At times it is easy to forget how much Philadelphia has changed in the last several decades.
Anyone needing a reminder need only look at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. There was a time, not all that long ago, it had about 1,200 members and was dominated by a collection of banks and large family-owned companies. Then-president W. Thacher Longstreth's (1965-84) goal was to move it beyond the city limits and encompass the region.
"It was a networking club," recalled Nicholas DeBenedictis, who was chamber president from 1988 to 1989. "It was only about the city then. There was much more of the old Quaker tradition: Get the job done, but don't tell anyone what you were doing."
Today its 5,000 members are drawn from 11 counties in three states. Almost 85 percent of those members have fewer than 100 employees. And in serving them, the chamber strives to be anything but invisible or city-centric.
Last year, the chamber leadership chose Robert C. Wonderling, 48, a Republican state senator from Montgomery County, to be its president and guide the business organization further as a regional force and one that fully incorporates digital technology in its mission. He follows former Gov. Mark S. Schweiker in the post.
Almost a year in the job, Wonderling is still making his mark, but he gets positive reviews from chamber members.
"I think Rob has done a good job of learning the ropes," said Charles Pizzi, president and chief executive officer of Tasty Baking Co., who served as chamber president from 1990 to 2003.
"It takes a good year to learn that job and build credibility. And he's done that."
Wonderling has done that by methodically reaching out to members to gauge their interests and needs. At the same time, he has been building bridges with other smaller business chambers in the region and the city.
That has won kudos from Varsovia Fernandez, president of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who watched Wonderling meet with small-business owners from the Hispanic community.
"I've really been impressed by his interest in reaching out to the communities within the city to learn more about how the Greater Chamber can help them," she said.
Said DeBenedictis, now president and CEO of Aqua America Inc.: "There are show horses and there are workhorses. Rob is a workhorse."
Wonderling, himself, says his time thus far "has exceeded my expectations."
"I can honestly say I've had a bad moment or two, but never a bad day," he said.
His chief hurdle has been the economy, as it has been for his members.
"By my nature, I want to get as much done in as short of time as possible," he said. "What I underestimated was how important it was to be financially successful and execute the current program. I got here in August and set things in motion. By the beginning of November, I realized I needed to moderate the pace of change."
The change he has in mind is growth. It is at the top of his list of goals. He sees three directions to reach that goal.
The first is technology - creating digital products that will give members a leg up on their competitors.
For instance, the chamber offers members eBid Connect, an e-mail service that provides daily notices of bid requests and RFPs (Request for Proposals), including for projects funded by the government's economic-stimulus plan.
Wonderling also sees further growth opportunities by selling the chamber to small- to midsize companies outside the city that are looking to expand regionally.
Finally, he sees the chamber as an ideal partner for small businesses - those with fewer than a dozen employees, for instance - that want to expand their workforces.
Beyond growth, Wonderling said he remained focused on pressing for tax reform within the city.
"Where the city goes, the region goes," he said. "We have to be aggressively bullish about the prospects of the future of the city."
And that future, Wonderling believes, is enhanced by tax policies that promote business growth.
"I'm a believer in collaboration, not confrontation," he said, explaining that he hopes to work with Mayor Nutter's administration, not against it, in pressing for tax cuts. "It is not something that is going to happen overnight. We are going to have to keep chipping away, building constituencies to press and present our case to anyone who will listen."
Wonderling promises to be an influence for years to come.
"I'm just getting started," he said. "It will be a nice ride."