Entering a meeting with Cuban dissidents on a recent trip to Havana, Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was told by his Cuban handlers to cut it short--he had only 10 minutes before his dinner with Fidel Castro. But Donohue wouldn't be rushed, and arrived to meet the communist leader an hour-and-a-half late.

"I was polite before I whacked him," recalled Donohue. "I told him, 'Mr. President, figure out another way to do what you're doing here in Cuba, or you won't be doing it much longer.' "

It was vintage Donohue. In his two years leading the nation's largest business organization, the blunt-talking Brooklynite has often ignored the stiff protocols of corporate politics, transforming Washington trade association work into a smash-mouth sport.

Along the way, the white-maned, steely blue-eyed Donohue, 61, has shaken the industry group from its years of slumber. When he took over the chamber in 1997, it had only three lobbyists; now it has 17. Before his arrival, only 200 of the nation's 1,000 largest corporations were chamber members--now it's about 550.

Flush with a $24 million investment from a venture capital firm, the chamber last month unveiled a for-profit Internet venture linking small businesses around the nation. Shortly after, Donohue announced the group will ratchet up its political involvement by spending $5 million on House and Senate races.

And Donohue has deepened the chamber's international dealings--in the past year, 28 foreign leaders have visited the chamber's Corinthian-columned headquarters across Lafayette Park from the White House. Recently, he toured Hungary, Kosovo and Belgium before returning to host Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The 87-year-old chamber also is leading the U.S. business community's effort to lift economic sanctions on Cuba--Donohue says they prevent U.S. oil companies, hotel chains and other firms from competing with the Europeans and Japanese in the Cuban market.

Washington trade groups like his should take risks and pick fights that their member companies are too shy to join in, he says.

"Business is so afraid of upsetting members of Congress, the press or stockholders," he said. "It's time to say, wait, U.S. companies employ 130 million people, put $16 billion into charitable activities, create new jobs and products."

There's little argument that the chamber was enfeebled before his arrival from the American Trucking Associations. The chamber had been run for two decades by Richard L. Lesher, who had devoted much of his time to the group's television programs. The low point came in 1994, when member companies revolted against the chamber's embrace of Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care program. Some House Republican leaders urged firms to abandon the group.

Desertions ended soon after Donohue arrived. While its annual budget, supported by member companies' dues, had remained at about $60 million for a decade, it has grown 50 percent, to $90 million, in his two years there.

Donohue also went out of his way to declare war on trial lawyers and the Environmental Protection Agency, denouncing them for having their own self-interest in mounting "anti-business" initiatives.

"He's crying wolf against trial lawyers" because they're unpopular in boardrooms, said Richard M. Middleton Jr., president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

"Naming Tom Donohue to head the chamber is like putting Dennis Rodman in as protocol chief," said Joan Claybrook, who, as president of the consumer group Public Citizen, has repeatedly tangled with Donohue. "He's not who you would want to head an effort to bring people together in a sensible way. He relies on bluster and bullying."

Donohue has been called publicity-crazy by others in the Washington trade association world. While he and the chamber claim credit for spearheading business's recent victories in Congress on Y2K computer bug liability and new restrictions on HMOs, executives of the chamber's arch-rival, the National Association of Manufacturers, have said it was NAM and not the chamber that led those corporate coalitions.

It's a sign of the chamber's prosperity that Donohue has warned colleagues they could face a repetition of an odd misfortune that befell them in the 1980s. Under the slogan "Let Ron do it," many companies canceled their trade group memberships, reasoning that the staunchly pro-business Reagan White House would protect them. The new fear is that a President George W. Bush would have the same effect.

But even if a Bush election decimates his membership, enemies of business will still lurk--pesky environmentalists, for example.

"We won't be run over," Donohue said, "by a set of emotions, hidden science and a mania that would close down this country."

Players

Thomas J. Donohue

Job: President and chief executive, U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Age: 61.

Education: Bachelor's degree, St. John's University; master's in business administration, Adelphi University.

Previous jobs: Administrator, Fairfield University; ranking positions in U.S. Postal Service; leadership jobs at U.S. Chamber of Commerce; president, American Trucking Associations.

Family: Married, three sons.

Favorite recent book: "Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard's Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage," by Norman Augustine and Kenneth Adelman.

Words to live by: "People don't do what you say, but what they see you do."

More words to live by: "You get a lot further being polite while you're strangling people."

CAPTION: Thomas J. Donohue has expanded membership, staff and budget.