Since he became CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC in May 2015, Dirk Draper has steered the organization to new heights. Membership has increased from the low 900s to nearly 1,300 today. The chamber has received three state and national awards this year, and the chamber and the city have racked up numerous awards and No. 1 spots on various lists. Draper said he’s proud to be a part of that progress.
Draper grew up in Rolla, Mo. He graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia with a degree in agricultural economics and, in his mid-30s, earned a master’s degree in natural resource economics from Colorado State University. Before moving to Colorado Springs 15 years ago, he worked as a banker and for a Northern Colorado engineering company doing environmental assessments and impact statements. He moved to Colorado Springs and worked for CH2M Hill as an area manager for 12½ years.
Draper first discovered Colorado Springs when attending church camps as a youngster.
“I know it’s a familiar story for people who live here — that they came out on vacation and came back later,” he said. “I’m one of those stories.”
What skills have you developed that serve you well now?
[As a grad student] I started doing regional economic studies. I did modeling — if you change something in the economy, what are the effects on the rest of the economy? That was good preparation. … I worked for a few years with a research center in Fort Collins for the Fish and Wildlife Service and looked at endangered species protection, … and I was on a very small team of economists who figured out how many jobs would come and go with policy changes. So I understand the effects of multipliers and spinoff effects.
Another thing was that I’ve been a community volunteer my whole life, … and that actually contributed to how I came to be here. I served on the chamber board as a volunteer from 2008 to 2011, and I was board chair for one year. I was also on the EDC board in 2010, so I knew that part of the business as well when we were separate organizations.
What individuals have influenced your career and leadership style?
A guy named Arlen Disselkoen, [who] was executive vice president with the biggest bank in Greeley. I saw him many times introduce himself as just saying, ‘I work at a bank.’ He was never bragging about his role; he was just very humble. Ralph Peterson was the CEO of CH2M Hill when I first started working there. [He was] a remarkable leader for a global company. He had the ability to make you feel like you were the most important thing in his day.
Two other people who were influential in my path are Dave Csintyan and Stephannie Fortune. They were both on the chamber staff, and they convinced me to serve on the board.
What are your most significant accomplishments at the Chamber & EDC?
Rebuilding relationships for the Chamber & EDC. A second is building a team of folks here who are very good at their craft and are very committed to what the city does. I’m just really proud of that vibe and their ethic. And a third thing is the ability to participate in the renaissance of the city. It’s a privilege to be a small piece of that. … I won’t take credit for it because that’s my team, but getting some industry recognition is a far cry from where this organization has been.
To what do you attribute the chamber’s growth?
Mindfulness for the value we provide our members. We’ve asked people to come back in a lot of different ways. Economic recovery for the region helps as well. Businesses are healthier; I don’t underestimate that, but it’s been a powerful combination.
What are the most difficult challenges you and the chamber have faced and will face in the future?
The biggest challenge we face is unlimited opportunities to be involved in things around the community but limited resources. … There’s hardly a week that goes by where somebody come to us with, ‘Hey would you help with this initiative? Would you lead this initiative?’ We can’t do everything that’s placed before us. … The biggest challenge we will face is the economic cycles that will buffet the national and regional economy. … so knowing that a recession is likely sometime in the next couple of years and preparing our organization and preparing our business community for that.
How are you preparing for that?
We started building a reserve account two years ago, which the organization didn’t have, so that we can weather some downturns. … Nationally, there’s nothing we can do, but we can help build a healthier, more diverse economy here that helps us withstand those downturns.
What do you love about your job?
What I love most is the opportunity to understand our local businesses. … People are so proud of what they do, what they make and how they serve others. They’re happy to tell you their story. There are so many headline-worthy companies in this community that nobody knows about that we get to work with on almost a daily basis. … A second thing is that at the Chamber & EDC we get to be in the middle of so many things in the community. I like to say we’re the straw that stirs the drink. I love telling the story about Colorado Springs. I enjoy working with our local employers and helping them grow and prosper, and I love helping to recruit companies here because it’s a great place to live and a great place to do business.
Join the Colorado Springs Business Journal, iHeartRadio, UCCS and Amnet for the 2019 COS CEO Leadership Lessons with Dirk Draper, 4:30-6:30 p.m., Oct. 3, at The Warehouse, 25 W. Cimarron St. A portion of the proceeds go to the 2019 Give! Campaign. Sponsors also include the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC and Stockman Kast Ryan + Co.