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US Chamber plans for Donohue retirement in June 2022

Donohue to remain CEO until 2022, but Clark steps up to president immediately

Donohue and ClarkDonohue, left, and Clark

June 7, 2019
By Walt Williams

U.S. Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue will end his two-decade-plus run as CEO in June 2022, while newly promoted Suzanne Clark takes  on Donohue’s previous mantle of president.

Donohue, 80, became CEO of the Chamber in 1997, transforming what was then an organization with declining political influence into an advocacy powerhouse. With a take-home pay of $6.6 million in 2017, he is one of the nation’s highest-paid association CEOs and his position is likely to be Washington, D.C.’s most coveted job when the Chamber’s board of directors launches a global search for his successor three years from now. The Chamber, including its foundation and other affiliates, reported revenue of $261 million in 2017. 

Donohue's looming departure comes amid news reports of staff dissatisfaction with the direction of the business group and complaints by members about Donohue’s use of Chamber resources for business and personal trips. The group also has seen its political influence wane in recent years. Democrats point to the Chamber’s history of supporting mostly Republican candidates. At the same time, the group’s positions on free trade and support for immigration have reportedly alienated President Donald Trump and his supporters in the GOP.

The Chamber didn’t allude to the group’s troubles in a June 5 statement about the upcoming leadership transition. Past Board Chairman Tom Wilson said in a statement that having both Donohue and Clark in leadership positions means the organization “can focus on near-term political priorities and long-term sustainability.”

“This will also enable us to focus on rebuilding the political center and raising a $250 million capital fund so we remain a champion of the free enterprise system, American workers and entrepreneurs,” said Wilson, CEO of Allstate. “The Chamber is deep in talent and expertise and I am thrilled that Tom and Suzanne are committed to leading this team at this important time.” (Wilson’s term as chairman ended June 6 with the election of Maura Donahue of DonahueFavret Contractors.)

Clark rejoined the Chamber in 2014 after having stepped down as COO seven years earlier. Under her former title of senior executive vice president, she essentially functioned as second-in-command. The Chamber did not spell out what her responsibilities would be as president.

The announcement concerning the leadership transition came as The Wall Street Journal was preparing a report on Donohue’s use of a private jet for business and personal trips, with the organization picking up nearly all of the expenses. In the article published June 6, the newspaper calculated that one recent trip mixing business and pleasure may have cost $600,000 or more.

A Chamber spokesman told the Journal that the organization “carefully negotiates rates for private and commercial air travel.”

Donohue began his professional career in higher education, with one of his earliest jobs being vice president of development at Fairfield University in Connecticut. He later became deputy assistant postmaster general of the United States and first joined the Chamber in 1976, where he was tasked with building the group’s grassroots apparatus. He left the group in 1985 to become CEO of the American Trucking Associations, turning that group into an important political player.

The Chamber was facing declining membership and influence when Donohue rejoined it as CEO 12 years later. He wasted little time taking the fight to those he viewed as enemies of the business community, telling The Washington Post in a story about his hiring that his targets included “greedy” trial lawyers and “extreme” environmentalists who he said were “sucking the lifeblood out of the economy.”

The business group grew into one of D.C.’s most powerful players under Donohue’s watch, but it has seen significant turnover of its senior leadership in recent years. Former lobbyist Bruce Josten retired at the end of 2016 after 42 years at the organization. COO Shannon DiBari and labor lobbyist Randy Johnson both retired at the end of 2017. More recently, the Chamber lost most of its media relations team, reportedly because of disagreements about how the group was being run.