The Heart of the Deal

Tommy Cooper brings passion, innovation—and a touch of Sussex County flavor—to his role as chair of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.

Photograph by Jared CastaldiFive years ago, business in Delaware was flying high. Financial companies surged, a strong manufacturing presence boosted exports, and an influx of retirees to the coastal region boosted an already strong real estate market.

Delaware was living in an era of relative prosperity.

And, like Icarus, the global economy flew a little too close to the sun and the results crashed back to Earth. Banks that once permeated almost every facet of northern Delaware life faced massive overhauls when shares plummeted by 90 percent, auto manufacturers in Newark and Newport shuttered their factories, and the real estate pool seemingly dried up over night.

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Delaware’s economy needed help—the unemployment rate peaked at 9.4 percent in February 2010, up from 3.3 percent in May 2006—so the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce did what it does best: instill change. It strengthened its partnership with the Delaware Economic Development Office, advised businesses throughout the state as to new strategies, and in the summer of 2010, it helped bring Fisker Automotive, an electric car manufacturer, to the abandoned Boxwood Road Plant in Newport.

Chairing the massive projects spearheaded by the DSCC during this period of economic instability is a tall order for anyone in the best of times, let alone for a Realtor facing his own struggles with the housing market, yet Tommy Cooper jumped at the opportunity and hasn’t regretted it for a minute.

“I’m extremely humbled and proud to be the chairman,” he says. “It’s a wonderful institution and when I walk in the boardroom and look at the pictures of the past chairs, I am proud to be one of them.”

Cooper, the first Sussex resident to head this organization, is a relative unknown to most of the state. He isn’t a player in the financial or scientific fields and he has never run for political office—he considered it years ago, but today’s politics are too nasty a business, he says.

“I’d rather be a kingmaker behind the scenes than the alternative. There’s always a way of putting things together so that everybody benefits.”

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The Lewes-based Realtor deftly combines the stereotypes of a charismatic southerner from an old Faulkner novel with those of a jet-setting modern-day businessman with one foot in the boardroom and the other on the golf course.

“It’s definitely a balancing act,” he says. “When I put on the metaphorical chamber hat, I need to be bipartisan, look at things and ask, ‘What’s in the best interest of the state, county or town?’ A lot of times my personal and political views have to be tempered so I can look at the big picture.”

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Admittedly, Cooper hasn’t always been as involved in the community as he is today. He became a Realtor in 1972 and has owned Cooper Realty since 1984, but it wasn’t until 1990 when then-chamber president John Burris called Cooper and asked him if he would help him expand the DSCC into Sussex County. Cooper joined immediately and over the past 20 years has worked closely with the board of directors to help influence the business environment in the state. As chair, he works directly with the current DSCC president and former chair, James Wolfe, forming a one-two punch that heads Delaware’s largest and oldest business organization.

“If you call yourself a state chamber, then you need representation from all over the state,” Wolfe says. “When we focused on trying to find someone from Sussex to become chair, Tommy’s name just kept coming up. People respect him and know he’s very innovative.”

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The presidency of the chamber is a full-time job, complete with salary, but the chair position is an unpaid and very public position performed in addition to the person’s original employment. Despite the obligations of her husband’s new post, Connie Cooper—Tommy’s wife and business partner—said she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m proud of Tommy and his involvement in the chamber,” she says. “He’s very energetic and I knew this was a passion of his, so I fully encouraged him when this opportunity came up.”

The phrase “supportive relationship” doesn’t come close to describing the 10-year marriage between Tommy and Connie. Many couples find it difficult even sharing a remote control, let alone a business, but Connie says it has brought them even closer.

More than a decade ago, with both living in Seaford at the time, the two avid golfers were familiar with each other and hit it off immediately when introduced by friends. At the time, Connie was an elementary school guidance counselor who never considered making a living in real estate, but after a year of mulling it over she made the switch.

Their key to avoiding pitfalls is to keep business out of home life, and home life out of business. Occasionally one encroaches on the other, Connie says, but those instances are rare. “We’re pretty in tune when the other is going through something tough at work,” she says. “I’ve had a couple of trying transactions lately, and if I go through something like that at work, he’s fully aware of it. If he sees that, he eases the load by making dinner at home.”

In order to celebrate the closing of her most recent sale, one Connie admits violated the aforementioned rule, she wanted to repay Tommy, a self-described foodie, the best way she knew: a night of fine dining.

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“Honestly,” he says, “We’re spoiled in the beach area for food. Between the Lewes scene and Rehoboth scene, we have 50 excellent restaurants right there. There are a lot of creative chefs that are just to die for.”

From their vacation spot in Naples, Fla., to their honeymoon in Italy, the couple has traveled around the country and around the world searching for great golfing and dining. Although he loves the variety of cultures and experiences around the globe, Cooper admits he doesn’t think he could leave Delaware. Cooper’s family moved from Baltimore when he was in the third grade, and, aside from a brief time at East Tennessee State University for college, Cooper has since called Sussex County his home.

Before real estate, Cooper was a regional manager at a Fortune 500 medical supply company and was offered a lucrative promotion early in his tenure, but only if he would relocate to Chicago. After some consideration, he politely declined the offer—too cold and too expensive, he says—and he ventured into real estate and hasn’t looked back.

“It enabled me to stay a Delawarean and it controlled my life. I love real estate, and I’ll always do it. I don’t think I’ll ever retire, because, to quote Donald Trump, ‘I truly enjoy the art of the deal,’” he says. “It keeps me young at heart.”

His desire to stay in Delaware was strong, and it hurts him to see the “brain drain” that has resulted in the exodus of many talented young Delawareans.

“In the past 15 years, I’ve seen where we raise and educate homegrown kids and they have to leave the area to find good jobs. It’s been very important to me to be proactive to try and create more of those jobs in this state,” he says.

To do so, Cooper has worked with his colleagues at the chamber, and Wolfe in particular, to help set standards throughout the state. “My goals were to provide leadership and encourage our board to help lead Delaware and the counties to create jobs,” Cooper says. “In order to be successful, we’re going to need to grow our way out of this, as well as make fiscally responsible cuts in government. All we can do on the cuts side is encourage it, but on the job side, we can do things on a daily basis.”

The chamber’s agenda is not a static to-do list, but an ever-adjusting list of priorities. Some long-term goals, like the chamber’s push for education reform fits in with the state-guided Vision 2015, while others, like the DSCC’s new focus on healthcare and energy, emerged in response to changing government and social views.

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Wolfe, a former plant manager at Chrysler’s Newark facility, is no stranger to difficult projects and has helped Cooper, as well as the rest of the board, with this lengthy process. However, as in any organization with hundreds of members, opinions will differ, he says. To prevent disagreements from escalating into full-blown confrontations, transparency and diversity are key.

“You want a chair that has been involved and wants to help the chamber, and more importantly, businesses move forward,” he says. “You also need a range of views and if we are serious about diversity, you want a variety of voices.”

With its current chair from Sussex and Connie Bond Stuart of PNC Bank prepared to take over in 2012 as the first female chair, the chamber, which in the past has almost exclusively been chaired by New Castle County men who work in the science or financial industry, has clearly embraced change.

“The business world is a much more inclusive environment than even 10 years ago,” Stuart says. “[Becoming chair] felt like a really great opportunity to move forward. I think it’s just a reflection of the changing environment.”

Yet, as Cooper has helped the DSCC usher in change, he has been dealing with his own struggles back at Cooper Realty.

“I can tell you that for the real estate industry, this has certainly been a depression. A lot of good people have been hurt and the way the survivors are doing business today is totally different than the way things have been done in the past. It is a whole new ballgame and I think we’re all going to be stronger and smarter if we survive,” he says. “It’s very rewarding when you can help owners that are having problems caused by nothing they did so that they can go on and survive.”

Despite the grim outlook, Cooper sees better times on the horizon.

“I think Delaware is getting better every day. In Sussex, we still have a mesh of people from the entire United States coming here to retire. I have to compliment our senators and representatives on a federal level, and the Markell administration, too. They are all working well to create an atmosphere that will make Delaware a more attractive place,” he says. “I’m a staunch Republican and none of those people are, so that’s a big compliment.” 

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