset by your decision to retire. Why now?

A. After 58 years in the workforce, I’ve paid my dues.

Q. You’ve had a difficult personal run in these recent years.

A. Yes, the past four or five years have been rough. I started here at the Chamber in January of ’13. I had retired at the end of December ’11 from Comcast-NBC Universal, after 19 years, and then I took a year off.

But my wife turned sick in 2012, so I ended up caretaking her and then she passed away in October ’13.

And then, 11 months later, my 35-year-old daughter died of pulmonary fibrosis, a hardening of the lungs.

Q. It was your wife who encouraged you to take this job leading the Chamber.

A. She did. I had been retired, but hadn’t taken up golf. After being home about six months, she called me in and gave me a check and said go sign up (for golf at Green Hill) “and get out of here!”

Q. You were a radio guy who found a way to make a full career in the communications business, and stay successful all the way to the end — with your career actually peaking at the end.

A. I guess I was just at the right place at the right time as far as that was concerned.

I started out in radio — I was a musician as a teenager, played drums, played with all kinds of bands, and I hung out at the music store in Easton.

The owner of that store was Mel Price. I played with his band for awhile — country. Anyway, the Programming Director of the radio station there in Easton would come in and buy his records every week.

One day he said, if anybody knows of anybody looking for a part-time job, I’ve got an opening for a DeeJay.

I said: “I can do that.” I was still in high school. So I went down and auditioned and I got the job.

That station is WCEI now, used to be WEMD. This was in the ’60s. I did a rock and roll show on the radio at night.

Colburn was married and living in Talbot County when he got word that he would soon be drafted into the U.S. Army. It was the late 1960s and the height of the Vietnam War. Colburn said he went to Cambridge to meet the recruiter for Air Force. His hope was by enlisting, he could work in Armed Forces Radio and Television Services. Instead, the Air Force sent him for 18 months of training to become an air traffic controller.

Colburn ended up going to Vietnam anyway.

Q. What was Vietnam like?

A. I was stationed at a Fire Base in the Central Highlands. We were in a concrete-block building surrounded by .105 Howitzers. It was a Green Beret Special Forces Camp.

Only way in and out was by helicopter. In a whole year the longest distance I traveled was 11 miles.

Q. You’re known for your exacting nature. You have an air of precision to you. Did you get that through working as an air traffic controller?

A. That and by going to radio school. After discharge, I decided I would go back into radio. I was burnt out.

Besides, if I had stayed an air traffic controller, Reagan would have fired me. So that worked out pretty good. (President Reagan, in one of his first actions as president, fired striking federal air traffic controllers in 1981.)

I went back into radio. I was working for a company that owned a radio station up in Dover, that was in ’69-’70 when I got back from Vietnam. I put a 50,000-watt FM station on the air, then got transferred to North Carolina, where I put a 100,000-watt FM station on, then got kicked up to corporate in Washington, D.C., to be executive vice president. We had 14 stations.

I was there through early ’80s, then I bought a station over in Federalsburg. Stayed there and ran that until ’89, when the Federal Communications Commission decided that if you had 80 signatures and a pulse and a zip code, you could have a radio station.

So I got out of the business. But I don’t regret that, I enjoyed it.

Q. And then you entered cable television?

A. I transitioned into cable — Comcast Spotlight. Doing local commercials on a national network was impressive and changed local advertising strategies.

I went through several buyouts over the years and when Comcast took over (from Storer Communications) in ’98, I was in the Harrington Office. In 2003, they decided to open an office — freestanding from the cable side — on East Main Street here.

They told me to come down and run things here.

Q. There are many great nonprofits and advocacy groups in Salisbury. Why pick the Chamber as the place to focus your time?

A. There were quite a few members of my staff, especially Stephanie Willie, that were involved in the Chamber. She suggested I come to a meeting with her, and that’s where it all started.

So I spent six or seven years going through the chairs to get up to president, which I became in 2010.

Q. You were seen as bringing a real professional business model to the Chamber’s internal operations.

A. Well, I don’t know about that. (Thinks for a minute.) OK, I rolled a hand grenade through the front door.

And at that point in time, it kind of needed to be restructured, so we did.

And they are continuing to fine-tune it today, which is a good thing.

Ernie Colburn on his changing the culture within the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce: “OK, I rolled a hand grenade through the front door.”

Q. And you decided to succeed Brad Bellacicco as director.

A. Well, they called me up. Brad had decided to give notice after 14 years and was going to move on, which was fine.

And they said — John McClellan called me — and asked if I consider coming on board on an interim basis, until they could find somebody.

I said, “I’m retired.” They said “We know.” This was in November 2012.

The Search Committee conducted a national search that was narrowed to five finalists. About three days after the final interviews, John asked me one day to come by his office at 2 p.m.

When I walked in, there sat the members of the selection-transition team.

John locked the door to the conference room behind me. He said: “We’ve looked and looked and looked, and we’ve realized that what we want is what we already have. We want you to do the job.”

I said: “Here’s the deal — I’ll give you five years max. We’ll do it in one-year increments. At the end of each year, if you don’t like me or I don’t like you, we can end it.”

So here we are, pushing five years.

Q. Is the job what you thought it would be?

A. I love it. I really genuinely and truly love it. There hasn’t been a single day that I’ve come to work that I haven’t wanted to. And that’s rare. It really is.

Q. How does the Chamber’s leadership format work with both a paid CEO and an elected, volunteer Chairman?

A. In holding the executive’s role, it’s interesting that you get a new set of bosses every year. That can be a little tense. And that’s ok. I always welcome change.

People will say to me: “With all the changes (in your business and with the Chamber), how are you able to survive?” And I look right at them and say: “The ability to adapt.” You have to be a chameleon.

Q. Sometimes it looks like you’re being called upon to herd cats.

A. Sometimes, that’s true. I’m heavily involved on the Advocacy & Government Relations side of the business.

There are four different divisions within the Chamber: Membership, Community Outreach, there’s Business & Economic Development and there’s Advocacy & Government relations. They all take my time.

I may be sitting here working on Project X, and I’ll get a call from a member who says there’s a piece of legislation that they have a concern about in Annapolis during the 90-day window, and they’ll ask me to see what I can do.

So, I’ll find out more about it, contact our delegation, send an email or a letter., taking a public position on whatever the situation may be.

Q. How do you get a group of members to form a Chamber viewpoint, as opposed to something that reflects their own business interests?

A. Well, the Chamber is 800 and some businesses, representing 192 different business categories.

It’s a delicate balance that I have to play as the President and CEO.

And, as I said when I announced my retirement, there are more often than not days when I’ve had to go home with a sore mouth from biting my tongue.

Q. Your decision to take over the Chicken Festival, combine it, and make a County Fair was brilliant.

A. When (Delmarva Poultry Industry) made the announcement they were going to discontinue, I called Bill Satterfield and said we’d like to buy the rights. Their board signed off on it and we copyrighted the name.

Then, the Wicomico Farm & Home Show, which had been around for 80-some years, came to us and said: “Is there any way we can team up together and do the festival and the home show?”

We were the only county in the state of Maryland that didn’t have a county fair. — so we said let’s call it the Wicomico County Fair.

We’re coming into Year Three and we’re probably going to expand the footprint this August.

We are also bringing back the Salisbury Festival. We felt like it needed a respite, and now we’re resurrecting it in cooperation with the Arts & Entertainment District of the city of Salisbury.

Q. People seem to love Chamber member Tony Nichols, who hosts your Chamber TV show on PAC 14.

A. He’s made a huge impact. We wanted to get a program on PAC 14, and I didn’t want to do it, only because I had my plate full on a day-to-day basis.
I told Tony — you would do well on TV with your Southern accent here on Delmarva. And he said “Are you kidding me?” and I said “No.”
And off Tony went. It’s a fun show — he’s relaxed he makes his guests relaxed, and it’s the perfect fit.

Q. What will you do now?

A. Change is inevitable, as it comes along. I just feel that now is the time to go. I have things I want to do, places I want to go — or a Bucket List as you may want to call it — but I’m looking forward to it all.

Short of getting philosophical, life is not a given, it’s a gift.

I try not taking each day for granted. That’s hard to do. But, as I said there hasn’t been a single day that I’ve gotten up and didn’t want to come into work here.

Q. Do you have a message for your successor?

A. Whatever you do with the Chamber, moving forward, make sure you’re relevant.

Make sure you’re tuned in and listening to what’s going on in  the community.

There’s a lot of rapid change taking place right now. You have to pay attention to what’s going on.

Again to my successor: Stay relevant, make it fun, and take care of your people.

Ernie Colburn on the diplomacy needed in his position: “There are more often than not days when I’ve had to go home with a sore mouth from biting my tongue.”

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