Robert A. Peck's resignation as president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade leaves the 106-year-old regional business group searching for a leader at a time when competition for members from other business and trade organizations remains stiff and the focus of the area economy continues shifting toward Northern Virginia.
Finding a new executive who can mesh the priorities of the region's start-ups, tech companies and venture capitalists with those of a board leadership concentrated in more traditional businesses will be critical for the organization to live up to its ambitions, board members said last week.
"It is a very difficult region to govern," said John M. Derrick Jr., retired chairman of Pepco Holdings Inc. and a former member of the organization's board of directors. "The challenge is having an organization that represents the entire greater Washington business community and being able to draw a viable membership across that entire community."
Peck's resignation becomes effective at the end of the year, and the board will appoint a search committee soon to begin recruiting candidates.
His departure follows a four-year tenure in which he is given credit for expanding the involvement of women, minorities, nonprofit organizations and others outside the board's traditional constituency but in which he riled others for changing some of the organization's traditions. For everyone happy with the group's decision to move to new offices or move the date of the annual mid-winter dinner, there were others who viewed him as too insistent on change.
Though the Board of Trade remains an important voice on civic and development issues, such as advising on how to plan the region's response to terrorism and lobbying for financing for a new baseball stadium, Peck, like his predecessors, saw little progress on some of the broader issues -- most notably traffic congestion -- that the organization has long listed among its priorities.
To increase the organization's impact, some board members suggest, will require an even more aggressive effort to broaden its membership and ensure that its board of directors better reflects the regional economy.
The Board of Trade counts nearly all of the area's top 25 employers among its membership of more than 1,100, which includes The Washington Post Co. But its board of directors is still dominated by the traditional downtown business establishment: law firms, financial institutions, real estate developers. Its senior leadership council is even less representative of an economy that has gone through a telecommunications boom and an Internet boom and is creating thousands of new jobs in the government contracting and technology sectors.
Other groups have had more success attracting those constituencies.
"Is the Board of Trade as powerful as it once was? Well, probably not if you once were the only game in town and there are now other players," said William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, an organization whose board reaches deep into the defense and contracting community. "That doesn't mean they're less effective on their agenda."
Even trying to serve a countywide constituency is difficult, said Lecos, a former lobbyist for the Board of Trade and a candidate for its presidency before Peck got the job.
"We have eight community chambers in Fairfax. We do different things, serve different constituents. The Board of Trade's constituency now? I would say it's a large part of the D.C. real estate community, the D.C. financial and professional services community. That's probably the core."
Redefining that core is only going to get more difficult. Companies that were once staples of the local business leadership -- like Hecht's and Giant Food -- have been bought by larger corporations with a national focus and headquarters elsewhere.
Even some members of the "new economy" already have faded as local powers -- MCI Communications Corp. through its evolution into WorldCom Inc., eventual filing for bankruptcy protection and emergence as MCI Inc., and its merger with Verizon Communications Inc., and America Online Inc. through its evolution into a troubled piece of the Time Warner Inc. media empire.
What has taken their place are technology-based government contractors that have moved into the area or grown up in the rush of homeland security and defense spending that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and an array of consulting firms, private equity companies and other investment groups that has taken root around them. Biotechnology, small still in its job impact but a focus of Montgomery County's economic development plans, is all but absent from the Board of Trade's leadership.
Stitching all of these communities into a coherent whole will be the challenge of Peck's replacement.
"We have young entrepreneurs, small IT firms, staffing firms, PR firms. We have one- or two-man consulting firms. That's the new economy," said Barbara B. Lang, chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. "We all have to retool our business models to adjust."
William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax Chamber and former lobbyist for the Board of Trade, said the board's main constituency is the D.C. real estate and financial and professional services community.