By James Kelleher
(page 1 of 2)Jessie J. Knight Jr., the new custodian of the confusion politely known as the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, could be doing so much better. Consider the man’s business background: 10 years on the corporate fast track at Dole Foods, three of them in Latin America; then seven years at the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle directing the papers’ marketing operations. Consider the man’s public policy experience: six years as a commissioner on California’s powerful Public Utilities Commission as it deregulated California’s $21 billion electricity industry.
He’s comfortable with Spanish. You may have noticed he’s black. In other words, Jessie Knight probably could have written his own ticket at just about any Fortune 100 company he wanted. Think a senior position. Think a very fat paycheck. Think a corner suite on a high floor of a tony office building overlooking midtown Manhattan or Madrid’s Gran Via or Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma. That’s where Jessie Knight could be.
Instead, Knight chose San Diego and a $200,000-a-year job as president and CEO of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Sure, the money isn’t bad. But the organization is a disaster, mired in financial problems and traumatized by boardroom backstabbing and intrigue, as well as high-level resignations and terminations.
Every day, Knight schleps from his new home in Point Loma over to the chamber’s well-worn offices on the 10th floor of the Emerald Plaza. This is where the long knives have come out twice in the past two years to undercut his predecessors, Gil Partida and Ben Haddad.
Figuring out Knight’s angle isn’t easy. When San Diego Magazine caught up with him in early September, the 48-year-old was excruciatingly politic and not terribly candid. He is optimistic, he says, about the chamber’s prospects. His top three priorities, he says, are restoring the group to
a firm financial footing, forging ties with the business community south of the border and reaching out to local arts groups. He is confident, he says, that the chamber’s board—criticized by Partida and others as a bunch of bossy Babbitts—will give him enough time and latitude to execute the turnaround and transform the group into “one of the premier nonprofit organizations in the country.”
But Knight isn’t nuts. He didn’t reveal what kind of severance package he negotiated with the chamber, but he did disclose one intriguing detail during the otherwise guarded chat. That house in Point Loma? It’s leased.
Welcome to San Diego, Mr. Knight. We’re interested in your first impressions. How does the city compare with San Francisco, where you’ve come from, in terms of style and tempo?
It has a slower pace, for sure. It’s a more informal atmosphere than San Francisco. San Diego is a large city, a great metropolitan city, but it still has a sense of small-town community. Everyone knows one another. When people talk about the mayor here, it’s not “the mayor,” it’s “Susan.” It’s not “San Diego Magazine,” it’s “Tom.” It’s not “the chamber,” it’s “Jessie.” It’s got a sense of individualism and a sense of personality around functional leadership. But still, it has all the growing pains of a large metropolitan community.
As an outsider, and one with experience in Latin America, were you struck at all by the disconnect between San Diego and Tijuana, given how close the cities are geographically?
Well, quite honestly I was surprised that the relationship isn’t closer. I think the sense of internationalism is stronger in the Bay Area.
You’ve taken over a job that has had a lot of turnover at the top over the past two years. What challenges does that legacy of instability and controversy pose?
I’m an outsider with a new perspective. I’m concentrating on the future. I see an enterprise that has tremendous fundamentals for growth. I am a futurist and a change agent. There are things that need to be cleaned up from past management practice and maybe, to some extent, diverse approaches to mission that need to be organized. I am taking that diamond in the rough and helping to shape it. It’s not Jessie Knight having all the answers but Jessie Knight helping all the stakeholders in this chamber, this community, get back on track.
So yes, I’ve heard all the stories about the turmoil. ... [But] I’m looking forward to taking what I know, moving forward and not dwelling on yesterday.
Getting the house in order can’t be easy. What has been your top priority?
Getting it on a good, solid financial footing.
We’ve heard that a lot of members canceled their memberships because of the chaos at the chamber. Has that hurt the chamber financially?
In fact, all the big names that said they were moving out of the chamber haven’t. They criticized some of the things in the past, but the positive part is everybody recognizes that the community needs a strong chamber. The business community needs some voice to deal with issues, particularly the larger regional kinds of issues. And the smaller businesses need some kind of vehicle to help grease their way through the inner workings of the community.
So when you say getting the finances in order, what does that mean, exactly?
To balance our books, make sure we are whole and end up, as a nonprofit, with a balanced profit and loss statement. That’s requiring us to move some things around in the operations, look at our cost structure, figure out ways to be more efficient, just as any other business would.
You say you came in here as a change agent. Have you had to make any compromises during your first two or three months on the job?
None. Nope. Not a one.
You haven’t had to pull in your horns or lower your expectations?
I’ve had to increase my expectations. This is going to be a much larger organization than I anticipated.
One of the things I’m taking a look at is having a formal presence in Mexico. I’m also talking to the performing arts community. That had not been a part of the chamber activity here. The performing arts is not only a glue in the core of the community, attracting people downtown, it’s also a business enterprise. We, as the chamber representing business interests, should support that, not only in terms of subscription and memberships but also in terms of helping them be efficient and to be the best that they can be.
When your appointment was announced in May, you were quoted as saying, “This is clearly a turnaround situation, and it’s not a quick turnaround. There’s a lot of blocking and tackling that needs to be done.” Have you felt like you’ve been sacked at all?
[He laughs.] It’s like any organization where you have to make changes to get back in balance. It isn’t easy, but it’s doable. I think that by the end of the year we are going to be a very healthy organization. We’ll be in balance.