February 2012

C2 Exclusive Interview: SKIP HOAGLAND In His Own Words

Author: Special To C2 Magazine | Photographer: Mark Staff

Three months ago, Hilton Head businessman Skip Hoagland launched a very public campaign calling into question the business practices and the motives of the Hilton Head Island Chamber of Commerce, and the organization’s president Bill Miles. Here, Hoagland tells us what’s behind his offensive and what he hopes to achieve.

C2: What was the straw that broke the camel’s back; why this fight, and why now?
Skip Hoagland: I have been operating media businesses on Hilton Head Island for over 35 years, and I have been observing this build-up of abuse by the Chamber for a very long time. I, as well as other business owners, particularly other local business owners in the media industry, have been the victims of unfair competition by the Chamber. But the abusive practices don’t end with this unfair and subsidized competition. As I began to peel more layers of the onion, it became very apparent that the abuse really victimizes all area businesses, taxpayers, and especially our brand, Hilton Head Island. What I am talking about is spelled out in greater detail on our website—stopchamberabuse.com—through the views and observations of other area business leaders and community residents, not just from my own viewpoint. This is not the fight of Skip Hoagland. I am just the messenger, or perhaps the tip of the spear. There is truly a groundswell of dissatisfaction within the community, and it is rapidly reaching a tipping point. There is a lot to be dissatisfied with and angry about. We are not just complaining though. We offer viable solutions.

C2: What do you believe qualifies you to lead the troops into this fight?
SH: One individual of passion can do more than 10,000 who just have an interest. Perhaps I am the catalyst for this as I was among the first to be unafraid to speak out about it. There are many in the community who are now voicing their concerns and still many who are afraid to speak out due to concern of retribution from the Chamber towards their business and livelihoods. Plus, I am fortunate to be able to put money where my mouth is through the media to bring attention to this issue. I am not just condemning the status quo, but rather I am offering real workable solutions. The information I have gathered did not just come from me; many people contributed to these findings, and we are still adding to the list of questions and concerns on a daily basis.

C2: In the spirit of transparency (which you ask the Chamber to practice), who are the “many in the community who are voicing their concerns”? Who else is fighting the good fight with you?
SH: There are many. All one has to do is read some letters to the editor and online comments to articles recently published in The Island Packet, comments on stopchamberabuse.com, or just speak with business owners in general. The attendees at the recently held Mission Resource Group session represented a sampling of what you will learn.

C2: Actually, with the exception of one comment on your website, last names are omitted. Why? Who are these business leaders?
SH: I feel it best not to mention others. Again 99.99 percent agree with most of what I say. Once the association is launched, the board is created and an executive director is hired, then it can go public. I respect people’s privacy.

C2: With the newly established Greater Hilton Head / Bluffton Visitors and Convention Bureau (GHHBVCB) that you are spearheading, who will sit on the board and provide organizational oversight?
SH: The executive director of the GHHBVCB and its initial start-up board will be announced as soon as it is set up, and you will then be able to see the names associated with this movement for change.

The board will be solely made up of local advertising and marketing professionals. The executive director will have a strong background in this industry as well. Internet marketing strengths will be mandatory since this is the way people book travel. We want board members who will direct the organization in a way that is transparent, fiscally responsible and in a manner that maximizes the return to our area businesses, residents and other community stakeholders.

C2: In a January 3 e-mail, you asked the ATAX Committee and Town Council to hold off on any funding decisions, especially for supplemental fund disbursements to the Hilton Head Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, until such time as the GHHBVCB has been provided the opportunity to present to the ATAX Committee. Did you receive a response? And, will you have the opportunity to present your case for funding?
SH: No response yet, however, I am optimistic that we will receive a response shortly to our reasonable requests. We expect the committee will do the right thing, especially in light of the recent exposure of issues we have brought to the forefront during that past several months. The taxpayers and the public at large will then have a chance to speak up, as well as the local media, and make it apparent that we should be allowed to present our case.

C2: What is the recruitment strategy for the GHHBVCB? Whom are you targeting? And, how will you compete with the Chamber? Is it a competition?
SH: First, we are not competing with what the Chamber should be doing to support its members, who are local businesses. The Chamber has taken on the additional role to be the engine to bring tourism to our area. We think the current engine is an out-of-date gas-guzzler. Our objective is to bring more tourism to Hilton Head through more modern practices, and we will provide a superior value proposition than what is currently being done by the Chamber. We will apply for ATAX funds as a 501© (3) and invest at least 80 percent of all monies to market the Hilton Head Island brand. We will minimize our overhead and other costs in order that our total operating costs are 20 percent or less.

In contrast, the Chamber has very high operating costs with 22 salaries. The executive director alone receives over $400,000 in annual compensation. It’s hard to give a small island and 1,600 members a fair return with that kind of overhead. It takes well over 1,000 membership dues just to cover the executive director’s compensation at the Chamber. We expect there is a large amount of other wasteful practices within the current Chamber organization, many of which have been outlined in my ads.

C2: One of your criticisms of the Chamber is that they utilize a number of vendors who are not local. Specifically that their advertising/social media firm is in Arkansas and their website development company in Nova Scotia. How will the GHHBVCB ensure that local businesses are tapped?
SH: It certainly bothers me and I expect it angers many in the community. Our solution is simple. We will just use local businesses. The talent is here. Plus we really don’t need that many services as we will not produce media products to compete against local media members and, in fact, will use and buy what we need from local media and services.

C2: Your website—stopchamberabuse.com—raises a number of serious and relevant questions of the Chamber. Have you received any answers, any response, from the Chamber?
SH: No. And how could they defend themselves. I expect it is better for them to say and do nothing. The survey the Chamber recently distributed contained “soft-ball” questions. The members should be asked their feelings about the issues and questions I have raised in my ads. Don’t worry. Many more ads and e-mails are on their way, and we will do our own survey on real questions and then submit the results.

C2: Let’s talk about compensation specifically. You—almost comically—point out that Bill Miles, the president and CEO of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce earns a salary equal to that of the president of the United States, quadruple that of Governor Haley, and 40 times more than the Hilton Head’s mayor, Drew Laughlin. How do you determine worth of your employees within the businesses you own?
SH: Yes, 40 times our mayor. First, in private for-profit companies, it is much different from a not-for-profit organization. The business must make enough revenue to cover its costs, including compensating its employees, and hopefully make a profit for its owners/shareholders. Still both should be based on performance with a cap of some sort or else shareholders and members don’t get a fair return. According to numbers I received, our island has experienced an annual decline for the last 14 years. At the same time, compensation to Bill Miles has gone up over that same period. To me $400,000 for Bill Miles is simply abusive to members of the Chamber. Now I hear the Chamber is trying to say Bill Miles’ $400,000 will be paid by its members and not come from ATAX contributions. How do you expect a small business owner feels sending in his annual membership dues, knowing that it is virtually going straight into Mr. Mile’s pocket? The abuse just shifts from one to another.

C2: What do you think is the biggest mistake the Chamber has made?
SH: Losing sight of what its function and role should be. And in so doing, it has become a large and growing empire that is inefficient and perhaps too powerful, thereby insulating itself from scrutiny. Bill Miles seems to have surrounded himself with people who are willing to ink these abusive practices and allow conflicts of interest. This is why so many big corporations are in trouble and shareholders fed up; stock prices go down, corporate salaries go up. Chamber performance goes down, and salaries have gone up at members’ and taxpayers’ expense.

C2: When you’re not stirring the pot, where can we find you? What do you do to relax?
SH: I like fine dining and frequent many area restaurants. I travel a lot between Hilton Head, Argentina and Naples, Florida. My passion, when I can, is fishing.

C2: Do you expect to receive any criticism about your involvement in this effort when your business is based in Argentina? What business holdings do you have on Hilton Head?
SH: Argentina is just one location; we have various offices for many of our companies in the USA. My local company is Island Communications; we have been a member of the Chamber for 30 years. By remaining a member, my voice can be heard. I actually will launch similar campaigns to clean up other Chambers in our other markets as well. This is nationwide abuse, not just Hilton Head.

C2: Anything else we need to know?
SH: The more questions the better. Keep ’em coming.

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