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Breakfast at The Palace: Thomas Donohue

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-10

Thomas Donohue of Brooklyn believes in the power of passion and possibility.

"I'm a can-do guy," the president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the other day during a foray out of Washington that had him visiting New York, Utah and Minnesota on the same day. "I have a simple philosophy: 'Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.' You have to have a view of yourself that this is how you're going to be productive."

"I concern myself with how to make things work," Mr. Donohue continued. "I am an enabler. I nurture, empower and energize people. I believe that in life you should never stop learning. And I believe that organizations such as ours are duty-bound to press for ways that strengthen America's economy and enhance its influence overseas."

His beliefs are expressed in a modest tone. But they have transformed the Chamber, once an otiose Washington lobbying group, into the world's largest business federation. During his nine-year stewardship as CEO, Mr. Donohue has tripled the Chamber's annual revenues to $150 million. It now represents a staggering three million companies, associations, state and local chambers, as well as American chambers of commerce overseas - a tribute to Mr. Donohue's relentless proselytizing and recruiting.

No wonder, then, that whenever Mr. Donohue travels around America and abroad - which is almost continuously - his presence in board rooms and public forums attracts the sort of attention normally reserved for political superstars.

And at a time when American emissaries are often less than enthusiastically received in foreign quarters, Mr. Donohue is widely regarded as perhaps America's most prominent good will ambassador.

"I'm focused on what I need to," he said. "I continually emphasize the Chamber's core mission - which is to fight for business and free enterprise before Congress, the White House, regulatory agencies, the courts, the court of public opinion, and governments around the world."

The fight that Mr. Donohue spearheads has helped many legislative victories, including major tax cuts, more sensible workplace and environmental regulations, legal reform, pensions, accounting practices, education, and increased funding for transportation.

"We are, in effect, the political re-insurance agency for specific industries in America," Mr. Donohue said. "If businesses can't get things through traditional lobbying, they come to us. If any major issue surfaces, the Chamber can hit the street within 20 minutes. We run the Chamber like a business - but we operate like an action organization."

He has taken special interest in ensuring that the Chamber promotes the business argument on outsourcing and the need for balance in applying new corporate governance and accounting rules, among other issues.

Mr. Donohue supports an open door policy in immigration, a topic that has become increasingly contentious in Congress.

"America has always been nourished by immigrants," he said. "It worries me that we're losing sight of our history - that we're forgetting who we are, and how we got here. We came from all over the world. Americans are a great, giving and thoughtful people - it's our very nature. And my message is, 'We'd better not forget this.'"

His stance on immigration echoes his commitment to free trade. Mr. Donohue abhors protectionism.

"Increasingly, the Chamber has become a leader in knocking down trade barriers, winning new free trade agreements, and fighting protectionism both at home and abroad," he said.

Under Mr. Donohue's leadership, the Chamber has helped elect Congressional pro-business candidates through financial support, voter activism and turnout generated through the Chamber's grassroots organization,

Such activism isn't alien to Mr. Donohue. In his earlier job as president and CEO of the American trucking Association, Mr. Donohue not only energized the national organization of the trucking industry during his 13-year tenure, he also helped enact legislation and regulations that helped save the lives of thousands of truckers.

His activism, in fact, dates back to his early years in Rockville Centre on Island, where his father Thomas - who worked as a production manager for American Can - and mother Ruth moved after their son's birth in the Prospect Park section of Brooklyn. The son was particularly close to his father, whom Mr. Donohue credits with imbuing him with such enduring values as integrity, good manners and humility.

"There was no ambiguity about where my parents stood on those issues," he said. "I also became a Boy Scout - which I later encouraged my three sons to join. I found that working in summer camps as a scout was a formative experience."

He took his can-do spirit with him to St. John's University in Queens, where he received a bachelor's degree, and then to Adelphi University, where Mr. Donohue obtained an MBA. He worked at three or four jobs while at college, and earned enough money to pay for his entire education.

"My inclination toward self-reliance perhaps got me to a view of myself that was more significant than what reality suggested," Mr. Donohue said, with a smile.

If indeed he held such an inflated view of self, it was shot down when Mr. Donohue began working at the U.S. Post Office - where his mentors helped him develop management skills and taught him how to negotiate labor contracts. He'd also had stints at the College of New Rochelle, and Fairfield University. At one point, Mr. Donohue - who by now had married Elizabeth Schulz - thought of a long-term career in education, and entertained visions of becoming a college presidents.

Those visions were predicated on his growing self-confidence about his abilities as an administrator - abilities that came in handy when Mr. Donohue was invited to lead the Chamber, whose history dates back to 1911, when President Taft urged its creation to support free enterprise in America.

As the Chamber's CEO, Mr. Donohue presides over a Washington-based organization of 550 men and women, of whom 150 serve in offices abroad. The Chamber supports 3,000 meetings each year, and specifically runs more than 100 of them - among them a popular annual event at Chambers headquarters in cooperation with the World Economic Forum.

"I'm comfortable in this role - I've always felt that if there was something that needed to be organized, I would be the person to do it," Mr. Donohue said. "From the age of 25 - when my hair turned silver - I was someone viewed as being serious and having gravitas. And I was always someone who picked up cues about jobs to be done even before anyone articulated it."

Then he gave an aw-shucks smile, and said:

"I have been very lucky."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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