Help wanted at SF Chamber of Commerce: Must know city, plea…


For the second time in three years, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce is approaching a new year without a chief executive officer at the reigns.

Tallia Hart, who served as head of the chamber since a nationwide search led to her hiring in January 2017, resigned abruptly in October.

The leadership void extends beyond the top job: Jim Lazarus, vice president of public policy, announced last month that he is leaving the chamber after 13 years to take over as state director for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. And two other vice presidents have left since 2017.

The Chamber of Commerce argues that it is the only group in San Francisco that represents businesses of every size and industry, advocating on their behalf at City Hall. It has long defended the interests of old-line corporations like Wells Fargo and PG&E, but with stalwarts like Chevron, Bechtel and McKesson disappearing from downtown, Hart was charged with courting a new sector that increasingly dominates the city’s skyline and ranks of top employers: technology.

Yet cozying up to tech, which represents only about 11 percent of the city’s workforce, has its own risks in a city where the role of wealthy internet entrepreneurs in shaping policy has engendered a fierce backlash.

John Whitehurst, a political consultant and principal at BMWL & Partners, said the situation puts the chamber at a crossroads.

“While tech ascends as a major force in life and politics in San Francisco, the chamber has two top leadership positions open,” Whitehurst said. “It has the opportunity to put a greater emphasis on participation by tech, or continue its traditional focus on all businesses.”

The business landscape in San Francisco has been changing for decades. The chamber isn’t alone in the scramble to adapt. “Every single institution is navigating a rapidly changing San Francisco,” said Eric Jaye, a political consultant and founder and president of Storefront Political Media. “Has the traditional railway adapted to the congestion caused by Uber? Has the city government responded to the crisis of housing? … The whole city is grappling with this velocity of change and not always successfully.”

Who the chamber actually represents, though, isn’t exactly clear. Its website lists more than 2,500 organizations as members, but it acknowledges that number is inflated. Juliana Bunim, senior vice president of external affairs, said many of the listed members are foreign consulates or restaurants and hotels that belong to other trade associations, which pay dues to the chamber.

About three-quarters of the 25 largest employers in San Francisco are members. But among the largest tech employers, only nine of the top 25 belong to the organization. Salesforce, Google and Amazon (which owns San Francisco video-streaming service Twitch and has other offices in the city) are members. Noticeably absent are homegrown tech stars Yelp, Twitter and Zynga.

The Chronicle and its parent company, Hearst Corp., are both members.

Hart tried to add a wider variety of companies as members, but during her tenure, the chamber signed up only a handful of new computer and technology services firms, including Cruise Automation, Postmates and Stripe. Tech jobs in San Francisco have boomed since the end of the recession, growing 110 percent from 2012 to 82,236 workers in 2017, according to census data analyzed by the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

“The big challenge to getting (tech companies) involved is that they don’t think of themselves as residing here,” said Catherine Bracy, executive director of the TechEquity Collaborative, a group that encourages the tech industry to spread its wealth. “They think of themselves as global companies. They’re on the internet.”

With such a wide membership, the chamber has not always been able to rally businesses around specific causes.

This fall, a San Francisco ballot measure that would tax big businesses to pay for homeless services pitted the Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the opposition campaign, against one of its members. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was the most notable “yes” voice, spending $7.9 million in his own money and corporate funds to back Proposition C, which won voter approval.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and a principal architect of Prop. C, said she thought early on that the chamber might be in favor of the measure. Each year, it releases the results of a poll on the major issues facing San Francisco. Homelessness has ranked No. 1 for the last three years, above housing, jobs and public transit.

When the chamber went on to spearhead the opposition, Friedenbach said it suggested to her that the chamber has lost touch.

“If you look at the other communities where there’s been serious initiatives to address homelessness, those chambers were on board and engaged in those processes,” she said, citing chambers in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

But in San Francisco, “you have this kind of relic that clings to the notion of trickle-down economics and isn’t able to think outside the box of ‘no new taxes,’” she said. “In general, they’re total dinosaurs.”

Lazarus rejected her claim, saying that the chamber has supported many new taxes, including a state bill to increase gas taxes for road and bridge repairs and a San Francisco bond measure to kick-start vital repairs to the fragile Embarcadero seawall.

Prop. C passed with 60 percent of the vote, though it faces possible legal challenges over its margin of victory. Salesforce declined to comment on its relationship with the chamber after the election.

At other times when its members are split, the chamber goes silent.

In June, a referendum on the special election ballot asked voters whether they wanted to enact a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products. Some of the largest chamber members are health care organizations that backed a ban. But corner stores and other tobacco retailers — a significant segment of the membership — lobbied against the ban as a threat to their bottom line.

The chamber took no position, alienating some of the city’s biggest and most influential organizations and small businesses at the same time. According to Lazarus, the decision was “virtually unanimous” among the chamber’s board.

Juul Labs, the San Francisco maker of flavored e-cigarettes, said that while a predecessor company had joined the chamber, Juul is not a dues-paying member.

“Sometimes we do end up neutral on issues, especially on some ballot measures, because we represent a little bit of everything,” Lazarus said.

John Gingrich, managing director of Accenture and the incoming chairman of the chamber’s board, said having a diverse set of members helps the group make decisions that are best for everyone.

“It’s one thing to have a focused set of interests and be able to kind of advocate for that. It’s another to really think about what is the strength and need for all businesses in San Francisco,” Gingrich said.

Hart, though young, took the top job after she spent more than a dozen years leading chambers of commerce in San Rafael and Irvine. At 44, she was the first woman, first person of color and youngest leader to run the 168-year-old business association.

In a statement released by the chamber, Hart said she stepped down as CEO to “focus on a positive quality of life.”

Her statement was taken by some as a comment on the job’s challenges.

“That might say something about what’s really going on internally,” said James Taylor, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.

Hart declined comment.

The chamber said it’s now reviewing applications for the position of president and CEO, and will announce Hart’s replacement early next year.

Taylor said the chamber would be smart to hire someone from the tech sector, because such a person might have more success bringing on key employers as members. But a six-page job description spelling out the role’s duties and qualifications doesn’t dwell on ties to specific industries.

Instead, the chamber seeks a leader with at least 15 years of senior management experience, and knowledge of San Francisco politics and the local business community. A Rolodex of “key political decisionmakers and influencers” is a plus.

“I think having local connectivity is an important part of the job,” said Janis MacKenzie, outgoing chair of the board. “But we’re looking for the most talented, committed person we can find.”

Melia Russell is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @meliarobin

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