Well into the 1990s, anti-business groups owned the agenda in Tallahassee. Business organizations stumbled around on defense and each session was a cross-fingered hope that nothing too awful would get passed.
The anti-growth and environmental agendas progressed every year, making the state more unfriendly for business and more expensive for residents. More aggressive laws were passed at the urging of trial lawyers and their allies that made the courts unfriendly territory for businesses.
It all added up to a deflated business community at the political level and an economy unable to diversify, forced to depend upon tourism, new residents and construction — basically, warm weather.
Mark Wilson came to town in 1998 from snowy Chicago as the head of the Florida Chamber of Commerce's political arm. At that time, the chamber had five lobbyists and no strategic plan. The tactics were largely relegated to putting out fires or watering them down, minimize damage.
Now the chamber has 36 lobbyists, several new arms focusing on the justice system, research and politics and has become a juggernaut for the business community.
The organization's increased strength during Wilson's tenure helps illustrate its increased effectiveness for the business community. Total revenues for the Florida Chamber have jumped significantly, from $4.8 million in 2000 to $12.3 million in 2010. The recession knocked out many businesses and hurt most all non-profits, but the chamber maintained revenues at more than $12 million the last few years.
Chris Sullivan, one of the founders of Outback Steakhouse, was the first $100,000 contributor to the chamber just after Wilson became president and CEO. And since then, individual donations have reached as high as $1 million from Miami Dolphins' owner Wayne Huizenga.
Full-time staff from 2000 to 2010 went from 35 to 45. However, Wilson chose to expand by using outside contract help. So about 25 of the chamber's 36 lobbyists are contract lobbyists who work nearly full-time for the chamber. Another 12 consultants have a similar relationship.
The chamber's membership in its grassroots organization has risen dramatically, from about 10,000 members in 2000 to 137,000 today. But a large part of that is through partnerships built with 120 local chambers in the state that did not exist before. That has swelled the numbers, but also allowed a more unified voice on business interests.
There is a long-term strategic plan, increased unity in the business community, and the chamber is constantly on offense while anti-business organizations are on defense every legislative session.
“We push the agenda,” Wilson says. “We have the strongest chamber political program in the nation. You can't do policy without driving politics.”
This change did not come about overnight. But there is little doubt who is the driving engine behind the chamber overhaul.
“My job is to keep the business community focused on the future of Florida, and have the right policies, the right approach to getting them passed, and then make sure we elect and un-elect people based on where they are (on those policies),” Wilson says. “This isn't my organization. I'm a steward of the resources the business community invested into the Florida Chamber.”
Snow to sunshine
Wilson was sitting in his office on the 28th floor of the IBM building in downtown Chicago, looking out the window at the wind whipping the snow upward from the Chicago River, when the call came.
It was late 1997 and then-president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Frank Ryll was on the phone, wanting Wilson to take over the political arm of the chamber and work out of its Tampa office.
Wilson was vice president of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce at the time. He had come from the U.S. Chamber in Chicago after graduating from the University of Georgia with a business degree and a desire to run his own business.
Wilson grew up in southern Illinois and then the Chicago suburbs. He was mowing lawns and washing cars by 10 years old. In college, he had a vending business, placing soda machines in fraternity houses in Athens, Ga. “I was always thinking about the entrepreneur angle.”
But after a short stint working with some friends in Atlanta, he got an offer to work for the U.S. Chamber's Chicago office and quickly made vice president doing political grassroots work.
When Ryll's call came that cold, snowy day, he was ready. Not just for the warm, sunny weather, but for a statewide challenge in a major state.
From 1998 to 2003, Wilson was based in Tampa and split time between there and Tallahassee as the chamber's vice president doing grassroots political work and fundraising. In 2003, the chamber consolidated all of its offices in Tallahassee and Wilson became president and CEO in 2008.
But he got his start on the political operations of the chambers in Chicago and Florida, and he brought that vision to the leadership role.
“Mark is somebody that a lot of his counterparts look to for new ideas, new ways to make our respective chambers more effective in what we do,” says Barry Kennedy, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce.
“I'm very much a visionary,” Wilson says and, as an evangelical Christian, looks to the Bible for context. “Proverbs 29:18, 'Without a vision, the people perish.'”
His vision became clear shortly after arriving in Florida and seeing the strengths and weaknesses.
“Walt Disney came and saw something out of a swamp. Flagler came and said, 'I'm going to build a railroad down the East Coast,'” he says. “I feel a sense of responsibility to be talking about the vision for Florida ... to organize the business community about what to do and do it, and then organize the consequences.”
And that is what he has done.
Identify the enemy
The Florida business community in the late 1990s was fractured. It was exhausted from fighting rearguard actions against a relentless onslaught of regulations and rules and taxes and fees.
And part of the problem was that the many business organizations representing various industries were often at odds with each other. At best, there was little coordination among them when they were on the same side.
Wilson identified a trifecta of economy-undermining tributaries that flow into a river forcing businesses to work upstream:
• The trial lawyers. On any given day during the legislative session, there are 20-30 trial lawyers in the Capitol. Most of them are not registered lobbyists, but lawyers who travel up to publicly testify or personally visit legislators on laws on which they are experts. They are an extremely effective, unified force in Tallahassee.
• The public unions. Government unions are the ones with real strength in Florida. “They make government bigger, they add to bureaucracy and they pour millions and millions into elections. Not all of it is from Florida,” Wilson says.
• Radical environmentalists. Wilson separates mainstream environmentalists from what he calls radicals. “I'm talking about the Sierra Clubs of the world. They want to put a gate at the border and say nobody else is allowed in Florida,” he says. For instance, environmentalists were behind Amendment 4, Hometown Democracy, which could have decimated the Florida economy and was defeated by voters. Wilson was chairman of the organization fighting it.
Wilson takes a broad view of these three groups he sees as enemies of the economy and Florida businesses.
“Forget Republicans and Democrats...There are makers and there are takers,” he says. “The business community... is making things and they're innovating and they're employing people and they can buy things and pay taxes and that's what makes the economy go.”
Then he ticks off the other side: “Trial lawyers take away productivity and take away jobs,” he says. “Unions? What do unions make? Unions take money out of their own members pockets, but they take away from the health of the economy.”
He thinks it is self-evident the damage that environmentalists do, but points out they have a particularly sympathetic media: “Environmentalists have a 30-year advantage on using the press as their bully pulpit.”
And Wilson adds a fourth problem, but one that has been mitigated in recent years: a fragmented business community. “When you have all these business organizations with all of these different priorities, it makes it easy for the three main groups with a different view of Florida to win.”
But that has changed and continues to change.
Igniting the chamber
The Florida Chamber is not the organization it was at the turn of the century.
When Wilson was hired in 1998, the chamber had no real political program. It was reactive, trying to stop bad ideas.
The chamber created the Political Institute in 2003 as the research arm of the political operations program. The institute researches all candidates running for state office and conducts interviews with them to measure their stance on the chamber's priorities. About 80 companies and associations are part of this and have use of the monthly polling the institute does.
The Florida Chamber Foundation is the research arm of the chamber. When Wilson arrived, the foundation had one person working on one project every five years. Now it has a fulltime staff of eight — three with doctorates. The chamber has more in its research foundation than TaxWatch has total employees, but it works more behind the scenes, digging for trends and data two to 10 years out.
And Wilson created the Florida Justice Reform Institute to be a counter-balance to the trial lawyers' Florida Justice Association, which it does both politically and in the court of public opinion.
But he thinks maybe the most important thing the chamber has done in the past decade was develop the Florida Business Agenda that provided a consistent, long-term focus.
“Six pillars has unified business organizations,” he says confidently.
It took several years to put together with the help of business and non-business organizations, but the pillars considered critical to Florida's future that emerged were:
• Talent supply and education
• Innovation and economic development
• Infrastructure and growth leadership
• Business climate and competitiveness
• Civic and governance systems
• Quality of life and quality places
While these could look dangerously vague, ready to gather dust on a shelf, concrete results have come, such as the Florida Scorecard, thefloridascorecard.com, which tracks Florida statistics in each of the six areas on a near-daily basis.
Other chambers have followed suit on the long-term business agenda. “It was so important because it put us on offense,” Wilson says.
All this has put Wilson on the radar nationally. He is invited to speak all over the country and has helped other state chambers of commerce develop programs similar to successful Florida programs.
The Nebraska Chamber invited Wilson to Lincoln last year speak to the board of directors. Out of that, and many private meetings, that chamber developed Forging Nebraska's Future. “Mark's personal trip really helped make it happen,” Kennedy says.
Sit down for lunch with Mark Wilson and it becomes clear that accomplishments aside, he has not lost any of the passion for continuing to change the landscape of doing business in Florida.
“The goal is grow the private sector,” he says flatly. And he is not taking his eyes of that prize.