Joan Verplanck grew up in Detroit when it was known for Berry Gordy and Buicks—not bankruptcy. Like most baby boomers in the 1950s and 1960s, she avidly watched “American Bandstand,” and she still recalls the Army recruitment ad that ran during the popular TV show.
“You’re sure to go higher, and when you retire, you’ll only be 38,” says Verplanck, reciting the commercial jingle. She pauses and snaps her fingers. “I was so ticked when I turned 38 that I hadn’t joined the Army.”
Don’t let her fool you. Verplanck, now in her 60s, isn’t ready for a hammock. She’s as jazzed about business as she is about The Supremes or the Temptations. The Delaware State Chamber’s second female president and CEO looks perfectly at ease at the conference table in her spacious downtown Wilmington office. Seeing the chamber staff and its volunteers get excited about new programs thrills her. “I feed on it,” she says.
So how did this Motown girl wind up in the Small Wonder? Forget DuPont, Bank of America and the other usual suspects. Verplanck’s path to Wilmington is laced with serendipity and forged by hard work. She took a hammer to the glass ceiling long before many people even realized it existed.
But it’s her geographic route to the presidency—not her gender—that may ruffle a blue hen’s feathers. For more than 25 years, chamber presidents have risen through the ranks, as an employee or a board member—or because they’re well-known Delawareans. Such was the case with Jim Wolfe, Suzanne Moore, John Burris and Bill Wyer.
Verplanck, who started the job in February, has neither lived nor worked in Delaware, unless you count time spent at the University of Delaware to earn the Institutes for Organization Management certification.
As of September, she was doggedly making the hour-and-a-half commute from her Princeton, N.J.-area home, which was on the market. (She plans to buy in Delaware.) In a state where there’s one degree of separation—and where the state chamber dates back to 1837—some might label her an outsider who can’t possibly understand the Delaware way.
“I’d be more worried about that if she had no experience,” says Burris, president of the chamber from 1990 to 2000. “But she’s a pro. Even though it might take
her longer to get acclimated, she has the tools to overcome it.” As president of four other chambers, she likely has the chops.
Yet Verplanck didn’t dream of a career in business while growing up in the Motor City. “I never had a plan for things,” she says. “I was sort of loose.”
That’s not to say she lacked motivation. She’s long admired Rosie the Riveter, the cultural icon who represented female factory workers in a government film during World War II. “She is one can-do gal,” says Verplanck, her Michigan accent making an appearance. “It never occurred to me that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.”
Rosie made her first appearance in the Willow Run Bomber Plant in Detroit, and when Verplanck was growing up in the post-war baby boom, the city’s plants were still buzzing, office buildings were full and city schools were so packed that portable classrooms were needed. The so-called “white flight” to the suburbs had yet to come.
Her father was a foreman in a tool-and-die shop. Her mother stayed at home. The family was Catholic, and on Fridays, Verplanck and her two older siblings gathered around the dinner table for egg noodles tossed with cottage cheese. “It looked disgusting, but it was actually pretty good,” Verplanck says. She preferred smelts, lightly floured and fried crisp. “It’s still my favorite.” (She’s yet to try our local version.)
Given her willowy height—she’s 5-foot-11-inches—it’s not surprising that she played basketball. However, she was more of a girly girl. Fashion, she admits, remains her greatest extravagance. She went on a diet because her clothes are too expensive to replace, she says.
At Wayne State University in Detroit, she majored in English. So did her husband-to-be, an ex-military man with two children from a previous marriage. When he got a job in publishing, they married and moved to Boston. “In those days, you didn’t follow a man unless you were married,” she says. By day, she worked as an administrative assistant at Harvard University. By night they went out on the town.
They had their daughter Marcy after moving to Rhode Island. When a car accident left her husband’s ex-wife paralyzed from the chest down, his two children came to live with them. “I was 24 or 25 with an infant, third-grader and fifth-grader,” recalls Verplanck, who would later give birth to daughters Michelle and Gretchen.
After Gretchen started school, Verplanck landed a temporary job at the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce. The board had fired both the executive director and his secretary and needed someone to manage the office.
Verplanck soon realized the board was as “clueless” about the organization as she was. She threw her hat into the ring for the leadership position. At the interview, a female board member blurted: “Can you type?” Verplanck replied that she could, and she was hired.
It was 1977. North Kingstown was severely depressed. Rhode Island had lost the U.S. naval base in nearby Quonset Point three years earlier. The chamber had a $17,000 budget, and the main member perk was a summer picnic. Five years later, it had a $400,000 budget—“big bucks in the ’70s,” Verplanck says. It captured new business by capitalizing on the offshore oil exploration and its need for onshore support service.
In 1982 she became president of the Greater Woonsocket Chamber of Commerce, which handled economic development for the former textile town as well as towns in bordering Massachusetts. Because the chamber owned industrial parks, Verplanck learned about commercial real estate. During her tenure, the chamber attracted CVS, which still has its corporate headquarters there.
Verplanck and her husband divorced in 1983. She moved to the Morris County Chamber of Commerce in New Jersey four years later. “I went from a blue collar town with ancient infrastructure to a ‘city on a hill,’” she says. The affluent region had a healthy dose of Fortune 500 company headquarters.
Then, in 1995, Verplanck became the first female president of the Trenton-based New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce. During her 16-year tenure, she doubled the staff and increased assets by $2 million. She also racked up honors.
The Star-Ledger twice named her one of the 10 most powerful women in business. New Jersey Monthly called her one of the five business power players. She was inducted as a life member of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, the chamber profession’s highest honor.
In 2009 many considered Verplanck a leading running mate for Gov. Jon Corzine, who was going up against Republican Chris Christie. Corzine chose Sen. Loretta Weinberg. That apparently didn’t matter to Christie, who won the election. “He seems like the kind of politician who never forgives and never forgets,” says Burris, who served in the Delaware House of Representatives for six years and ran for governor.
Case in point: Christie skipped the chamber’s traditional January train ride to Washington, D.C., typically a big debut for a new governor. He also appointed Debra DiLorenzo, South Jersey Chamber of Commerce president, to his transition team.
Josh Margolin, reporting for the Star-Ledger, wrote in a Jan. 24, 2010, article: “Christie wants revenge against two of Trenton’s most influential lobbying groups: the chamber and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.” He added that sources said Christie was upset that the chamber had favored Corzine’s plan to raise highway tolls to reduce state debt.
Verplanck, who’d been diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer, resigned in June 2010. She was successfully treated with radiation. “It was probably best for the chamber and best for me in retrospect,” she says of her departure. “It gave me time off to really heal, time to explore other professions and to do some consulting.”
In June 2011, she joined Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate firm. But perhaps because of the high commissions, it was a “lone wolf” business. She missed the chamber’s camaraderie.
When Jim Wolfe retired from the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce in 2012, Blake Wilson, a former chamber employee who’s now CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council, told Verplanck about the opening. The two had met through chamber organizations. So she applied.
Resumes poured in from across the country, says Mark Stellini, the chairman-elect of the board and a selection committee member. There were eight initial interviews, and most of those candidates were Delawareans, he says. Two candidates returned for a second interview, including Verplanck. “She had a strong interview, great ideas and a great vision,” Stellini says.
Few in the chamber batted an eye over the brouhaha surrounding her departure from the New Jersey chamber. “We play the game differently here,” says Rich Heffron, senior vice president for government affairs, who’s been with the Delaware chamber for 22 years and twice served as interim president. The state has long prided itself on bipartisan policymaking and positive working relationships between private and public sectors.
Economically speaking, Verplanck is an insider. Northern Delaware and half of New Jersey, both part of the Greater Philadelphia area, are competing for potential employers.
But, as people keep telling Verplanck, Delaware is different. Verplanck realized pretty quickly that “everyone knows everybody,” Heffron says.
“Sometimes no baggage is good baggage,” Verplanck says. “I’m neutral; people don’t know enough about me yet.”
But they’re starting to as she moves forward with an agenda. “She’s a dynamic lady,” Stellini says. “Very proactive.”
The chamber needs fresh ideas, sources agree. At its peak in 1988, there were 3,700 members. There were mixers, lunches, dinners, workshops and large-scale business and consumer trade shows. Today it has 1,500 members, although multiple locations of a business, such as Walgreens, no longer count as separate members, Heffron says.
Health benefits were once a primary reason for small and medium-sized businesses to join. That changed as rates rose across the board. Verplanck is excited about a chamber benefit exchange, which encompasses dental, health, vision and life and disability benefits. She hopes to offer the program to local chambers, which can offer it to their members.
Over the summer, Verplanck met with committee leaders to discuss programs. Frequent networking mixers can “suck the life out of a chamber’s human resources,” she says. “It’s time to seed that landscape to local chambers. It makes more sense.”
She’s reached out to the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce to work on joint activities, and she wants to involve the many downstate chambers. (Downstate, it doesn’t matter that she’s from New Jersey; she’s an outsider only because she’s not from Sussex County, Burris agrees.) Bob Older, founder of the Delaware Small Business Chamber, says he’s not heard from her, but he’d love to work together.
The state chamber has also been putting together its legislative agenda for the next session. “We’re going back to building policy from the committees up,” Heffron says. “It’s a more intensive process; we’re focusing on very specific items, not a general agenda.”
Verplanck says government in general can prove frustrating. No matter how attractive Delaware looks to a company considering a location here, a project must still go through roadblocks with municipal planning boards.
She recognizes that patience is not her virtue. “I always think I can get somewhere in 20 minutes because I move fast,” she says. “You can’t impose that on people because it’s borderline crazy.”
And what is her best characteristic? “I think I’m a good friend,” she says. “I maintain friendships with people I grew up next to in Detroit.” There are no toxic friends who need to be “divorced.” She chooses friends carefully from the start.
She doesn’t regret much about her career or life, although she would have liked more children. She does, however, have eight grandchildren. Each summer she spends time with one grandchild just after the family vacation, which this year topped 15 people—including her ex-husband.
“Vacation is something that makes you happy to get back to work,” she says. And that is exactly what she’s doing. “I hope I have fun here.”
Either way, she’s rolling back her proverbial shirtsleeves. It’s time for Rosie the Riveter to flex her muscles.