Young fogeys needn't apply

Roger Trapp meets the high-flyers of the Junior Chambers of Commerce

What - other than the title of president - links John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Jacques Chirac? They were all members of Junior Chambers of Commerce.

As the name suggests, these bodies are linked to Chambers of Commerce and Industry. But the people involved in running the junior chambers are at pains to stress that they are not "young fogey" versions of those groups of worthy business people who meet in cities all over the world. Indeed, in the United States the desire to emphasise the distinction between the two bodies has led many to refer to the junior body as the "Jaycees".

The preferred description of the body is "the largest out-of-hours management development organisation in the world". Aimed at business people aged between 18 and 40, the organisation started in the United States in 1915, with the first branch being set up in Britain - in Lincoln - 11 years later. It now has more than 400,000 members in 100 countries around the world.

The London chamber, which held its annual luncheon yesterday, is active in "five areas of opportunity" - individual development and training, management, community involvement, "internationalism" and business. According to Corinna O'Brien-Edge - a past international vice-president, and president of the London junior chamber - the idea is to encourage individuals to take positions away from their workplaces with a view to developing themselves.

This can be done through assisting with community programmes as well as playing a role in the management of the chamber itself. This year's lunch, sponsored by accountants and consultants Arthur Andersen, marks the 10th anniversary of the Prince's Youth Business Trust, to which the London chamber has been an adviser for several years.

The same approach carries over into the other activities - internationalism, or breaking down barriers between different countries, and business, which in effect means networking.

The level of commitment clearly depends on the attitude of the individual's employer. As a partner in a firm of accountants, Ms O'Brien-Edge says she has comparative freedom so long as it does not take up too much of her time. But at some organisations, such as banks, involvement in the chamber is positively encouraged.

Even though the London body has close links with the banking community, part of the value for her has been the fact that fellow members come from a variety of backgrounds.

"I'd honestly say I've got to the position I'm in through the junior chamber," says Ms O'Brien-Edge. It helped in her self-development by increasing her ability to deal with management responsibilities as well as providing business contacts.

Simon Sperryn, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is chief sponsor of the London junior chamber, sees enormous value in the body. "Companies and individuals use it to grow themselves," he says, adding that employers should make greater use of the body "for broadening the skills and experience of the top managers of tomorrow".

Nor is membership necessarily constrained by the age limit. Ms O'Brien- Edge, who says she is moving towards the upper end of the range, points out that life membership is available.

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