They sat in comfortable chairs in the lobby of Wilmington’s mighty Hercules Building, blue suits all around—with a couple pairs of interesting socks—and talked about 50 years of work. Members of the Committee of 100, including past presidents and current leaders, reflected briefly on the organization’s half-century of efforts to promote a more favorable business climate in the state. Previous successes were highlighted, and some history was offered. But this quartet was not interested in just reminiscing, not with so much left to do.
“We’re still working on some things we started working on in 1967,” says Paul Morrill, the committee’s executive director. “Some things are perpetual.”
Morrill’s statement is not born of frustration so much as reality. When the Committee of 100 was incorporated in August 1967, its mission was to convince legislators and regulators to make Wilmington and New Castle County more fertile grounds for economic development. There have been plenty of success stories over the course of a half-century, but, as Morrill says, new challenges arise regularly.
Because there is constant push-and-pull between government and business forces when it comes to commercial growth, a body like the Committee of 100 is needed as an advocate for the interests of companies that are trying to increase market share, launch initiatives and become more profitable. No matter what changes have occurred in the marketplace over the past 50 years, the committee’s goals have remained the same, even if its methods have morphed to meet the times.
“We don’t look at this as a challenge,” says Mike Scali, the committee’s president and a partner in the Wilmington law firm of Gellert, Scali, Busenkell & Brown. “We are keeping with our constant mission of promoting economic development.”
The committee is made up of representatives from a broad cross section of Delaware businesses. Its membership includes executives from just about every industry and professional category, and its strength comes from the fact that those involved are not merely functionaries tabbed by companies to participate in something of a necessary task. Those representing the 175 firms on the member roles bring considerable experience and influence.
Monthly meetings unite a collection of city, county and state business leaders, providing a critical mass for strategic planning and execution. Member dues provide the committee’s main funding, though an annual fundraising event is another source of revenue, especially for the annual $3,000 scholarship the organization bestows on a local student. The event is a significant gathering of influence, not to mention a great networking opportunity for those who attend. Members do not apply—they are invited. Exclusivity allows the Committee to create a versatile roster that spans a variety of professions and includes people with significant expertise in many disciplines.
The Committee of 100 is not a troubleshooter for individual businesses. It focuses on broad topics that impact the business community at large, so when it decides to weigh in, it brings some heft. A homebuilder won’t come looking for favors in regard to a particular development, but the committee will step forward when the industry as a whole finds itself facing some hurdles.
“Because of the diversity of our membership, and because we don’t jump in on every issue, we can come in with some authority to represent the business community,” says Jed Hatfield, the committee’s immediate past president and president of Colonial Parking. “We can be the voice of the business community.”
The most experienced hosts will tell you that when putting together the guest list for a dinner party, it is important to create a combination of attendees that produces a convivial atmosphere. The last thing anybody wants is acrimony or discomfort among those at the table.
It’s unlikely any Committee of 100 members will be providing concierge or party planning services in the near future, but in 2003, the organization pulled off an event that would be worthy of the most experienced hand. When AAA’s Mid-Atlantic regional arm expressed an interest in locating its headquarters in Delaware, a move that would bring 750 jobs to the state, elected officials went to the Committee and asked it to gather business leaders with the goal of convincing AAA that the First State was the right state.
The committee’s strategy was perfect. It set up the room so that each table included representatives from specific industries that matched the duties of the dozen or so AAA personnel in attendance. More importantly, the dinner came together in about a week—no small feat, considering those who attended were senior management members of companies.
“The people from AAA had access to elected officials and members of the business community who could tell them what it was like to be a corporate citizen in Delaware,” Hatfield says.
By mid-2005, AAA had set up operations in Wilmington and Newark, with the goal of providing better service for its 3.5 million members while creating tax benefits for itself and lowering business costs. The state of Delaware was grateful that an organization such as the Committee of 100 was around to help.
Though it’s one high-profile example of the committee’s work, it is not as interested in making headlines as it is in creating a more business-friendly climate in Delaware. “We try to get [businesspeople] to sit down with government officials to work things out,” Morrill says. “We never just complain. We try to propose a solution.”
To some, that means the committee is trying to get more lax environmental regulations in place, the better to promote commerce. Others complain that the committee is anti-union, because it doesn’t want to see project costs grow due to labor expenses.
Last March, the organization was involved in trying to block a house bill that aimed to give unions greater control over state-funded construction projects. During a hearing on the proposed legislation, Morrill stood with angry laborers who worried that unions would get special treatment when contracts were awarded.
“It appears to us this is about 10 percent of the construction workforce trying to control 100 percent of the public construction budget, and we think that’s just plain wrong,” Morrill said.
But the Committee of 100 says it has no interest in compromising the environment or making life tougher for workers. It wants to partner with groups across the political spectrum to find common ground. That means the environment is important to the committee, though it believes some regulations create headaches without providing significant benefit to the environment. Organized labor isn’t an enemy, but, the committee says, when unions try to force government leaders to include provisions in contracts that inflate costs, everybody loses, because development means jobs. When onerous protocols exist, developers scale back or scrap their plans.
“We don’t do anything in a vacuum,” Morrill says. “Our preferred way of operating is collaboration.”
Jeff Bross is senior consultant and chairman of the Wilmington-based engineering firm Duffield Associates who has been a member of the Committee of 100 since 1981. He agrees. Much of what the organization does is “diplomacy,” Bross says. Since it has no legislative power, it simply can’t bully lawmakers and agencies into following its agenda.
A hot topic a few years ago was the Delaware River dredging, which would allow larger ships to travel the waterway and deliver larger loads to ports. The controversial project was strongly opposed by environmentalists and others. To convince people that a deeper Delaware was a better Delaware, the committee interviewed environmentalists and industry representatives. The result was a recommendation for the project, but not one based entirely on one side’s viewpoint.
“That gave us credibility,” Bross says.
It also showed what happens when an organization marshals considerable resources, talent and expertise to do more than lobby. The Committee of 100 stays away from small disputes between individual firms and larger entities, so when it does enter a fight, it means something.
“We have a commonality of mission,” Bross says. “If we jump in, we bring gravitas.”
As the committee continues its work on behalf of the business community, it is quite aware of the need to look forward. As the economy changes—as jobs disappear and are created according to the whims of technology—a need for new thinking has emerged. Morrill says it is “no accident” the committee’s offices are in the 1313 Innovation Center, in downtown Wilmington, an incubator for entrepreneurs. “We love the vibe of the 20- and 30-somethings here,” Morrill says. While there are still regulations to revise and infrastructure challenges to tackle across the state, there is also a need for agility of mind and the ability to address issues with a strong eye on the future.
“Regulatory issues evolve,” Bross says. “You can plan all you want, and there is a component of strategic thinking, but if an ordinance shows up tomorrow that nobody knew about, you have to be ready. We want to be strategic, but we have to be nimble enough to handle the crisis du jour.”
Today and for the next 50 years.