When Kathleen T. Snyder retires from the Maryland Chamber of Commerce in June, it will be a decided shift after years of running — and turning around — business organizations.
She's headed the chamber since 1999, taking on budget deficits there after helping to fix problems at two other chambers of commerce. But she said she's proudest of her more recent work on the still-young Maryland Competitiveness Coalition, which pulled together more than 60 business groups in the state to focus on private-sector job growth and improving Maryland's business climate.
She chatted with The Baltimore Sun recently about her career, her perspective on the minimum wage fight and the lack of coincidence that she's moving on the same month a grandchild is due to be born.
What made you decide that now's the time to retire?
The fifth grandchild coming, [plus] my mom is 87. I'm in good health — I'm 62, life is short. I want to spend some time with my family.
I own a small house down in the Outer Banks, [N.C.]. … I have for 12 years. So I'm planning to sit on the beach in July and August and have my grandchildren come and go. And how awesome is that?
Your current job is your third at a chamber of commerce. What got you interested in that sort of role?
I fell into it. Years ago, one of my earliest jobs was working for the Prince George's County public schools. At first I was in the public information office, and then I worked … with the business community to get businesses more involved with the schools. …
In that role, I met a lot of business people in Prince George's County. And there was an opening at the chamber for the executive vice president and I applied and got the job — not really knowing what a chamber of commerce was. And it was a baptism by fire, because the chamber had some significant financial and membership issues, and with the help of some business people, we straightened all that out. …
The Alexandria, Va., chamber had an opening, and … was having similar legislative/membership issues and invited me to apply. And I did get that job. … I ran the Alexandria chamber for seven years, crossing over the old [Woodrow] Wilson Bridge every day. …
The Maryland chamber … had deficits for the prior eight to 10 years before I came. And it also had an unstable membership base and was not having the kind of success in its advocacy work that the board of directors desired. When I came in, we had to totally revamp our membership programs … revamp our financials, [bring] in a new auditor, put new accounting practices into place. I'm pleased to say that during my tenure, after the first few years, that we had small surpluses.
Local economists say businesses don't have much pull in Annapolis. Do you agree? What can companies do to prompt policies they want or stop the ones they don't want?
The Maryland chamber and this competitiveness coalition we've formed have really captured the attention of the legislative leadership of both parties in Annapolis. It's not standing up and saying, "No to this and no to that." We're trying to find solutions to really jump-start Maryland's economy so we're not so dependent on federal spending.
We're positioning a united business community across the state, which has not been done before. So we changed the dynamic, saying we want to work in partnership with state government. We may not always agree on individual bills, but the big picture is, how can we grow more high-paying jobs here for Marylanders? What do we have to do to create those jobs, and how can we become globally competitive? …
So it's not an "us against them" battle anymore, but truly being united and helping the economy grow in a different way. That's what I think my legacy is going to be at the chamber.
Maryland officials are seeking an increase to the state's minimum wage. Typically, business groups say such a move would be bad for business, while worker advocates say it would be very helpful for low-income employees. Do you see a way to get beyond that split?
If we only want to focus on the minimum wage, then Maryland won't get very far ahead. We truly have to focus on continuing to invest in education, K-12 education, continuing to fund our community colleges and higher education, so we are preparing young people and retraining older people for the jobs of the future. …
We would rather see the minimum wage be debated on Capitol Hill but understand there won't be any action there for some time.
What would surprise people to learn about you?
That I'm one of eight children. I'm the third oldest. … So I just absolutely love people, I love competition. I have learned through my family experience about the power of being fair, being honest and being high-integrity. Family has to come first, and it does for me.
Kathleen T. Snyder
Title: President and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce
Hometown: Born in Baltimore, grew up in Prince George's County
Education: Bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland in 1973; master's degree in public relations from American University in 1979
Family: Three children, four grandchildren (with another on the way)
Hobbies: Walking, reading, playing with her grandchildren.