Delaware State Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner: Doug Rainey

The Delaware State Chamber of Commerce will hold its annual dinner this month and present its biggest award.

For the 176th time, upward of 1,000 members of the business, government and nonprofit communities will head to the Chase Center in Wilmington on Jan. 14 for the annual dinner of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.

The formula that gets so many people out on an icy evening uses a blend of networking, a strong keynote speaker and the awarding of the Josiah Marvel Cup.

In 2000, a governor of Texas made an appearance as the presidential race heated up. “We were lucky,” A. Richard “Rich” Heffron, interim president of the organization, says of the decision to invite George W. Bush. The appearance drew a record crowd of 1,100.

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Since that time, the dinner has mainly featured speakers with ties to the state or region.

This year’s speaker is William Winkenwerder Jr., CEO of Pittsburgh-based Highmark Inc. Highmark is the parent of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware, the largest health insurer in the state.

Recent speakers have included the former and current CEOs of Bank of America and DuPont.

Expected to be at the top of the state chamber’s agenda is workers’ compensation reform. Despite legislation signed in 2007, aimed at controlling costs of covering injured workers, rates are again on the rise.

“We will see layoffs,” says Edward Capodanno, president of Associated Builders and Contractors, Delaware Chapter. He is referring to the impact of double-digit rate increases that could occur in the next few years. Associated Builders and Contractors has been working with the state chamber, New Castle County Chamber and other groups on the issue.

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The keynote speaker last year was Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, who guided WSFS from the brink of a federal takeover to a leadership position among banks in the state. Schoenhals continues to serve as chairman of WSFS and Vision 2015, the effort to build a world-class public education system in Delaware.

It also marked a changing of the guard in the banking community, following the sale of Wilmington Trust to Buffalo, N.Y.-based M&T. WSFS is now the state’s largest locally based bank.

In addition to the keynote speech, chamber officials and the governor discuss issues facing the general assembly and the business community.

Perhaps the biggest draw is a chance to spend time with a virtual who’s who of the state’s leaders. “It’s an excellent opportunity, particularly for small business owners,” Heffron says.

The event is also an opportunity to reflect on the many changes that have rocked Delaware.

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One example came in 2011 when former Congressman Mike Castle, who lost in the U.S. Senate primary to Christine O’Donnell, received the Josiah Marvel Cup. The cup is awarded annually, with the identity of the recipient kept secret. Last year’s winner was Robert F. Rider, CEO of O.A. Newton, a Bridgeville-based manufacturer of materials handling equipment.

Keeping a lid on the selection is not always easy, Heffron says. More than once, the recipient was spending the winter in Florida and had to be coaxed out of the Sunshine State with a story about a friend receiving the award.

The cup for service to the state is awarded from a field of nominees picked by a committee that this year will include Heffron. Nominees not receiving the award are often carried over to the next year for further consideration.

Consideration is also given to prominent nominees in poor health, with former U.S. Sen. William Roth and construction executive and former chamber chairman Richard DiSabatino winning the cup. Heffron says it is important to offer the honor while the recipient is still able to attend the event.

One fairly recent exception was James Gilliam, a Beneficial Corp. executive and community leader, who died unexpectedly.

The Marvel Cup Award dates back to 1951. It was named in honor of Josiah Marvel, who reorganized the state Chamber of Commerce and served as its first president nearly a century ago. Marvel was one of the architects of Delaware’s world-renowned corporate law system and a founder of Corporation Services Co. CSC, based near Wilmington, has grown into an incorporation firm with a national network of offices.

The dinner also has its lighter traditions. One that went on for years was the ceremonial passing of the aspirin to the new chairman of the state chamber.

The aspirin prop had its roots during the tenure of chamber president John Burris, who was known for a strong leadership style that could leave a surprised chairman looking for a tablet or two.

The most recent chamber president, James Wolfe, retired earlier this year. Wolfe has earned praise for guiding the chamber during a difficult period that included the closing of the state’s two auto plants, including the Chrysler assembly plant in Newark that he once managed.

A search is currently under way for a new president.

Heffron says the chamber is closing the application process and it is not yet known if Wolfe’s successor will be on hand.

Still, an introduction of a new president would come as no surprise. After all, this is Delaware’s biggest business event.

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