President, Greater Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce
Interview by Bea Lueck
Renée Louzon-Benn grew up on the southern coast of Rhode Island, a beachcomber at heart. The call of the sea is still strong within her and she returns as often as possible. After moving to Arizona in the early 90s, Renée has been a fixture at the Chamber and community events since she first called Pinal County home. No matter what business or organization she was representing, you could count on seeing her smiling face and sunny personality at various events. With her long history in marketing and community service, when the Board of Directors of the Greater Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce announced the current president was retiring, selecting Renée as successor was an easy choice.
GC LIVING: This issue’s interview is with Renée Louzon-Benn. I’ve known Renée since the mid-90s. Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: I was raised in Narragansett, Rhode Island, born at the nearest hospital in Wakefield, Rhode Island.
GC LIVING: Where’d you go to school?
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: I went to Narragansett Junior-Senior High School, I graduated in 1982. I sometimes think about Facebook and how neat it is that I’m able to keep in touch with so many people from high school. Then I attended the University of Rhode Island for a semester, as an art major because art was my thing in high school. Art and choir. I also took college prep classes because it was just assumed that I would go to college, but I really thought of being an art major. But my first semester, I couldn’t even get into an art class. By the end of that semester, I had no wind in my sails, and so I took a year off, which turned into quite a few more …
GC LIVING: I grew up on the East Coast as well, in a small community that’s very similar, on the water. The sea played a big part of my early years. Would you go down to the shoreline at low tide and go clamming?
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: Oh my goodness. I’m such a beachcomber. I grew up at the coastal area. I could walk to the beach from my home. I preferred walking to the beach in the off season from Labor Day to Memorial Day because from Memorial Day to Labor Day is like our winter visitor season here. I love walking on the beach and being a shell seeker. I would go clamming. When I was much younger, my parents felt I was too young to go over the bridge on my own, to go to the popular clamming areas. So instead, I used to go around the island, just scrabbling around the rocks at low tide and picking the little periwinkle snails off the rocks.
GC LIVING: How did you end up in Arizona?
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: My first husband managed a marina store, selling boats and accessories, and in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, sales slowed year over year. In 1993, one of his customers was moving to Arizona to start a business and offered him a job. After much discussion, we decided to pursue this move to Arizona and start a new adventure. We drove cross-country with our 14-month old son, Joshua, taking our time to stop along the way. We arrived in Mesa on the 4th of July.
GC LIVING: So July 4th is when you decided you just located in Hell.
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: I really thought to myself, “Oh, this truly is hot.” Like a different kind of hot than I had experienced before. It was something. And my air conditioning died in my car the next week. It was just a disaster. I told my husband I wanted to move back. And we had lots of discussion and he encouraged me to really be open to giving it a try. And I did. I grew to love Arizona. I think it’s beautiful and diverse. And as much as there’s lots of places I’ve been to, Arizona Highways magazine, who I follow on Facebook, reminds me of all the places I have yet to see. It’s stunning and I love exploring it!
Unfortunately, the venture we moved out here for did not work out. Funny how that is, you make plans, and life has a way of happening. We hung in here. He ended up doing commercial sheet metal/HVAC work, and I worked in hospitality. We moved to Arizona City in 1995, and I took a sales position at the Francisco Grande Resort. It was in that position that I first started representing an organization to the Greater Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce and served on the Ambassador’s Committee. From Francisco Grande, I moved to Casa Grande Regional Medical Center in 1997, as a marketing coordinator, and during my time there, I went back to school at Central Arizona College to pursue a degree in Business. I worked at the hospital for four years, transitioning to NextCare in 2001 as the marketing manager. I went through a divorce that same year. I focused on raising my son, working and going to school, transitioning from Central Arizona College to University of Phoenix (UOP) with a double major in Business Management and Marketing. I took the position of director of marketing at Sun Life in spring 2004, graduated from UOP that year, and my son and I moved to Casa Grande in 2005.
GC LIVING: How did you meet Bob, your current husband?
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: My first introduction to Bob Shogren was through Sun Life’s board of directors. He represented the San Manuel community to Sun Life. I was really introduced to him in 2005 by a mutual acquaintance, a coworker, who felt Bob and I would get along well. Bob reached out to me via email to see if we might meet up. He was as busy in his life in the southeastern part of the county as I was in central Pinal County. I was amused at the exchange of emails it took to find a day and time that we both had free. We met for dinner and talked until the restaurant closed. A few weeks later, we met again for dinner and stayed until that restaurant closed, too. A few dates later, which included him volunteering to help me with yard work at my Arizona City house I was trying to sell, he demonstrated to my son and my son’s buddies the art of juggling. I pretty much knew then he was a keeper. A mutual contact of ours once said that we were cut from similar cloth. We bought a house together the next year and married in 2009. He’s a good friend and stepfather to my son. Life is good.
GC LIVING: And you just went back to school and got your masters’ degree.
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: I did. I finished a year ago in April and have an MBA from Western Governors University. I talked to so many people who say, “Oh my God, I can’t even imagine doing school online.” It is hard, and you have to be very dedicated and disciplined. Especially if you’re doing something you don’t necessarily enjoy. There were some classes I had to push myself through and others that really excited me. It was challenging, and I really am glad I did it.
GC LIVING: So while you were at Francisco Grande, Casa Grande Regional, NextCare and then Sun Life, you were always very active in the Chamber, representing the business you were with.
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: Yes I was.
GC LIVING: So when longtime Chamber President Helen Neuharth announced her retirement …
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: I got to thinking. I had been working in health-care marketing for what, 22 years? With Helen announcing her retirement it made me think about the possibility and the fact that I love being involved in our community. I was ready for a change. I felt that work at the Chamber could be a fun challenge. I talked to Helen about my interest, and then I chewed on it a bit more. I freshened up my resume and threw my hat in the ring and got the job.
GC LIVING: So, you have nine months on the job under your belt and then March 2020 happens.
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: Oh my gosh, who saw that coming? What craziness it became for me in my new role, it also gave me an opportunity to overcome. One of my favorite movies is Heartbreak Ridge with Clint Eastwood. He always talked about, “We’re Marines — we adapt, we improvise, we overcome.” I’ve always treated my life that way. You have to figure out what the obstacles are and try and overcome them. And that’s what we’ve been doing at the Chamber of Commerce. It has been challenging for our team. But, we have, and we are, a great team. And through this, we’ve adapted and improvised. It’s been challenging for our member businesses. It’s been challenging for our community. I’ve seen this as an opportunity for us to be really proactive in promoting everyone we can, in every way we can, with fewer financial resources, since we’re not having fundraisers or mixers.
GC LIVING: What are some of the successes you’ve seen from the 2020 crazy show? Because there are positives. There are businesses that have overcome and found ways to adapt and succeed. What are some of the ways you see the Chamber adapting, overcoming and succeeding?
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: I’ll kind of step back to when I first started. There were some hiccups. Helen was retiring and I was applying for her position. By the time I was interviewing for the position, two long-term employees announced they were also retiring, which was changing the dynamic of what I was moving into. But I still jumped in with both feet. One of the reasons I applied for the job is because I love our community and I love the idea of marketing and promoting our businesses. All of them, not just one, as well as our community. So fast forward these past few months and look at our role right now.
I apologize to all of our members who see emails from us so often, but it’s to get information out to them about what’s going on. I was participating in calls from the governor’s office and meetings with the City. The mayor would send an email asking us to “get this out there.” The Chamber is a conduit to make sure our members are informed of what is available to them — all of the first CARES Act options, making sure they were educated, participating in the teleconferences, putting together webinars and sessions to help members learn to adjust and improvise their business model to meet the current consumer need, despite the restrictions.
A lot of our members have expressed that these are tough times. We are working with members to stretch out payments if needed. Our current member retention rate is 1% higher than the same time last year. We’re keeping members, and that’s a good thing.
And through that we wanted to try and convene our members. So we decided, “Let’s get Zoom, and have virtual mixers” We’ve tried to make each one fresh. When we did our first virtual Business Before Hours at Casa Grande Trap and Skeet, the owner Tiger Volz (who was awesome), said, “Well, I’ll just bring someone in to do a shooting demo.” And so we walked out there; I had a Wi-Fi jet pack so we could take my computer out there and show everyone on our screen in the little “Brady Bunch boxes,” this is what it looks like to go shooting here, to experience this business’ offering.
It’s like a face-to-face networking event. We’ve found ways to still give members their minute at the mic by playing games, trivia, and table topics. We announce there’s going to be questions and some prizes. It’s a chance to shamelessly self-promote and we encourage it. We had 23 to 25 attendees at our most recent event. That’s what we usually have for in-person attendance. We gave away three I ♥ Casa Grande shirts as prizes.
A few businesses that agreed to be hosts of our Business After Hours canceled. The Casa Grande Neon Sign Park was scheduled for March and we had to cancel and were sad to do so because that’s a great time of year to be outdoors in the evening and show off our now award-winning park. We’ve just taken the Zoom voyage to Business After Hours, too. The August host, Sun Life Family Health Center, alternates every year with the hospital. They agreed to do it via Zoom because they saw it not as a limitation, but as an opportunity to not just showcase one office, but multiple offices. It is really about thinking outside the box, the box being our computer, so to speak.
We’re looking at our fall fundraisers; we want to still have a Business Showcase, for our members and the community. We announced it to our members to at least get that communication going with the caveat of whether or not we’ll be able to hold it. It makes more sense to start planning and have to make changes versus not to plan at all. We’ve had conversations with one of our member businesses who do a lot of digital marketing, to help us investigate a virtual option to connect our members, to have that face-to-face networking, because the whole idea is they have an opportunity to talk to potential consumers. So we’re exploring our options, whether putting together a virtual business showcase, a video or a conference-type platform where there are breakouts; or postponing to a point when we can do the event in person. We really want to develop that particular event into a fall Casa Grande lifestyle show. Unfortunately, COVID’s restricting us, but at the same time it’s teaching us to try to do different things. And that’s the approach for the fall golf tournament. You can still play golf, that’s considered mostly distancing if you’re playing with your familiars. So how can we do a golf tournament and still have the other parts of the tournament that people enjoy as well? We’re working with Francisco Grande and we’re coming up with some fun ideas. People will still want to go play golf for the Chamber and have a good day, win some prizes and get their drink ticket. We don’t yet know if we’ll be able to have a “sit-down” lunch reception like we usually do. I’m not sure we’ll be able to have crowds by Nov. 6. I’m hoping to have the Home, Health and Garden Show, as well as our annual dinner in-person in January, fingers crossed. Maybe we postpone them. It’s in our bylaws to have the annual meeting at a certain time of year, but we didn’t have a hundred-year pandemic since we were incorporated. It won’t be this way forever. It’s just right now this is the way it will be. Hopefully next year will be different.
Also, when I started last year, we changed things around from doing the monthly e-newsletter, which was a PDF, and started a weekly digital e-newsletter. I think our numbers prove it is a welcomed change. Our open rate is almost 11% higher than the industry average. So yay for us! We send it out to about 1,100 people each week. It has given us an opportunity to connect with our members more; and to connect the readers with our members more using links to their websites, whether it’s a new member announcement, or a business brief. We’re also doing a Business of the Week. That’s a video that gets put on our YouTube channel, in the weekly newsletter and it goes out on social media. I think we’ve had an opportunity to find little ways to increase value to our members. And the Business of the Week is a hit! The business is excited at the opportunity to be highlighted in this way. It’s a way to congratulate them. It’s not high-tech, but it’s a video and they love it. And they get a lot of positive reviews on our social media posts. In fact, during all of the shutdowns due to COVID, we created a website that’s not limited to our Chamber members called www.casagrandeisopenforbusiness.com, because we wanted to make sure there was this one place people could look for a business in Casa Grande. The Chamber paid for the URL, and APS has supported the updates and the design of the website, and the City of Casa Grande has been proactive in communicating about the site. We have over 150 businesses on it now. Not all of them are Chamber members. We don’t go and hunt them down to join, we hope they would want to become a member, but if they don’t, it’s OK. It’s really about sharing that our community is still open, because ultimately that helps all of us.
GC LIVING: I recently saw an announcement from the city. One of the items on the email was they are moving forward with the community marketing organization or CMO.
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: Actually, it’s still on hold. But, the state of Arizona is doing a Rediscover Arizona campaign for tourism. I keep thinking now more than ever, we need to get a Rediscover Casa Grande campaign off the ground. And that would be a complete website redesign with the community brand. Our current website is a bit of a tourism and Chamber website, but this would be a more robust website, a more exciting sense of arrival, and rich with images. And there would be add-ons that would be marketing the website to our community and beyond. It’s a Love Local campaign. We want people to shop local. We want people to stay local, and we want this website to be marketed to our communities and our area, so they think, “Oh yeah, Casa Grande, they have what I need,” and get them coming here. You don’t need to drive up to the Valley for things. It’s really about getting more people to our different businesses. It’s like a great small town of 60,000 residents. That’s what I like about Casa Grande. It’s a growing city, there’s great industry, there’s great opportunity, but it still feels like a small town. I like to go to the places that are locally owned. I like to support BeDillon’s, A Latte Vino, Ricardo’s, Cook-E-Jar — I could go on, and on…you know, the places where you get to know them and they get to know you.
GC LIVING: Sixty thousand people and you can run into people you know at the grocery store every time.
RENÉE LOUZON-BENN: Yes! This is why I always think about what I look like before I leave the house. I always run into people I know. Now when I run into people, we talk about business and the Chamber and how are things going for their business. I think it gives me an opportunity to be supportive in a different way with our community members, our business members, and also to be part of growth in the economic development sector. In the short time since I began, I’ve been able to do some new and exciting things, and I’m not done. Like the shirt says, “Casa Grande: Love It!”