Debra Rosen, North San Diego Business Chamber’s president and CEO for the past 14 years, is retiring on June 30.
A regional search is underway for her successor, with the goal of hiring someone so Rosen can work with the individual for several weeks before leaving the Rancho Bernardo-based chamber.
It is a retirement five years in the making, Rosen said, explaining she and her husband, Mike, decided they wanted to retire this year so they can travel extensively over the next few years.
With their three children grown, a few years ago they started downsizing, moved from their Poway home of 28 years to another they owned in San Diego and started making retirement plans. Those included buying a catamaran so they can spend months at sea with a crew.
“We are going to go south to Baja, then to Cabo and want to explore the Sea of Cortez for seven or eight months,” Rosen said.
The couple plans to leave in late October, with a schedule that puts them in port during hurricane season. Friends are planning to join them at various ports and Rosen said they will return to San Diego occasionally. Their long-term goal is to reach Panama, the Caribbean and their “ultimate goal” is to reach the British Virgin Islands, she said.
To prepare, they plan to go on two-week shakedown cruises from July to September to places such as Catalina, she said.
“We are so excited,” Rosen said. “Who would have thought this 14 years ago?”
Rosen came to the chamber when it had serious financial issues that put it well over $100,000 in debt, according to former board chair Trudy Armstrong.
“It was a mess,” Armstrong said. She planned on leaving the board, but agreed to help the chamber find a new leader. When Rosen was chosen that was the only thing that persuaded Armstrong to become board chair.
“Debra by far was the best choice because she is such a dynamic leader,” Armstrong said. “We felt that with a good team it could be rebuilt ... she gave us great confidence. ... She had proven herself with the Escondido Downtown Business Association. I was there to support her.”
Rosen said she was not made fully aware of how dire the chamber’s financial problems were when she accepted the position. Even some of the board members did not know the amount of debt the chamber had incurred and resigned once Rosen discovered its extent.
She came to the chamber a few years after the Rancho Bernardo and Diamond Gateway chambers merged to form a regional organization. When Rosen was hired in 2009 more than 90 percent of the membership and board members were from Rancho Bernardo or Poway.
The native San Diegan with a bachelor’s degree in public administration from San Diego State University said she initially was interested in a law career. But career opportunities put her on a different path that included working for 15 years in the business side of The San Diego Union-Tribune. That led to her forming relationships with restaurant owners in the Gaslamp District and exposure to their business association.
Eighteen years ago she was hired to lead the Escondido Downtown Business Association, which was on the path toward disbanding, she said. It represented around 350 businesses.
“I turned it around and we did great,” she said. “That was a great experience, working one-on-one with small businesses. I knew their challenges, pain points and how to tackle them. It is important to be relevant and not just focused on what you find interesting.”
Board members for the San Diego North Chamber of Commerce — as the chamber was then known — reached out to Rosen, asking if she would do for it what she accomplished within four years in Escondido.
While interested in the challenge, Rosen said there was times she considered resigning. The chamber owed money to everyone, including back rent to its landlord, unpaid taxes and to its members for promised services.
But rather than having the chamber declare bankruptcy, Rosen said it was important to make good on all the debt. She had to lay off most of the chamber’s staff and with the help of Brianna Eltzroth, now the chamber’s chief operations officer, set up repayment plans.
“There would be no forgiveness and we paid off all the bills,” Rosen said.
“She pretty much single-handedly got us out of the mess,” Armstrong said. “It took 18 months, but she turned it around. ... We would not have a chamber now if not for Debra.”
Armstrong said Rosen’s ability to look “outside the box” and not just do what all other chambers were doing was key to her success.
With her long-established business relationships, Rosen recruited a new board. It included Angelo Damante from Mercedes-Benz of Escondido and Brad Holiday of Callaway Golf.
“I diversified the board, it became regional and grew holistically,” Rosen said.
The chamber rebranded itself, adopting its current name because she said many business leaders did not know what a chamber of commerce did or how it could benefit them.
Over the past 14 years the chamber’s geographic reach has grown north to Murietta and south to Otay Mesa. Many members are in downtown San Diego and go west to the coast. Its 800-plus members represent around 197,000 employees throughout San Diego County.
She said about 49 percent of the member companies have 25 or fewer employees, with the remaining 51 percent a mix of medium and large companies. They include Sony Electronics, Sharp Rees-Stealy and Littler Mendelson.
The board is also representative of the membership’s diversity. For the past several years Rosen has focused on recruiting younger business leaders.
“We have successfully gone through tumultuous times including a major recession in 2009 – 2011, the pandemic in 2020 – 2022, and we are prepared for whatever the economy throws at us in the future,” Rosen said.
Another thing she is very proud of is its U.S. Chamber Accreditation. It is the only chamber in San Diego to achieve this status, receiving a 3-Star rating 12 years ago, and 5-Star ratings twice since. The rating is awarded every five years.
“It shows you have gone through every audit possible and are running the organization at the highest level you can,” Rosen said. “It is complete transparency, with no favoritism. Everyone is treated equally ... that we set the best practices and follow them to a T. It is not a good old boys’ club.”
But what she is most proud? That everything the chamber does is relevant to at least 75 percent of its membership. She said this applies to every dollar spent, every program and every event.
“I have never lost sight that we work for the members,” Rosen said.
Another point of pride is San Diego Women’s Week, set to hold its 14th annual convention next month in Rancho Bernardo.
The chamber board wanted a signature event, but when Rosen and Armstrong pitched one focused on women there was a lot of doubt among the male board members.
“They asked, what does this have to do with business?” Rosen recalled. “We wanted to promote women in leadership and empower women in leadership. This was not the narrative at that time. But we had to be forward-thinking.”
“She saw what was happening in society with women and work, they were becoming more valued,” Armstrong said.
It was the day before Thanksgiving in 2009 and the board gave her until Jan. 1 to raise 50 percent of the budget. Rosen said within five weeks — the holiday season — she and Armstrong used their networking contacts to raise 100 percent of the budget.
The event has grown over the years and has been able to recruit high-caliber speakers such as Arianna Huffington, Deepak Chopra, Marlee Matlin, Elizabeth Smart and Daymond John.
“It is due to relationships, but I will not share the secret sauce. Only Brianna knows and can carry it forward,’ she said.
Other accomplishments include the Business Summit that replaced the chamber’s State of the Region event, and the Military Summit started two years ago. Both reflect current needs and interests of the membership and region, she said.
Armstrong called Rosen a “visionary” who moves quickly on trends and is forward-thinking.
Rosen also mentioned the Emerging Leaders program for professionals under age 40 that provides free development workshops and networking.
“My generation is retiring and the future generation is coming up the ranks, making decisions,” she said. “If we do not engage them now, they will never be engaged.”
She said the chamber’s overseas trips have been very successful. The trips were one way to diversify the chamber’s income.
“When I got here, 75 percent of the budget was from membership and 25 percent event revenue,” Rosen said. “It is now diversified, with 33 percent from membership, 33 percent from non-dues revenue like grants and chamber travel, and 33 percent from events and partnerships. ... We cannot rely on one source of revenue.”
She also believes one must “under promise and over deliver” — a philosophy that has guided her throughout her career.
“I’ve had a great life and a great career,” Rosen said.