Kathleen T. Snyder's appointment last week as president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce is an excellent choice that should serve the chamber well as it attempts to redefine its role as the voice of business in the state.
Much is being made of the fact that Snyder is the first woman to head the Maryland chamber and that she is only the third female to be named president of a state chamber.
While that may have some symbolic significance, the more important aspect of her appointment is the chamber's choice of an experienced professional to improve the organization's image and its effectiveness as the state's leading business advocacy group.
Even though the chamber itself chose to highlight the fact that Snyder is the first woman to lead the organization, it was her record of accomplishment as an executive with local chambers, and not her gender, that set her apart from the 200 other applicants who were screened as part of a national search by the Maryland chamber.
Snyder has been president and chief executive officer of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce since 1992. Before that she was executive vice president of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce.
As president of the Alexandria chamber, Snyder is credited with building membership from 800 to 1,100 and increasing revenue from dues and other sources by 42 percent in seven years. The Virginia Association of Chambers of Commerce named her chamber executive of the year in 1996 and she was selected as the 1997 Business Woman of the Year by the Alexandria Commission on Women.
Before Snyder's arrival in Alexandria, the local chamber was widely regarded as strongly partisan and aloof. Snyder quickly changed that perception, however, developing a partnership between the chamber and the community in a program called Alexandria and Beyond. The partnership, as it turns out, has been pivotal not only to the chamber's strategic planning process but in Alexandria's response to a number of economic, social and health problems.
Snyder will assume her new position with the Maryland Chamber in October, succeeding Champe McCulloch, who left the organization earlier this year.
As president, McCulloch was more lobbyist than program manager. He was, more often than not, a lightning rod for the chamber but not the communicator and consensus-builder it needed.
"Champe's calling and his experience were in being a lobbyist," Chamber Chairman Arthur Ebersberger said last week, carefully avoiding criticism of McCulloch.
And for good reason. His adversarial style notwithstanding, McCulloch was merely the messenger. And the message he carried, after all, was reflected in the chamber's policies on many issues.
Thus, with McCulloch as point man, the chamber frequently found itself at odds with state lawmakers on major issues affecting business. The chamber's differences with Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) have been even more pronounced.
This adversarial relationship doubtless added to the perception that Maryland has an unhealthy business climate.
Ebersberger, who was recently elected chairman of the Maryland chamber, freely acknowledges that the organization needs to "communicate better."
"The real issue is, you have to be positive about the issues," added Ebersberger, president of an Anne Arundel County commercial insurance broker, Ebersberger & Associates Inc.
"We choose [as business owners] to be here. And my personal feeling, having grown up here, and based on my personal observation, is that Maryland is a great place to be."
There is still wide disagreement, nonetheless, between the chamber and the Glendening administration on several key business-related issues, including transportation and work force development.
Thus Snyder's execution of the chamber's new strategic plan and legislative initiative is crucial to Ebersberger's hope of "creating a truly new era for the organization in the 21st century."
Clearly the chamber's new leadership is more sensitive about how the organization states its positions on issues and how it works with lawmakers to win support for those positions.
"To always be at loggerheads is not going to get you anywhere," Ebersberger acknowledged. "We have to respond to our constituency as business people. But we need to keep in mind that the governor has to respond to a broader constituency."
That notwithstanding, it's up to the chamber, Ebersberger added, "to make sure we have a balanced hearing of our views."
Going to the Maryland chamber will be both a challenge and homecoming for Snyder, a native of Baltimore. But her experience and strengths as a manager, communicator and consensus-builder have prepared her.
"She's got the energy and the skills to execute," said Ebersberger.
Now it's up to the chamber to take advantage of that energy and those skills in a way that will benefit the organization and the state.