From time to time, someone will tell Susan Paradis she tends to put the proverbial cart before the horse. The Imperial Chamber of Commerce executive director concedes this may be true. It’s a product of her desire to get things done. She knows where the cart belongs, and she doesn’t want to waste any time getting it there.
“I'm definitely a big picture thinker,” Paradis said. “I see the vision and the potential of things. I know how to run them. But I don't necessarily get caught up in or even like the little details. I really want to say, ‘This is what we're doing. Figure it out. This is the end result.’”
Leadership and visionary thinking were modeled for Susan from the jump. She is the adopted daughter of the late Herb and LouAnn Farrar. Her father, who passed away just last summer, was the former Imperial County Superintendent of Schools.
“I always had parents who pushed me and believed in me,” Paradis said. “My mother was always, always my biggest cheerleader. She was always telling me, ‘You are so smart. You can do anything,’ over and over and over. And my dad, I hope that I just can be a tenth of the person he was as a Christian and a leader in our community.”
Paradis grew up in El Centro and graduated with Central Union High School’s class of 1983. She has always been a worker. She recalls volunteering as a candy striper at El Centro Regional Medical Center when she was 13 years old and getting her first paying job at El Centro Office Supply & Hallmark at the age of 15.
“I have worked as long as I can remember,” she said. “When I was too little to work, I would play secretary at my dad’s desk in our home, and would work (unpaid) at his office after school in high school.”
For many years, she was working as a single mother, and eventually it became clear if she was going to make enough money to support her family she was going to have to move.
“I packed up my two children (Stephani and Michael) and moved to San Diego, lying to my parents that I already had a job so that they would let me stay in the family condo,” she recalled. “Needless to say I had to get a job and fast, so I joined a temp agency and landed a position in a biotech company where I thrived and more than doubled my salary within three years.”
Working in the biotech industry for eight years, learning as much as she could, Paradis moved up from administrative assistant to director of operations and administration.
“Most of the companies were start-ups,” she said, “so I am an expert at getting policies and procedures in place, and developing human resources, accounting and finance departments. At the last company, I oversaw a 25,000-square-foot buildout of new office and laboratory space.”
From biotech, Paradis moved on to the non-profit sector, serving as director of administration for the San Diego Psychological Association, a trade organization with more than 900 members. She said it was this job, which she held for six years, that ultimately prepared her for her current position with the Imperial Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m really a small-town girl at heart,” said Paradis, explaining why she moved back to the Valley in 2010, after more than a decade in the big city. “Imperial Valley has always been home, and I wanted to buy a home, something I never was going to be able to do in San Diego.”
So the consulting firm Farrar Business Solutions was born. Here Paradis, then operating under her maiden name (she has only in more recent years become a Paradis by meeting and marrying a union electrician named Jerry), worked with a variety of companies — doing bookkeeping, helping them with business plans and assisting them with human resources.
She did this for nearly seven years, but eventually the unpredictable nature of consulting work (“it’s always feast or famine”) and the demands of helping businesses that usually have let problems go on well beyond normal tolerances (she recalls one client who presented her with three or four garbage bags of unsorted paperwork) left her ready to find something a little more stable.
And in March 2017, Paradis was hired at the Imperial Chamber, taking on the post held for many years by Sharon Ryan before she passed away in 2014. The intervening years between Ryan’s death and Paradis’ hiring left the organization decidedly less stable than Susan might have hoped. Nevertheless, she jumped into the challenge with both feet.
“Since the passing of Sharon Ryan, there had been a lot of loss of membership and a lot of loss of faith in the chamber,” Paradis said. “When I came on board, there were 67 members, and it was an uphill battle.”
For starters, she had to get up to speed on what a chamber of commerce actually does. “I know administration backward and forward, but I didn’t really know the chamber’s role, so I had to be a quick study and learn a lot and do a lot of research on the purpose of the chamber. And that’s still ongoing — there are so many untapped opportunities for chambers to offer members, and I don’t feel we’re providing the best service we can yet.”
Paradis has made it a priority to visit the organization’s members and find out more about what they need from their membership. She has also emphasized establishing more precise policies and procedures to make sure things get done and that they get done in the right way.
For instance, one of the reasons the Imperial Chamber’s membership was so low was that members weren’t receiving renewal notices. Between correcting that oversight and the personal touches Paradis has implemented, membership has more than doubled under her watch.
“We’re averaging one or two new members a week,” she said.
Among the first things Paradis did when taking on her new job was insist on meeting with board of directors to conduct a strategic planning workshop to perform a SWOT analysis, assessing the chamber’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This was to ensure the chamber could set proper goals. “If the board didn’t set goals, then I was going to fail.”
One thing that came out of that exercise is the board recognized that it had to mend its relationship with the City of Imperial, which had become strained in the years after Ryan’s death. Fortunately, about the time Paradis was getting started with the chamber, the city was breaking in a relatively new city manager, Stefan Chatwin.
“There was no baggage on his end, and I was new, so there was no baggage on my end,” Paradis recalled. “He and I met almost within the first month of me coming on board and really have worked well together since then.”
Another thing that became clear during the S.W.O.T. workshop was the chamber’s vulnerability. “We have no property, no land. We do not own our building, and that has put the chamber at a real disadvantage,” Paradis said. “The city used to subsidize the chamber significantly, and that was cut. Had they not offered us this building and utilities free, we would be working out of my garage or a one-room office with one staff.”
From this was born one of Paradis’ big-picture ideas: building a 15,000-square-foot office building and convention center on the outskirts of Imperial. The building would not only give the chamber a home of its own, but also it would create a large venue for events that would serve as an important source of non-dues revenue for the organization. She envisions it being a green facility, employing predominantly solar power. What’s more, she believes the project can be done in three years.
At this point, the Imperial Chamber board has approved a creation of a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation to serve as a fund-raising mechanism for the project.
“We are right now in the phase of creating the bylaws for this foundation and getting them approved,” Paradis said.
Then will come a feasibility study, followed by about year and a half of fundraising. That leaves a year to break ground and make the dream a reality.
Ambitious? You bet. But Paradis wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Why not?” she said, making the question a dare. “We have to fix what we have to be, and we need our own place. That’s the driving force. The chamber needs its own lot and its own building and independence.
We need to be self-sustaining.”