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New leader sets Lowell chamber sights toward future

Danielle Bergeron joins Kevin Farrell of The Northeast Independent Living Program, Inc., at a networking event at Fuse Bistro in Lowell. Danielle Bergeron joins Kevin Farrell of The Northeast Independent Living Program, Inc., at a networking event at Fuse Bistro in Lowell. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / November 3, 2011

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LOWELL - As the sun rises over the Merrimack Valley, Danielle Bergeron is already up and logged on to Facebook. Dashing off a status update to promote her noon mixer, the CEO of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce is off and running.

Her first stop is the Salvation Army to discuss this year’s Christmas radiothon. An hour and a half later she’s across town at the Merrimack Valley Food Bank for a strategic planning session.

“I always knew that one day I would have this job,’’ she said.

In the four months the 28-year-old Lowell native has been at the helm of the pro-business organization covering seven communities - Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, Lowell, Tyngsborough, Tewksbury, and Westford - she has modernized and energized the venerable institution.

“There was nothing wrong with the old chamber, but the new chamber is kind of fun,’’ said Janet Leggat, owner of Cruise Holidays, a travel business she runs out of her Lowell home.

Fun and the Chamber of Commerce?

Bergeron is using social media, cupcakes at morning meetings, and paparazzi-inspired snapshots to make it so.

“People have that preconceived notion that the chamber is just a bunch of old men complaining about how tough it is, drinking martinis and smoking cigars. But you can really make a change and have an impact; that’s why I want to be involved,’’ Bergeron said.

In a down economy, businesses need help more than ever. The chamber’s $290 annual membership fee can go a long way and Bergeron wants it to go further. “We advocate for them, we help promote them, and offer a lot of free events,’’ said Bergeron, who uses weekly radio spots and community access TV in addition to social media to thrust her 700-plus members into the spotlight.

One of the most effective changes she’s made since taking over for outgoing president Jeanne Osborn is YouTube Fridays. Small-business owners who don’t have deep budgets, such as Rick Masse of Creative Expressions by Priscille in Dracut, are jumping at the chance to produce their own video with Bergeron’s help. “It’s something we wouldn’t have done on our own,’’ said Masse, who as a member didn’t have to pay a videographer to get his wife’s embroidery business into cyberspace.

Finding affordable ways to market independent business helps “put them on the same playing field with bigger businesses,’’ said Bergeron, who ran her own event-planning business and was a social media consultant before assuming the chamber post.

In the tight-knit business community north of Boston, Bergeron, who was born in Lowell, attended Lowell High School and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and is now buying a house in the city’s Pawtucketville neighborhood, understands the DNA of this active region.

“We have Routes 110 and 129, which attract a lot of businesses. There’s so much going on in the community and everyone wants to help each other,’’ she said.

Knowing that sometimes businesses need a push, she teaches a free monthly course on social media basics - Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube - at Lowell Telecommunications Corp.

“You are not only telling them, ‘You need to do this,’ it’s ‘Let me show you how to do it,’ ’’ she said.

For older members like Kevin Farrell, director of development for The Northeast Independent Living Program, Inc., in Lawrence, that approach is working. “She’s given me the skill set to navigate through this new world,’’ said the 66-year-old, who took the class and is considering launching a company Facebook page.

Entering Fuse Bistro in downtown Lowell for her noon mixer, Bergeron disappears into a sea of handshakes and hugs. The Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page has 613 friends and with 50 attending the mixer, Bergeron is social media in action.

“Her personality and energy is contagious,’’ said Jose Cruz, a business development officer at Lowell Bank standing at the bar in a pinstriped suit. “She’s made my life easier.’’

Cruz changed banks and territories eight months ago and had to rebuild his network. Bergeron introduced him to key players on the business scene, and now he can “walk into an event like this and I don’t feel like a stranger. You don’t see that in other chambers,’’ said Cruz, who has pressed the flesh from Methuen to Salem.

Bergeron initially gave some longtime members pause. “I was a little concerned because she is so young,’’ said Leggat, a chamber member for years. “But I like what she has established.’’

Fine-tuning the chamber as a place where business owners can burnish their reputation and nourish their relationships has been Bergeron’s strong suit.

“She’s a breath of fresh air,’’ said Sue Zacharer, assistant vice president for business development at Lowell Five.

Zacharer has noticed a change at chamber events, this one a stand-up buffet at the months-old bistro, and was in no rush to get back to the office. “It’s an opportunity for people to talk. Whether it’s good or bad times, it’s nice to know you are not alone.’’

Slipping out onto the cobblestone streets to sprint over to the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center, Bergeron is on the go again. She joins a room of local leaders invited to lunch with the university’s president, Robert Caret, in town on a listening tour.

Hours later, Bergeron takes the stage at Lowell Memorial Auditorium to introduce motivational speaker Craig Zablocki to the Young Professionals of Greater Lowell.

In the audience is Allison Lamey, who sits with Bergeron on the networking group’s board of directors. She says Bergeron’s creative ideas have been a boon to this nonprofit and she “follows through with every task.’’

The final task of the day is getting some sleep. That doesn’t come till well after 10:30 p.m., when Bergeron exits the auditorium and heads for home.

Kathleen Pierce can be reached at kmdpierce@gmail.com and @bistrobroad