14 CEOs unite to make business heard

A new ‘Vault’ presses for jobs

By Steven Syre
Globe Staff / February 28, 2010

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A group of chief executives from some of the biggest companies in Massachusetts has been meeting privately with state political leaders on ways to spur job development, a coordinated high-level business effort reminiscent of Boston’s Vault organization that weighed in on public affairs decades ago.

The executives, 14 in all, have formed the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership. They include Raytheon Co. CEO William Swanson, Liberty Mutual’s Edmund Kelly, and Staples Inc. boss Ronald L. Sargent. The group has hired Dan O’Connell, the former state secretary of housing and economic development under Governor Deval Patrick, as its president.

“We believe there’s been a dilution in the business voice in the Commonwealth,’’ said the group’s chairman and cofounder, John Fish, chief executive of Suffolk Construction Co. in Boston. “We believe the business community can add tre mendous value to government. When it comes to creating jobs, we can offer a healthy perspective.’’

The group may have already had an impact. Fish said its members advocated for some of the measures included in two different job-creation proposals filed recently on Beacon Hill, one by the governor and the other by Senate president Therese Murray. In particular, the executives pushed for consolidating the number of state agencies that work with businesses and for the creation of local “growth districts,’’ which would receive money for infrastructure development because the state and community share a long-term strategic plan for growth.

“At this point, we’re at the big picture’’ level, said House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who along with other political leaders met with Partnership members last summer. “I’m looking at this as a working group that we can sit down with and say, ‘This is the issue. Can we get from point A to point B, and how can we make this happen?’ ’’

While Fish said the Partnership is not a reprise of the Vault, there are similarities. Formally known as the Coordinating Committee, the Vault consisted of 25 business leaders from downtown Boston who operated secretively and wielded great influence over public affairs through its policy positions and behind-the-scenes advocacy. After John Collins was elected Boston mayor in 1960, the Vault persuaded him to hire urban planner Ed Logue, who ushered in the modern building era in the city’s downtown.

So named because its members met in the basement vault of the Boston Safe Deposit & Trust Co., the Vault diminished in power over the years and disbanded in 1997.

“The Vault wanted to rescue the city from its deteriorating future and, despite its undemocratic nature, it did a lot of good for Boston,’’ said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. In contrast, the new Partnership, he said, “could be described as Goodwill Hunting. There’s an effort to improve the business-government relationship.’’

Unlike the Vault, Fish said that the Partnership is interested in economic development across Massachusetts and that, despite members coming from large corporations, it believes job growth will be driven mostly by small and midsize businesses. And though the member companies are based in Boston or its suburbs, the group is particularly interested in pushing business opportunities further out in the state in cities with lower costs, such as Springfield, New Bedford, and Fall River.

Also, while the Vault got involved in civic matters in Boston, the Partnership has no such plan. “There is a laser focus on job creation and competitiveness in the economy,’’ said O’Connell. “We have discussed the cost of doing business in the Commonwealth. But we’re cognizant of the fact it’s a very tough time. The resources of government are stretched.’’

The Partnership began nearly two years ago with three founders - Fish, retired Bank of America Corp. chairman Charles Gifford, and Swanson - and expanded recently to include the leaders of other elite Massachusetts companies: Joseph Tucci of EMC Corp., Ronald Logue of State Street Corp., Thomas May of NStar, Dr. Gary Gottlieb of Partners HealthCare Inc., Laura J. Sen of BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc., Robert Reynolds of Putnam Investments, and John DesPrez III of John Hancock Financial Services.

It also includes New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Jack Connors, the retired advertising executive who is chairman at Partners. O’Connell was brought on board three weeks ago.

“It started out as a round table where people talked about issues and their experiences,’’ said May, the NStar chief executive. “It started loose and it’s been tightening. We’re trying to be more structured and focus on specific topics.’’

The executives have been meeting every other month. They also chat informally about economic issues by phone, Fish said.

The Partnership’s political role began to gel last summer when Patrick, Murray, DeLeo and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino met with its members in a conference room at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to discuss economic matters generally.

There is no shortage of business organizations that already lobby government officials. Though Fish said the Partnership’s economic mission is broader than individual trade association positions, many of the group’s policy interests sound similar.

“How much different is it from the chamber of commerce or the Associated Industries of Massachusetts,’’ which represents industrial companies, “and how much more juice do’’ businesses need? said Robert Haynes, president of the union organization, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. “But I wish them well if they’re interested in moving the economy. I’m interested in jobs, like them.’’

Fish said the Partnership is now reaching out to universities and private consulting firms for help measuring the effectiveness of job-creating initiatives.

“This is a group of CEOs who measure success in their businesses and have challenged government to measure,’’ Fish said. “If things aren’t working, let’s get them out of the way. And if they are, let’s support them.’’

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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