For Seattle's business community, it's getting harder to be a player in the region

As the regional chamber of commerce gets ready to name a new president, a look at the changing political and business environment illustrates some of the challenges ahead.
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The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce includes a wide-ranging membership.

As the regional chamber of commerce gets ready to name a new president, a look at the changing political and business environment illustrates some of the challenges ahead.

George Duff arrived in Seattle from Detroit in 1968 to become the president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. The business environment he found was very different from the one a new CEO and president of what is now called the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce in 2012.

With a new president likely to be announced any day, it's instructive to look at the vast changes that have occurred in the business and political and business atmosphere in the almost 50 years since his arrival. The dramatic changes in the complexion of our business community have large implications for its participation in community affairs and decision-making. Many of the trends that have made for difficult decision-making among our metro governments have also created complexity for our business community and those who  provide leadership.

The decision to hire Duff was made by a small group of senior business leaders who dominated the community. They all knew each other from high school, the University of Washington, Rainier Club, or the boards on which they served together. The mayors of this period were part of the group, just as the Chamber leadership strongly influenced the selection of mayors and Seattle City Council members. Duff had only a few people to please, mostly men. Decision makers could easily gather for a cozy breakfast and create a world’s fair.

Bellevue didn't become a city until 1954, when it had fewer than 8,000 residents. A civic-minded blueberry farmer might be a member of the Seattle Chamber as new bridges connected the Eastside to Seattle. Many new cities have been created since 1968, such as Shoreline, Federal Way, and SeaTac. Today, our metro area has over 80 cities and almost every one of them has its own chamber and other business organizations. The city chambers can be just as competitive with each other as the local officials and their entities are. The relocation of the Russell headquarters from Tacoma to Seattle is an example where local business interests competed for an important employer for their community. The growth of a highly fragmented metro area also fragments our business participation.

Changes in the legal system have also changed business organizations. Fifty years ago, banks were headquartered in the state; now our larger banks have divisions that are more like branch locations. The head of the area has less authority than the former president of a state-incorporated bank. Other mergers and acquisitions have changed ourheadquarters companies. The change in utility laws has impacted the phone company. Our private power utility is now owned by an Australian company. The more a city is a “branch town,” the more that executives move through as they work their way up the corporate ladder. In some cases, an international company can have “expats” whose home office and final destination may be in Europe or Asia. This can lead to lower community interest and participation.

A more important trend is globalization. These executives are meeting with suppliers or customers all over the world. They are attending sales meetings in Hong Kong or getting together with a customer in Munich. They have little time for civic engagement in Seattle. In fact, Washington state may have little to do with their success or failure, except for local laws and regulations and ability to attract and retain employees. The representative of the company that is engaged locally might be three or four layers down from the CEO. The trend toward globalization and the degree to which our businesses are tied to the global economy will draw our business leaders to the airport and not to civic boards.

The Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, the Washington Clean Technology Association, and other business cluster associations did not exist when Duff arrived. The Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce and many other ethnic chambers were either new (the Chinese Chamber dates to 1963) or did not exist. A Seattle business has a number of choices to participate or send a representative and mid-size companies may have time for only one membership. An internationally orientated company may select an organization focused on trade or on a particular country.

Finally, the changing nature of our business base has changed participation. We have a growing number of technology companies run by young geeks. They have fast changing companies that are growing and the executvies have to be married to the company. They are experts in the technology and in their business but they do not generally participate in the community and they are spread out over the metro. They may be from Asia where the tradition of civic engagement is less developed than in this country since the role of government is different. In countries where the arts, museums, and business organizations are essentially government run, there is less need or opportunity for American-style civic engagement.

Duff will say he had it easy when he first arrived. The ability to encourage business leaders to run for public office has declined because of the time commitment and public disclosure laws. Part-time bodies such as city councils and the state legislature have become full time commitments, excluding the ability of business leaders to hold down positions. The need for business leadership in our civic discourse remains important to have a successful economy; it is just more complicated to generate active business leadership.

The director of a broad-based business organization in 2012 will have to do the old job of selling memberships, raising money for events, balancing the needs of big and small companies and delivering a product. This director will now spend considerable time coordinating with other business organizations building coalitions on public policy issues. An activist who thinks the business community is a pin stripe drill team marching to someone’s commands does not understand the new reality.

Duff reminisced that he arrived just as these changes were beginning. Seattle had elected a 34-year-old Democrat, Wes Uhlman, as mayor. Politics were rapidly changing. But Duff commented, “In spite of the many changes some things remain. With public sentiment, nothing can fail, without it nothing can succeed. Also, a universal feeling, whether well or ill founded, cannot be safely discarded. The greatest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is to educate public opinion. Great examples of this from the now distant past were FDR and Winston Churchill.”

Duff's final observation is that with the Puget Sound cities and counties growing together, we now have a metropolitan economy. Many of the most important issues transcend the metro area and there is no strong political entity. There is no platform for a metropolitan leader to emerge.


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