From bank teller to CEO
New chamber chief Jolene Francis is a Chico woman who has worked her way to the top
Nobody can say the new president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce doesn’t know her way around town. Jolene Francis was born and reared and has worked in Chico all her life, becoming quite a success story in the process.
She’s followed the kind of old-fashioned career path rarely seen these days. Right after graduating from Pleasant Valley High School, she went to work as a part-time teller at Bank of America, where she rose steadily through the ranks for 16 years, leaving only to become manager of the Chico branch of Tehama Bank. When Humboldt Bank bought out Tehama, she became a senior vice president, a position she kept when Umpqua Bank swallowed up Humboldt.
In 2005, she left Umpqua to serve as a consultant to a group of local investors desiring to start a new Chico-based bank, and she played a crucial role in organizing Golden Valley Bank, which her husband, Mark Francis, now manages. She was also instrumental in creating the Golden Valley Bank Community Foundation, the organization’s charitable arm.
She’s also been active in the community outside banking, including serving eight years on the Chico Planning Commission, including two terms as chairwoman. She’s also served on several boards of directors, including the chamber’s, and is currently president of the Chico Noon Rotary Club.
Francis doesn’t officially start work until Jan. 1, but she’s already getting oriented and setting up her office. Chamber board Chairman Mark Sorensen joined us there for an interview Monday (Dec. 8).
Francis said serendipity played a part in her taking the job. She’d just finished up a consulting contract when she heard about it, and it “piqued [her] interest.” She saw it as an opportunity to put her experience in customer service and her leadership skills together, and besides, “it sounded like a heck of a lot of fun.”
Having said that, she noted that the country is going through “extraordinary times. … I don’t think most of us in the business community have seen anything like this. But I have a lot of confidence in the business and city leaders in Chico. When times get tough, this community really pulls together.”
Her goal, she said, is to be sure the local economy is as healthy as it can be in the face of the hard times nationally and make the chamber—which has about 1,000 members—as effective as possible.
She will need to do that, she acknowledged, because in this economic climate businesses are questioning the value of every cost, including membership in the chamber. “It’s a sign of the times. And we have to make sure we’re relevant and their membership dollars are worth it,” she said.
Sorensen added that this was a good time to assess the chamber’s operations: “Any time you have a change in leadership, it’s a good time to look at all your programs, to see what you can change or delete.”
To do that, Francis said, she’ll be arranging plenty of “face time with members,” including setting up focus groups of current and past members, and even non-members, to find out what they want and need the chamber to do and be.
One matter she will not have to worry about is the endorsement of political candidates, a controversial practice the chamber recently abandoned. “As the new CEO, I fully support that decision,” she said.
The problem with endorsements, she said, echoing Sorensen, was that voters largely ignored the issues behind the endorsements and focused instead just on the names. Henceforth, the chamber decided, it would take positions on issues but not candidates.
She said she looked forward to working with the current City Council members and wasn’t at all concerned that they were predominantly liberal in their philosophies. She’s confident they’ll listen attentively to the concerns of the business community.
“I don’t think you get elected unless you’re willing to listen to people,” she said. Like everybody else, the council members “want what’s best for Chico.”
She said she understood the wariness some Chicoans have toward big-box chain outlets, but she insisted that, for low-income members of the community, price at the register is a matter of survival. “There will always be controversy,” she said, “but the reality is that people vote with their pocketbooks,” and it’s not government’s job to tell them where to shop.
Asked what message she wanted to send to the council and the community, she replied that the Chamber of Commerce “exists to help create an environment in which business can prosper. When business prospers, it supports the entire community.”
Francis and her husband have three children. Son Casey Dietle, 24, is a seasonal firefighter with CalFire. Twin daughters Kristen and Lauren, 16, are juniors at Pleasant Valley High School.