YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Carol Potter likens a Mahoning Valley without the Better Business Bureau to the fictional town in the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Absent the movie’s protagonist, George Bailey, Bedford Falls becomes a dreary, crime-ridden town.
“If there was no BBB, this community would really struggle as far as trying to find trusted businesses,” Potter reflects. “With all the bad players out there – the scams, the prevalence of shopping online, social media – it is more dangerous now than ever.”
Potter, who retired May 1 after a decade as CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull Counties, looks back at her tenure as one that strengthened partnerships and highlighted the impact of trust and ethics with businesses.
“We want to empower our consumers to trust in businesses, and in any type of industry to be able to find that trustworthy business,” she says.
Before being hired at BBB, Potter worked in communications and development roles at Mill Creek MetroParks, YMCA of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley Historical Society. She was asked to join BBB’s board a few years before then-CEO Patricia Rose was set to retire.
“Rounding out my career with BBB has been the cherry on top of the cake,” she says. “The work every year just became more and more important to the community.”
Potter “brought in a force of new energy,” says Melissa Ames, her successor as CEO.
“She had so much experience from so many different nonprofits that she was able to look at us from all different angles, which I really appreciated myself in learning about the nonprofit industry and how different nonprofits work,” Ames says.
During her time on the BBB board, Potter learned about the organization and its services, many of which the public was not aware of.
“Whatever the issue is when they call us, this is the biggest problem they have at that time,” Potter says. “Then we’re trying to help them resolve it or find the place where it can be resolved.”
To consumers, BBB’s familiar torch logo signifies “many positive things,” and businesses, by operating by BBB’s standards, convey through the torch that customers can trust them, she says. “We really are the leader in the trust market. We are the authority on trust.”
The marketplace has changed drastically over the past decade, however, and some of those changes have left vulnerable populations behind, Potter says. Scams used to be done by phone, email and even at someone’s door, but social media makes it easy for “the bad guys to scam more people,” she warns.
“They’re not always aware of the dangers that there are on social media,” she says. “We tell everyone if you see an ad on Facebook, get out of Facebook and Google that company. Make sure they’re a real company, and see what kind of reviews they have. There are a variety of scams that are preying on people now.”
With about 1,000 accredited businesses, the local BBB consistently is the top chapter in Ohio for member retention, if not in the top three in North America, according to Potter. “That shows you that we’re about building relationships,” she says.
As CEO, Potter says she was determined to assure that BBB’s mission, programs and services were consistently presented positively to businesses and consumers. To highlight the impact of trust and ethics on businesses, the BBB chapter revived its Torch Awards and reinvented the event as the Torch Awards for Marketplace Trust.
The Torch Awards, which take place June 23 at The Lake Club in Poland, recognize businesses, nonprofits and civic leaders. Potter introduced the concept of the BBB TrustBuilders, a group of banks operating locally.
“We were looking for sponsors and I wanted to make it more than a sponsorship. I wanted it to be a relationship with these banks, PNC, Huntington, Premier and Farmers,” she says. The banks are highlighted as part of the event to show how the community has evolved through the banking relationships that help people build their houses and businesses.
Potter also wanted to develop a scholarship program that would get high school students involved in thinking about ethics and integrity.
As of this year, the Ethics & Integrity Scholarships, sponsored by Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC and Farmers Trust Co., will have distributed $1,000 scholarships to 41 high school seniors.
“We wanted to rebrand it in a way that it’s a benefit to our accredited businesses,” Ames says.
The scholarship is open to high school seniors who are the children or grandchildren of owners or employees of accredited businesses.
“The theme of the essay is, ‘What do ethics and integrity mean to you.’ So, we are reaching our future business leaders and they’re telling us the importance of ethics and integrity in their life,” Ames says. She also praises the scholarship as “a great example of bringing in partners.”
Reading the essays submitted by applicants is “heartwarming,” Potter says. “You say, ‘thank goodness,’ because we have youth here that have already been dealing with it and are thinking about these very important principles in their lives.”
“The scholarship program fosters the importance of ethics and integrity in business with our young leaders who will someday become leaders in our marketplace,” says Jennifer Johnson, area manager for Aqua Ohio and chairwoman of the BBB board.
Potter is pleased with the changes made in the BBB office’s work environment. Staff members have individual offices. During the pandemic, the chapter expanded opportunities for employees to take “family days”– time off on top of vacation to attend events such as school functions and dance competitions.
“I don’t want people missing out on those opportunities because they have to sit behind a desk,” Potter says. “They get their work done and they’re able to take advantage of that.”
Ames lauds Potter for making sure that the local BBB board reflects its accredited businesses.
“We were very intentional in adding diversity to our board,” Ames says. “We understand that a majority of entrepreneurs are women and minorities. So we want to make sure that we are reflective of that.”
Johnson and her board praise Potter for not only “transforming BBB into the strong and relevant organization that it is today” but also for developing a sound leadership transition plan.
“She left the organization in a better position than it was when she started, and she’s now handing it off, positioned for continued growth and improvement under Melissa’s leadership,” she remarks.
In retirement, Potter says she and her husband are babysitting their two grandchildren, who are ages 21 months and 4 months. They also are partners in Chalet Premier in North Lima, and she will be working in financial operations there.
“I think we’re closed two days a year. So, it’s busy,” she says.