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Florida Chamber of Commerce is a Business Heavyweight

Florida Chamber of Commerce


[Photo: Ray Stanyard]

Founded: 1916
» Employees: 43
» Lobbyists: 24
» Quick History: Founded in 1916 as the Florida Cattle Tick Eradication Committee, the organization became the Florida State Chamber of Commerce in 1925 and moved from Jacksonville to Tallahassee in 1975. St. Petersburg native Frank Ryll Jr. took the reins of the organization in 1982 and ran it for approximately 25 years. Under Ryll's leadership, the Florida Chamber operated in traditional Chamber fashion, conducting research on issues impacting Florida employers, polling its members, pushing a pro-business legislative agenda and providing networking opportunities. Under the Chamber's auspices, Ryll also created and founded the state's Leadership Florida program, which has graduated more than 1,000 people, and led efforts to reform the state's constitutional amendment process. Ryll passed the torch to Mark Wilson in 2003 but still runs the group's international trade division.

» Finances: The Florida Chamber, a 501(c)(6) "business league" non-profit, reported $6.2 million in assets, with nearly $5 million in revenue and expenses between November 2008 and October 2009.

Leadership


[Photo: Ray Stanyard]

» Name: Mark Alan Wilson
» Title: President and CEO
» Age: 42
» Total Compensation
(2009): $331,480

» Family: Wilson's wife, Kim, his high school sweetheart, is a former public school teacher and substitute teacher. They have three children, ages 9,
11 and 14.

» Roots: Born in Illinois, Wilson had an archetypal Midwestern upbringing. His mother worked in the administrative offices of a local school, and his father was a store manager and later a buyer for Spurgeon's department store.

» Education: Bachelor's in business from the University
of Georgia

» Career Track: After college, Wilson worked briefly in restaurant management in Atlanta before returning to Illinois and taking a job with the U.S. Chamber's Midwestern office. "That's where I really fell in love with free enterprise and working on pro-business issues," he says. He worked there for two years before becoming vice president of the Chicagoland Chamber. He was recruited by the Florida Chamber in 1998 and ran its Tampa office until 2003, when he was promoted to executive vice president. Wilson also served as the first president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, created by the Chamber in 2005 to fight for tort reform. He was named president and CEO of the Florida Chamber in 2008.

» Leadership: When Wilson arrived at the Florida Chamber in 1998, the organization was good at turning out white papers but wasn't aggressive in the lobbying or political arena. In 2003, the Florida Chamber consolidated its operations in Tallahassee and began working on a strategic plan organized around the "future of Florida." Wilson says the Chamber's board "made a decision that we were going to engage and take the responsibility of repositioning education and economic development and tax policy and quality of life — that these were important issues to the future of the business community." Under Wilson's leadership, the Chamber has aggressively pursued those goals, both through lobbying and by getting involved in campaigns and elections.

» Style: Energetic focus. "He really energized the Florida Chamber," says Allan Bense, former House Speaker and current chairman of the Chamber's board. "They began getting active in lobbying pro-business legislation in Tallahassee, and while clearly the Chamber's role is to help businesses and communities like that, by being able to influence things like tort reform and insurance reform and other pro-business matters ... they became players."

» Perspective: "The last four or five years I think that the Florida Chamber has grown by almost every metric because we're getting involved," Wilson says. "We're providing leadership, and we're providing direction to a state that really didn't have a compass heading."

Membership

» Cast of Thousands: A partnership with about 150 local chambers has pushed the Chamber's membership to 139,000.

» Dues: Annual dues range from $1,000 to $100,000, depending on membership level.

Skill Sets

SPENDING

$50,000— Chamber spending on legislative and Cabinet races in 2003

$5.5 million — Chamber spending on legislative and Cabinet races in 2010

» Politics: Many in Tallahassee consider political operative Marian Johnson the Chamber's No. 1 asset. Wilson recruited Johnson to ramp up and run the Chamber's political operation in 2003, shortly after she retired from AIF.
Johnson, a lifelong Republican who learned political campaigning from GOP strategists like Charlie Black, Lee Atwater and Lance Tarrance, has helped transform the Chamber into a statewide political force by carefully monitoring political winds all around the state and aggressively recruiting more conservative, pro-business lawmakers to run for the Legislature. Prospective candidates must fill out a questionnaire based on the Chamber's "Six Pillars" blueprint and successfully complete a 30-minute interview in front of four to five dozen Chamber members if they want to win the Chamber's endorsement.

Allan Bense
"He really energized the Florida Chamber."

— Allan Bense, chairman
of the Chamber's board



Marian Johnson
Marian Johnson is the Chamber's chief political operative.
In 2003, when Johnson came on board, the Chamber contributed just $50,000 to candidates each election cycle. Last year, the business group pumped $5.5 million into legislative and Cabinet races. In 2010, 100% of the Senate candidates the Chamber endorsed won election. In the House, all but four won.

The Chamber also touts its annual "Legislative Report Cards," which grade the state's lawmakers on their pro-business voting records and provide a blueprint for employers to "know where their legislators stand on job creation," says Wilson.

» Broad Base: The Chamber's local links and extensive membership roster are big assets. Each quarter, the Chamber conducts a survey to find out what issues are impacting small businesses and uses it "to make sure our legislative priorities are aligned," says John Medina, chairman of the Chamber's small-business council. The Chamber spent more than $400,000 lobbying the Legislature and executive branch in 2010.

» Research: The Chamber's research and policy development arm, the Florida Chamber Foundation, led by Dale Brill, backs up its lobbying with in-depth white papers on everything from immigration and trade to affordable living. The foundation also developed an online tool called the Florida Scorecard, which allows users to evaluate and track the performance of the state and local economies by using various indicators such as employment, per capita income, high school graduation rates and home foreclosures.

» Big Win: One of the Chamber's biggest recent victories was its defeat of Lesley Blackner's Hometown Democracy effort, a growth management initiative that was on the 2010 ballot. The Chamber raised and spent $10 million fighting the amendment, counterattacking through a business-backed group with a similar-sounding name, Floridians for Smarter Growth, and another PAC, Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy.

» Relationship with the Governor:?The Chamber looked ham-handed after it backed Bill McCollum in the GOP gubernatorial primary against Rick Scott, then fell all over itself courting him, snubbing Florida CFO Alex Sink, a former Chamber board member in the process. Wilson insists the Chamber's relationship with Scott is solid — the two meet weekly and have each other's cell phone numbers, Wilson says.

Common Ground

» With a degree of overlap in their memberships, the two organizations are frequently on the same page and collaborate on many business-related issues like unemployment compensation reform, job creation and some legal reform bills.

That said, one group will often take more of a lead on a particular issue. While AIF, for instance, calls the shots on workers' compensation, the Chamber is in the saddle when it comes to tort reform. Although both groups supported efforts to kill Hometown Democracy, the Chamber took the lead in that fight, ultimately spending more than $10 million to block Lesley Blackner's proposed amendment with its "Vote No On 4" campaign.

The staffs of the two organizations meet periodically to discuss legislative issues. During the most recent legislative session, the two collaborated on a crash-worthiness bill for the auto industry and stopped the House from raiding the transportation trust fund. Both groups also actively opposed immigration reform legislation that would include mandated use of the federal "E-Verify" program. Earlier this year the two groups helped draft proposed legislative changes to the state's growth management laws.

Florida Legislature
The Chamber and AIF both benefited from a business-friendly Legislature and governor this year. [Photo: AP/Chris O' Meara]

Rivalry

» The different dynamics of the two groups guarantee that their interests will not always coincide. The Chamber's range of membership means it has to aim to maintain a broad consensus around general business-related themes. AIF, by contrast, is likely to be more micro-focused on the specific concerns of its members. "We don't feel obliged to be with anyone else on any other issue because we focus on what our membership wants, whether it's popular or not," says Bishop. "If that is in the same vein or issue arena where the Retail Federation and the Chamber are, great. If not, we let them do that, and we do our own thing."

Case in point: AIF's backing of "destination gaming," a issue that Wilson says doesn't mesh with the Chamber's core mission of "resetting" Florida's economy and improving the overall business climate.

Wilson says the Chamber won't get involved in those sorts of niche business issues: "You can't call the Chamber and say, 'I've got an issue. If we pay you a million dollars will you do it for me?' We say no. And on the political side, we're just not going to endorse a plaintiff trial lawyer or someone who's sympathetic to the unions. We see that they're regularly endorsed down the street."

In addition, overlapping memberships means the two groups have to compete for both membership dues and political contributions. Says one Tallahassee insider: "You can't hire 20 or 30 lobbyists if you don't have dues money coming in. You cannot assign five lobbyists to a particular issue if you don't have them on your payroll. They're fighting, if you will, for the same basic pool of members in hopes of on individual issues being a more recognized hero on something more important to business."

In Tallahassee, much perception of conflict between the two groups may stem from the fact that Wilson and Bishop frankly don't like each other much. "The staffs of AIF and the Florida Chamber and the Florida Retail Federation work very well and very smoothly," says Bishop. "I think at the senior leadership level, it's a little bit different. We have a lot of improvement we can make there." Says Wilson, succinctly, "Our staffs work (well) together."

Not surprisingly, both Wilson and Bishop believe there's really only room for one major business lobby in Tallahassee. "The business community is more aligned and united than it's ever been, and there's no longer a need for two organizations," says Wilson. But, he adds, "that's really up to the leaders of the business community, not up to Barney or to me."

Bishop says he even brought up the idea of a merger to his board some time ago. The board members, he says, believed the cultures of the two groups were not reconcilable. Likewise, says Bishop, rank-and-file businesses in Florida see the two groups differently. "They view the Chamber as a handshake. They view us as a slugfest."