When Fred S. Ball came to the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce as its new executive vice president on January 1, 1971, the 38-year-old transportation executive didn’t have time to dwell on his well-known predecessors. He had plenty of challenges right from the start, including meeting the first payroll.
Ball was vice president and general sales manager of IML Freight, Inc., when Maxwell Rich left the Chamber. A search committee headed by Richard Van Winkle, also president of the Chamber’s board of governors, talked with Ball. It stressed that it was imperative that he be very aware of financial statements, balance sheets, and profit and loss statements. “The Chamber was having serious financial problems brought about by the related expenses of a move into new offices and a membership decline,” recalls Ball.
After he was chosen for the job, Ball found out how prescient that advice had been. Friday of his first week was payday, “and there was not enough money to meet the payroll,” he said. He called President N. Eldon Tanner, Second Counselor in The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who had encouraged Ball to take the position, and asked for advice. President Tanner invited Ball to come to his offices the next day. “When the problem was explained, President Tanner said, ‘I feel inspired to have you go see the presidents of KSL Radio and TV, Deseret Book, ZCMI, Beneficial Life, Murdock Travel, the Deseret News, Zions Securities, and Bonneville International. But give me two hours before you go to them.’
“Later I went to each office and a check for $5,000 was waiting at each stop. That more than met the payroll and the Chamber didn’t have any further revenue shortfalls,” Ball recalled later. Each of the companies was affiliated with the church.
That experience motivated Ball to begin some cost-cutting measures and increased his motivation to recruit and service the needs of the membership.
From the start, Ball had a strong desire to make himself and the Chamber better known in the community. He told every civic and social club, college and university in the state that he was available for speaking assignments. “The offers came in very quickly, and soon I was speaking three to four times a week,” he said. He thought he would do this only in the early part of his career, but it turned out that he was in such demand throughout his tenure that he estimates he spoke four times a week for more than twenty-five years–about forty-eight hundred speeches in all throughout Utah and the country. (That part came naturally. He was the state high school extemporaneous speaking champion in 1950 while at Ogden High School and state debate champion in 1949 and 1950.) Toastmasters International named him their Speaker of the Year.
He also moved to shore up relations with the members, who hadn’t had an annual meeting for some time. He recruited well-known television newscaster Chet Huntley to come and speak at a renewed annual meeting, and made the annual meeting a yearly event. The Chamber also sent out a questionnaire to each member before its first board and staff retreat, asking what they expected of the organization.
“Larger employers wanted the Chamber to be an advocate for business with government. City, County, State, and Federal issues concerned the larger members and they expected a strong pro-business lobbying effort. Smaller members wanted networking opportunities and programs to help improve business skills. Both groups needed good research information and for the Chamber to be a resource for a wide variety of information,” recalled Ball.
That information guided much of the Chamber’s early activities and programs under Ball’s administration. Those successful programs he started would include Leadership Utah, Business Week, the Business to Business Expo, and Business After Hours. Many of those programs were polished and run by the staff, particularly Deborah Bayle, who joined the Chamber in 1976 as a research secretary and rose to become the chief operating officer and “Fred’s Right Hand.”
The Chamber from the 1970s through the 1990s operated in a different arena than during the 1930s through the 1960s, when it had the field to itself. Now other chambers were in the valley, and governmental programs–many jump-started by the Chamber’s work–filled needs where the Chamber had previously operated alone. That created a different set of challenges for Ball as its chief executive.
“When I came here nine years ago, Gus Backman…gave me two pieces of advice: the first is to always have someone mad at the Chamber, it lets them know we are doing something; and second, to make sure I earn less than anyone on the board of governors,” Ball told a reporter in 1979. That was when Salt Lake City Commissioner Jennings Phillips, Jr., heatedly criticized the Chamber for getting involved in changing the form of the city’s government to a council-mayor format. Jennings opposed the change and threatened to eliminate some funding for the Chamber from the city.
Ball’s response was that the Chamber had always been involved in civic affairs. “Being involved in representing our members is one of our major functions,” he said. It could not be a chamber that just involved itself in boosterism. It had fifty-seven committees working on city-county government, legislation, military affairs, sports, and other arenas. “The members look to us as their voice in government, and we are their lobbyists in state, local, and national government,” he said.
Sometimes the Chamber supported causes that it later lost, he added. “It would be easier if we didn’t take a position, if we got the members together and told them how great we are…. But if not the Chamber, who? Someone has to be the spokesman.”
The Chamber early on decided it would be “political,” but “non-partisan.” And through the Ball years it was always involved in a variety of referendums and elections, never endorsing political candidates but searching for causes that would advance its interests. That included several referendums regarding the airport, bond elections and referendums on the arts, and funding for the Salt Lake Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau. They lost on some: consolidation of city and county governments, for example, and efforts to fluoridate Salt Lake City’s water.
But its list of achievements was impressive, too. The success of the Utah Transit Authority, crucial support for a decades-long effort to bring Olympics to the state, the arrival of the Utah Jazz, creation of new airline hub operations at the airport, and supporting major expansion at the airport, beautification projects for the city, and a new home for the Chamber, among many.
When the time came, Ball chose his exit from the Chamber well. He had been a member of the Olympics Bid Committee from 1971 through June of 1995 when the city finally won the right to host the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. That day, Ball announced his retirement. He had told his executive committee that he would stay on if the city lost the bid, but not if they won.
At 63, he left to become a senior vice president of Zions Bank. His resume lists him as the president or board chairman of eleven organizations and a board member of another twenty-eight. He had become known throughout the state as the voice and image of the Chamber. Ironically, one of the first projects he worked on for the Chamber as a volunteer was a new program called “Giant in our City.” In 1995 he received that award himself. Heading the Chamber was an “absolute joy,” he said then. “The job has been rewarding beyond my wildest expectations.”
Sources: Fred Ball Manuscript, in Salt Lake Chamber offices Interview with Deborah Bayle Nielsen, 10 June, 2002. Salt Lake Tribune, 7 May, 1979. Deseret News, 12 January, 1971, 29 September, 1995.