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Associated Industries of Florida is a Business Heavyweight

Associated Industries of Florida


[Photo: Ray Stanyard]

Founded: 1920
» Employees: 20, several consultants
» Lobbyists: 25
» Quick History: Founded in 1920 as the Duval County Employers' Association by Jacksonville business leaders concerned about the influence of unions, the group changed its name in 1923 to Florida Employers' Association and in 1930 to Associated Industries of Florida, relocating from Jacksonville to Tallahassee in 1952. In 1973, Jon Shebel, a 6-foot-5 combative ex-Marine, took over leadership, transforming AIF into a business lobbying powerhouse. Shebel's style and effectiveness earned him the nickname "Darth Vader" from Tallahassee insiders, but his no-prisoners approach sometimes produced collateral damage for the organization. He retired in 2006. Barney T. Bishop was named president in 2005 and took over as president and CEO after Shebel retired. Two decades ago, AIF built a $4-million, plantation-style headquarters that is the site of an infamous hot-ticket, annual legislative reception commemorating the start of each legislative session.

» Finances: In 2009, AIF, a 501(c)(6) "business league" non-profit, reported revenue of $6.28 million, expenses of $4.18 million and total assets of $12,790,648.

Leadership

Barney Tipton Bishop III
[Photo: Ray Stanyard]

» Name: Barney Tipton Bishop III
» Title: President and CEO
» Age: 59
» Total Compensation
(2009): $403,137

» Family: Bishop's wife, Shelby Bishop, is a 23-year state employee who currently serves as an executive assistant to the Florida Secretary of State. Bishop credits some of his knowledge of the legislative and budget process to her. They have no children.

» Roots: Born in Panama City, Bishop grew up poor in Miami. His father worked three jobs, he says, to support the family.

» Education: Bishop attended Miami-Dade Junior College before transferring to Emerson College in Boston, earning debate scholarships at both schools. He earned a bachelor's degree in speech.

» Career Track: Bishop returned to Florida after college and opened a detective agency in Orlando. In 1979, he began lobbying for the Florida Association of Private Investigators. He sold his detective agency in 1983 and moved to Tallahassee to work for then-state Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter. In 1984, he became state president of the Florida Young Democrats. In 1993, after stints at the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers and the Florida Democratic Party, he opened his own lobbying firm, Windsor Group, which specialized in appropriations in the behavioral healthcare field. He sold the firm in 2005 to join AIF.

» Leadership: Bishop's resume makes him an unlikely choice to run one the state's most conservative business lobbies. A lifelong Democrat who previously worked for the Academy of Trial Lawyers and the Florida Democratic Party, Bishop began working for AIF as a contract lobbyist. "When I got here, we were at a low point in membership," Bishop recalls. "AIF owned an insurance company that was a tremendous asset, but the perception was that AIF cared more about the workers' compensation company than other issues." Two and a half years ago, AIF sold its insurance affiliate, Boca-based Associated Industries Insurance, to AmTrust — a move that freed Bishop to focus on AIF's core mission of advocating and lobbying on behalf of its business constituents.

» Style: Smooth operative. "Barney is tough, but he is a gentleman," says Southern Strategy's Dave Rancourt, one of AIF's contract lobbyists. "AIF has emerged as a better, stronger and more efficient organization that still has the ability to fight issues that others may not want to fight, but to do so where you can disagree without being disagreeable."

» Perspective: "My job is to grow AIF," Bishop says. "Everyone knows what the Chamber of Commerce does. People know what the NFIB, the retail federations, the others do. Associated Industries is a horse, just like the rest of the business community, but a horse of a different color. I have to work harder to tell them what Associated Industries is."

Membership

» Mum's the Word: AIF doesn't disclose how many members it has or their names. Bishop says his group is "probably one-third" the size of the Chamber's.

» Dues: Annual dues for corporations are $5 per employee along with a minimum annual fee of $500. Sliding scales of fees between $500 and $5,000 apply to law firms, lobbyists and associations. AIF charges another $5,000 to be part of the AIF Political Council (AIFPC), which provides political research and analysis.

Skill Sets

SPENDING

$600,000-plus — Spending on lobbying the Legislature and executive branch in 2010

$352,000 — PAC spending on candidates in 2010

» Heft: Bishop's extensive lobbying background and Tallahassee savvy have re-established AIF's clout. The group relies on a combination of both in-house and contract lobbyists to push its proposals, including Gerald Wester, of Capital City Consulting, who handles insurance issues for the group; Stacey Webb, at Southern Strategy Group, who handles education; and Al Cardenas, who represents AIF on Capitol Hill in Washington. The group spent between $610,022 and $869,974 lobbying the state Legislature and executive branch in 2010, according to compensation records filed with the state.

Dave Rancourt
"Barney is tough, but he is a gentleman."

— Dave Rancourt, an AIF contract lobbyist



Al Cardenas
Al Cardenas represents AIF in Washington.
» Issues: AIF enjoys its status as the "go-to" group on insurance issues, particularly workers' compensation. Says Bishop: "We've always been perceived as being the entity that put together and keeps together the workers' comp coalition we started 20 to 25 years ago. We lead that coalition, and we invite everyone to the table, but we are sort of the ones where if you don't have AIF on your side on workers' comp, it probably isn't going to happen." The group also touts its leadership on tort reform, working to preserve the space industry and fighting EPA efforts to tighten water regulations.

» Relationship with the Governor: In 2007, Bishop recruited Rick Scott, then living quietly in Naples, to serve on AIF's board. Three years later, when Scott threw his hat into the ring for governor, AIF decided to co-endorse both Scott and then-Attorney General Bill McCollum. Scott's victory was a plus for AIF, which continues to enjoy close access to the governor. "We frankly see him as one of our own," says Bishop.
While the access has given AIF insight into the governor's policy moves, those moves haven't always matched AIF's positions — AIF had pushed for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando for more than two years. Scott and AIF (along with other business groups) have also been at odds over immigration issues.

» Speed: AIF's membership is connected and it has money. Not having to respond to a huge constituency, Bishop says, means his group can be agile. "If we support an issue today and there's an amendment (tomorrow) that changes the bill to where we no longer support it, I can do an e-mail to my nine-member executive committee and I can get responses in a matter of hours, do a conference call within 24 hours.
I can turn on a dime."

» Politics: AIF's political council interviews and endorses candidates and uses McLaughlin & Associates, a national polling firm, to conduct quarterly public opinion surveys. In 2010, AIF's political action committee contributed more than $352,000 to candidates, primarily to Republicans but occasionally to Democrats, in legislative and Cabinet races. In some primaries, AIF hedges its bets with dual endorsements. "My philosophy as a lifelong Democrat running a Republican business group is that I'm not going to try to pick between two good Republicans or three good Republicans because that's not our job. Our job is to tell our members this Republican, these Republicans, they represent the philosophy you want to have in office. You pick whoever you want and when you do, whoever that nominee is, that's who we're going to go to bat with."

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."