‘Collaboration is king’, says the plumber turned IT sales director who leads chamber of commerce

Updated: 1 September 2021

Chris Luff, Chief Executive of Watford & West Herts Chamber of Commerce, talks about his passion for business and why collaboration is key.

Chris Luff is the Chief Executive of Watford & West Herts Chamber of Commerce, recognised with an MBE in July for his services to the community during the Covid-19 crisis. Here he talks about his passion for business, why collaboration and networking is key, and his hopes for local businesses as they recover from the Covid pandemic.

At the age of 12, Chris Luff fitted his first central heating system – without the help of his plumber father. This wasn’t Chris’ first experience in the world of work though, he started joining his dad on jobs at the age of five, visiting the homes and businesses of Northwood as an apprentice.

“It is one of the things that contributed to me getting confidence,” explained Chris.

“You could never do it these days because of health and safety and goodness knows what, but on my school holidays I was on building sites with builders who were giving me the benefit of their worldly advice. My father used to do an awful lot of top end houses around Kensington, so I used to meet a lot of very wealthy people as a young man, and they were always interested in what I was up to and why I was doing it.”

For Chris, these were valuable lessons – gaining the confidence and ability to communicate with people from all walks of life. Having had his own potential recognised at such a young age, Chris feels compelled to give other young people opportunities to work as apprentices at the chamber of commerce where they can learn the skills which he hopes will similarly enrich their futures.

Chris went on to work for Olympia Typewriters where an executive “spotted a spark” in him, trebling his salary and handing him a brand new company car. Along with two others Chris then founded IT company Freedom which they sold three years ago after 30 years at the helm.

Before he accepted the opportunity to become Chief Executive of the chamber of commerce, Chris was already dedicating his time and energy to making a difference to communities across Hertfordshire. He worked on a number of projects ranging from supporting schools and refurbishing playgrounds to organising a disability confident event and Foodbank Friday networking events to provide at least three days' worth of healthy, balanced meals for people in need.

He said: “If you want to build longer lasting relationships with organisations, the days of going to networking meetings and thrusting your business card in front of someone and ringing them up the following day are gone. You can actually build relationships by working together on a local cause and make those relationships stronger.”

Today his work as Chief Executive of the chamber of commerce occupies much of his time – not least because of the pandemic.

He said: “At first I wasn’t interested – I thought chambers of commerce were old dusty organisations that were mainly meetings of old school, middle aged guys, having meetings at masonic lodges at seven in the morning, serving sausage rolls. I thought it was one of the least inclusive and diverse organisations you would want to join.”

After coming on board as Chief Executive three years ago, he quickly established a partnership with Metro Bank, which prior to Covid began hosting regular networking events at its Watford branch and expanded to Hemel Hempstead, Borehamwood, Harrow and Edgware. All the time Chris was bringing diverse businesses and organisations together – often charities would have an opportunity to talk to rooms full of local business figures – and all the while building new connections and networks for mutual benefit.

He said: “I always believe collaboration is king, even collaborating with your competition. If you get the right people in the room with the right mindset, you can make one add one add up to twenty.”

Covid has proved a challenge for the chamber, but collaboration continues to be its driving force. In March 2020 when restrictions were imposed, daily online networking events with help and advice were immediately established. As Zoom fatigue sets in, the chamber has progressed to using a platform called Remo – offering virtual working and event spaces which aim to bring a more human experience. It even hosts a virtual office, open to anyone to enter and network with others.

Of the business landscape of autumn 2021 Chris said: “Business is tough, at the best of times business is tough. You’ve got to keep coming up with new ideas of how to differentiate – you’ve got to continuously look at ways of upping your game. When the pandemic came we all had to do it overnight. It’s been devastating for all sorts of people and businesses have gone to the wall over this period, but actually that’s life and you’ve got to get on and do what you can. Watford and the surrounding area is a wonderful place with a great network of organisations.

“We have a huge opportunity being slap-bang in the middle of the film industry. There are diverse opportunities for plumbers, carpenters, hairdressers, and cafes. Once you’ve got a core there, there is business for everybody.”

And that belief in the power of communication and connection and collaboration – learned in the sitting rooms of Kensington and the building sites of Northwood and honed over years in business – are, Chris believes, the key to the recovery.

Chris said: “Business is borderless, the traditional days of being a member of a chamber in a town are gone. We need to be giving business opportunities to network with other towns and other chambers, so we are working on collaboration projects with other chambers. We are joining a network of networks to widen the horizons for business to talk to each other – that is our job, as an enabler.”

For more information and to join Watford & West Herts Chamber of Commerce visit:  https://watfordchamber.co.uk/