Q&A: Indy Chamber’s new CEO Matt Mindrum

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Matt Mindrum is a month into his new role as CEO of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and recently spoke with IBJ about his vision for the region’s growth and his new insights into youth apprenticeships.

Mindrum, who has spent his career in marketing positions at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Eli Lilly and Co. and Butler University, succeeds Michael Huber, who stepped down in September 2022 after nearly 10 years as CEO to become Indiana University’s vice president for university relations.

A graduate of the IU Jacobs School of Music and Harvard Business School’s MBA program, Mindrum will manage Indy Chamber’s $10 million operating budget and 55 total staff members.

Here’s what he had to say about youth apprenticeships, downtown vitality and more. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

How are you settling into your new role?

Pretty well. I was able to spend some time getting acclimated, doing a lot of reading and talking to folks from when I accepted the role to when I started, including spending a week in Zurich with a lot of our stakeholders studying modern youth apprenticeships.

What were some of your takeaways from that trip?

I’ll tell you, I went in pretty cold on the topic. I didn’t know anything about it, and I came out really a disciple of that opportunity. It blows my mind today that we’ve got a working age population that’s shrinking. We’ve got decreasing labor force participation and real wages within that working age population, and meanwhile, we’ve got a high school curriculum that hasn’t really changed in 100 years and is designed to prepare all students for college even though only two-thirds pursue that path and only one-third complete that path. So we’re really doing our students a disservice, I think, in today’s environment, including stacking up with debt those who pursue a college degree, but either don’t complete it or find that doesn’t give them marketable skills. That has a disproportionate impact on students of color and underrepresented groups. I think there’s a ton of room for improvement.

We also just have a widening gap between supply and demand of qualified workers. That’s a combination of a lack of post-secondary attainment and a lack of alignment between fields of study and market demand. It really feels to me like modern youth apprenticeships offer a win-win-win for students and families, for employers and for the state by getting more folks participating in post-secondary education and increasing the supply of qualified workers and better aligning those skills to employer demand. I think it’s a huge opportunity and I’m excited by the potential for Indiana to lead the way in the U.S.

A group of local tourism and cultural leaders traveled to Singapore in November to learn about the way the Asian country has handled development along its waterways—and whether central Indiana could follow a similar approach with the White River. Hoosier leaders have for years talked about how the White River and the canal have been underutilized. How can the city better take advantage of these resources?

I’m not an expert on the topic, but I always felt that across the U.S., we turned our back on many of our waterways, and Indianapolis is certainly no exception to that. We’ve got some incredible opportunities certainly with the White River and even more opportunity with the canal. When you think about the expansion of IU and Purdue, and our hospital complex along the White River, you think about 16 Tech, you go up to 38th Street and think about Newfields, you go down to the zoo, the new Elanco headquarters, Eleven Park, White River State Park—you’re talking about a substantial amount of development along the White River. I think it’s exciting to think about how we can do some things to tie that all together.

Unlike your predecessor, Michael Huber, you bring a lot of private sector experience to this role. What made you decide to pursue a more public-facing position?

I didn’t intend to end up with an Indianapolis resume. I made career choices that made the most sense for me and where I thought I could have the most impact, but I started my postgraduate school career at Lilly for seven years. I had the opportunity to be chief marketing officer at Butler University for about four years. I played the same role at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I spent the last few years at a health care startup, but when I look back and reflect on that resume, it’s not a health care resume. It’s not a sports entertainment resume. It’s not a higher ed resume. It’s an Indianapolis resume. And so when folks came to me this summer and said, ‘Hey, we think you might be the right guy for this role,’ I got really excited about it.

I’m a sales and marketing guy, and I’ve always believed that Indianapolis is better than its reputation. Nationally, I see a huge opportunity for us to tell a better, more compelling story about what’s happening here, and also put some pressure on all the folks who are responsible for what’s happening here to make it even better. And I’m just really excited to be a part of that.

During the pandemic, the Indy Chamber launched an initiative called Project Amplify. I’m curious how that work is going.

Life in Indy is the working title of that work now, so that’s really the brand we ended up embracing. That was all about making sure that folks who are looking for information about Indianapolis—thinking about moving here, might be open and receptive to the idea of coming to Indianapolis—that we’re surfacing the livability content that we think is most important for them to see rather than letting third party companies be the ones who are surfacing content that those folks see first. I think the team has done a great job making sure that the content we’ve worked with partners across the city to create is one of the first things that folks see when they’re searching for information about Indianapolis. It’s one of the factors that has helped us improve some of our perception scores in Indianapolis versus our peers in Minneapolis, Columbus and Cincinnati. We did reach our goal from a perception score perspective about a year early as part of the project, but there’s still a lot of work to do because our competitors are getting better as well. There’s still a big gap between us and some of the aspirant markets that we think about, like a Nashville, Austin, Denver or Charlotte.

The Indianapolis City-County Council recently voted to create an economic enhancement district. Groups like the Indiana Apartment Association seem like they’re intent on lobbying the legislature in this upcoming session to look at this issue again. Are you worried that the EED is in jeopardy of falling apart?

First, on the need for the district itself, I think a vibrant central business district is critical to the success and competitiveness of our city, our region and our state. There are a lot of great things happening downtown. I think about residential growth. I think about tourism. The development community and our partners at Visit Indy, the Capital Improvement Board, the sports, entertainment and hospitality industry, the Indiana Sports Corp., have all done incredible work to really lead downtown through recovery. You’re probably familiar with the University of Toronto data that was much ballyhooed a year or so ago showing that we were below half of the pre-pandemic levels of activity downtown. They just released some updated data that says we’re quite a bit better than that, and I think some of that was restating of the data, but some of that is really improvement. We’re getting to about 80% of 2019 levels, putting us in the middle of the pack among U.S. cities and ahead of our Midwest peers. It’s still not where we want to be but it’s meaningfully better.

There’s still a lot of work to do. Downtown office and retail vacancy remains very high, and there are some concerns, I think some real and some perceived, about public safety cleanliness, homelessness and just the lack of economic activity downtown. As you know, our partners at Downtown Indy used American Rescue Plan Act dollars, a significant infusion of COVID recovery funds over the last year to put a dent in those issues, but more needs to be done, and those funds are going to run out next year. That’s why we’re so excited and appreciative of the Indiana General Assembly’s efforts last session to help fund construction of the low barrier homeless shelter and authorize the EED, as well as the City-County Council’s action to implement it. As far as where we go from here, right now we’re in implementation mode with our partners and planning and expecting to get the EED underway as we move forward. We’re always open to conversations and opportunities to improve and enhance the mechanism, but we hope and expect that we’ll be in a position to move forward.

What do you see as the future of Develop Indy, the economic development agency? Is this something that could be spun off or handed over to the city?

It’s important to us. We’re a regional chamber, and we think regionally about economic development and growth, but we also care immensely about economic development in Indianapolis and Marion County. We are really happy to be stewards of that effort and to be partners with the city in that effort. We have been speaking with the city about using 2024 to complete an assessment of what “great” looks like from a local economic development perspective in the context of a metropolitan area and a growing region. Our focus right now is working with the city to see what “good” looks like, do some benchmarking, do some studying. What we care most about is that we have a best-in-class economic development effort. We care less about exactly who does it or how it gets done, so I think we’ll be great partners in working through that next year.

I’m also curious about your approach to endorsements and slating for elections moving forward. What are some things under your leadership that you want the Indy Chamber to prioritize in upcoming elections?

The business advocacy committee, which is a separate entity from the chamber, we count on them. They are independent in a lot of ways to make sure that we have experts thinking about the policies and the candidates that are going to be in the best position to move the chamber’s agenda forward and the agenda of business in the central Indiana region. They’ve been doing a great job doing that work, and I don’t expect there’s going to be any significant changes to the way that group operates. It will continue to advocate for growth here in Indianapolis, across the region, and for the interests of business in the broader community.

How can Indianapolis get more people downtown and make it a more vibrant, urban core? Is it reconverting office space? Is it offering more quality of life amenities? What do you see as the potential for downtown over the next decade?

I think there’s huge potential in downtown. It’s the economic engine of the state. It’s the tourism engine of the state. It’s one of the fastest growing residential communities in the city and the state. There’s a lot of great things happening downtown. There are short-term concerns that we need to address, and again, I think some of those are real and some of those are perceived, and I think the economic enhancement district is a big step toward doing that. I do think the EED is is a key short-term step in the right direction to that longer term vision, but we need this to be a place that is wildly attractive to talent, both retaining talent that are already here in Indiana and those that are coming to Indiana to go to our amazing colleges and universities. We want central Indiana and downtown specifically to be a place where they’re attracted to come live, work and play, and also to attract those from outside the state that aren’t yet here in Indiana to come work and live here.

As far as how we get there, I think there are going to be a lot of different factors. We certainly need to continue to see growth from a business perspective and an economic development perspective. People talk a lot about office being dead, but it’s not, it’s just changing. There’s going to be more demand than supply for modern office space that looks like the Bottleworks District or the Stutz building. So I think one opportunity is to continue to develop more of that space that meets the needs of today’s businesses and today’s workers. And then I think there’s also going to be opportunity to convert offices to residential or other uses. We’re seeing some of that happening already here in Indianapolis, and, in fact, I think we’re a little bit ahead of the curve versus our peers and aspirant cities on that front. So I think the more we can do with conversion as well. We just need to make sure the great assets we have here in downtown are put to their highest and best use so we can attract talent. We’re moving to a world where talent doesn’t follow jobs, jobs follow talent, so we need to make sure we have a compelling quality of place to attract the next generation of talent.

(Note: This interview was conducted before Hendricks Commercial Properties LLC announced its $600 million redevelopment plan for Circle Centre Mall.)

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