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The Knight Who Saved the Day


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Looking back on it, nobody has a bad word to say about the old Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce. Not on the record. Not even off the record. It’s as if the well-publicized financial troubles and internal machinations were a bumpy, but necessary, part of a three-year trip to a new land, where a Knight saved the granddaddy of all San Diego business booster organizations from what looked like a clear path to self-destruction.

In this case, the man on metaphoric horseback is Jessie Knight, the president and chief executive officer hired in June 1999 to grapple with the two-headed dragon of debt and disarray in the 130-year-old institution. By 2002, this Knight’s round table is complete—a balanced budget, a streamlined staff and a smaller, newly invigorated board intent on doing what it takes to slay the image of the Chamber of Commerce as an exclusive domain of corporate fat cats and downtown bigwigs.

Which explains the new name: the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. The vote on the name change in early 2000 was very purposeful. It was meant to convey a new tone in leadership and in mission—and to put history to rest. That recent history had cost the Chamber plenty—in prestige, political clout and money.

First, membership had begun to slide big-time in the wake of disclosures that the Chamber—with $6.6 million in income in 1998—was $894,000 in debt when President Gil Partida quit after six years to work for PriceSmart. If that wasn’t bad enough, the membership slide became an avalanche after the debacle of the forced resignation of Ben Haddad, a highly experienced former aide to Governor Pete Wilson and Mayor Susan Golding, just six months after he’d been hired to succeed Partida.

By the time the dust cleared, the Chamber’s membership had gone from 4,500 to 2,800—very bad news for a group that had always considered itself the voice of business at a time when the economy was booming. A pro-business organization had plenty to tackle: housing, workers’ compensation, energy. But not much of that public work was being done, say former board members, because factions among the massive 100-member board were focused inward —trying to run the organization—while other board members were trying to keep afloat a foundering ship.

Thanks to copious news coverage, the membership caught the drift: “I had to beg people to stay, to keep paying their dues,” says one longtime civic booster who hung in there anyway but doesn’t want to be named. “People told me they’d never seen anything so bush league in their lives as the way the board was running that place.”

Enter Jessie J. Knight Jr. The tall, amiable former executive vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce arrived with impressive credentials. With an MBA from the University of Wisconsin and years in the international and domestic business marketing trenches with Castle & Cooke Foods (the Dole pineapple people) and the San Francisco Chronicle & Examiner newspapers, the bilingual Knight also was a Wilson appointee to the California Public Utilities Commission and active in a number of world-affairs organizations.

Just like everyone else interviewed for the job, Knight looked at the old Chamber structure and recommended an overhaul. The board was too big. The policy making it should have been doing was top-down instead of bottom-up.

“This organization’s been around for 130 years, and it’s done a lot of great work for San Diego,” Knight says now. “The little period of trials and tribulations it went through basically was because it became too unwieldy—it wasn’t that anyone was doing anything wrong. It’s just that when you have a board [that big], it’s hard for one group to know what another group is doing. So we went through a whole strategic planning process, and we reorganized the basic framework of how the organization operates.”

“Before Jessie, I think there was a tendency to control the decision-making process,” says 2002 Chamber Chairman Ted Roth, president and CEO of Alliance Pharmaceutical Corporation. “Now there’s broader participation, empowered committees, more discussion and debate—even disagreements—than we had under a more controlled environment.”
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