The Delaware State Chamber of Commerce has allotted eight months to replace its president. At 70, Rich Heffron has been trying to retire for more than a year.
Members said the attorney will be tough to replace.
“My answer would be Rich shouldn’t retire,” joked Paul Morrill, a chamber committee member and the executive director of the Committee of 100.
But Heffron is retiring. Asked who will lead the chamber this time next year, he said, “The one thing we know is it won’t be me.”
“I had certain goals. I think I accomplished those, and it’s time to move on,” Heffron said.
Heffron, formerly the chamber’s longtime lobbyist and vice president, took over the top spot in 2014 when Joan Verplank stepped down after just nine months on the job. At the time, he said he only wanted to work two years.
“Richie has stabilized the chamber, I think, from a financial standpoint. The chamber is in good shape financially,” said veteran lobbyist Bobby Byrd of The Byrd Group, a member of the chamber’s board of governors. “Certainly after Joan there was some upheaval, but I think Richie got it calmed down, and the chamber is in a good place now.”
The chamber is searching for applicants to fill Heffron’s post before he retires on June 30 so he can work alongside his successor.
“I hope they replace him with someone local,” said lobbyist Roger Roy, president of Roy Associates and a chamber committee chairman. “We have a lot of exceptional local talent here in Delaware. Since a lot of companies have downsized, they’ve left people with a lot of talent here. They went out of state to get someone one time, and it did not work out at all.”
“There’s nobody I know of who’s teed up and ready to go. Clearly after the last piece, they’d prefer to have a local person. Not ruling out anybody out of state, but this job clearly has a lot to do with the local marketplace,” said Mark Stellini, owner of Assurance Media and immediate past president of the chamber’s board of directors.
“The chamber is very strong right now, probably the strongest I’ve ever seen it. It was great to have Rich come in and stabilize it. I think right now they’re looking for who is the best person to bring the chamber to the next level.”
“I think they should pick then best person for the job,” Byrd said. “In my mind, it doesn’t matter if they’re in-state or out-of-state or if they need work. They need to take a look across the country at what other organizations have done. If they find the perfect person for the job in Wyoming, go hire from Wyoming.”
The board is looking for someone with a track record who can advocate for businesses of all sizes across the state, but it’s not restricting the search to locals, said Chip Rossi, Bank of America’s Delaware market president and chairman of the chamber’s board of directors.
“We are looking for someone who has strong communication skills, the ability to influence, the diligence to get all the facts associated with an issue and then drive a discussion with those facts that will lead to a more informed decision that hopefully leads to the best outcome for businesses, for the state and for Delawareans,” Rossi said. “If we have somebody with those skills and that person has an established relationships and a proven track record and they’re local, that’s great. If that person has demonstrated the same types of skills and abilities in the region, then that’s someone we’ve got to consider…The most important thing is we need to find the most qualified candidate for the job.”
The changeover comes at a critical juncture when things are looking up for the state’s business community after the passage of revisions to the Coastal Zone Act in June and the creation of a public-private economic partnership in August.
There’s been a buzz among businesspeople around the state since summer, said Gary Stockbridge, president of Delmarva Power Region for Exelon Corporation and vice chairman of chamber’s board of directors.
Stockbridge, who will lead the board next year, said he personally sees two important issues for the chamber in 2018. Those are the state’s budget concerns and ramping up the Delaware Prosperity Partnership that now oversees development in the state.
Stockbridge said the board can’t skip a beat because it wants to support the new prosperity partnership. “The longer you wait to get that up and running, the less impact it’s going to have,” he said.
He said its important to hire a candidate who can get all the right people to the table, but it isn’t critical that the candidate be local. “I wouldn’t want to raise the importance of it to a point that you wouldn’t want a candidate who is respected in the business community and can quickly build relationships throughout the state. I wouldn’t say it’s so critical that it would require someone to be in state. We’re going to look at them overall,” he said. “Maybe they can’t, on day one, put forth a network of people they know in the state, but they have a strong business background, the ability to network and they have what it takes to advocate for the business community all around the state.”
“It’s a very difficult position,” Byrd said. “In addition to everything else, you’ve got to make the payroll. If you don’t, you have to go out and raise money.”
Heffron said keeping the chamber solvent is the number one priority to assure its ready to represent the state’s businesses. “The business community is going to face a lot of issues, both legislatively and regulatorily, and the chamber has to be on that. “
Although the 1200-member state chamber was in talks to merge with the 1000-member New Castle County Chamber last year, board members said there are no current plans to combine. Stellini said timing wasn’t right for a merger in 2016, and there were some doubters on the state chamber side, but the talks got very close. “I could see a conversation happening again,” he said.
The job description for chamber president is available at: http://web.dscc.com/External/WCPages/WCWebContent/WebContentPage.aspx?ContentID=3063