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Timmons traces arc from young politico to power player

CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers has bolstered group’s D.C. presence, forged constructive relationship with Trump


June 7, 2019

CEO Update: How has the National Association of Manufacturers changed in your 8 1⁄2 years as CEO?
Jay Timmons: When we started out, we really focused on three elements: growth, presence and advocacy; I call it the GPA of the association. And we restructured a little, made it a flatter organization, to really empower folks here to be creative. …

We have grown the organization in terms of membership revenue and diversified our revenue sources because we were highly dependent on dues.

We have increased our presence, not only in the media but also with Congress and the administration, have really built out our issue advocacy program and strengthened relationships with our state manufacturing organizations and our Council of Manufacturing Associations.

And we’ve built out our presence in the legal community (with the Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action), because we really didn’t have a legal program.

CU: You are regarded as one of the association leaders with the best access to the White House, yet you have been critical in some areas, including in what seemed like a deeply personal way regarding (illegal immigrant) family separation.
JT: (That) was an issue that our members felt very strongly about. One of the most important institutions we have in this country is the institution of family. And the government should never be in the position of, or advocating, separation of families. …

I’ve been here (in different roles) since Bush 43. We’ve always said it’s not about personality, it’s not about politics and it’s not about process. It’s all about policy. Your members expect you to stay focused on that and stay focused on their priorities.

Every president, every elected leader, is going to have a different way of approaching things, which I may or may not agree with. … We were able to work very constructively with the administration and with Republican leaders in Congress to get (tax reform) done.

Our goal is, frankly, to be a solutions advocate … to be able to put forward very viable and practical, pragmatic, but highly focused policy solutions, whether that be on taxes, regulatory reform, infrastructure or immigration reform. 

CU: How have experiences in your career shaped you in your current role?
JT: I left college (The Ohio State University) after my junior year to be part of the Reagan Revolution. I never was, but I so desperately wanted to be that I pounded the pavement on Capitol Hill to get a job. I got a job with (former Rep. Jim) Martin (R-N.C.) and somehow ended up being his press secretary, having never done any work as a press secretary before. So I believe in giving young people a chance to do things that they’ve never done before, because if you have the grit and the determination, you’re going to figure the job out.

CU: What do you think are the essential characteristics of an association leader?
JT: First and foremost is authenticity. You have to be willing to be who you were made to be, and you have to be willing to tell your own story. One of the reasons I love manufacturing is my own family story. My grandfather stood in line for six months during the Great Depression for a job at a paper mill in Chillicothe, Ohio. (On the wall behind my desk is a) picture of the paper press he used.

But it’s also important to be able to tell the story of your members. And not just the company owners or the CEOs, but everybody working in the industry. The story of every single person in the industry is powerful, whether it’s the plant operator, the engineer, or somebody who’s differently abled.

CU: What advice would you have for a new association leader?
JT: It’s important to lead. Dick Doyle, who just retired as CEO of the Vinyl Institute, gave me some great advice: Your board members expect you to lead. You always should be one step ahead of your board, but never two. Second, your job always is to look to the future. Your team can focus on day-to-day activities. Third, really build and strengthen your team, and ensure that you have cultural values that
reflect the strength of your organization and your leadership style.

Career highlights

Early start: Left The Ohio State University after junior year to run for seat as state representative in Ohio. After losing, moved to Washington, D.C. Never finished his degree.

Political action: Joined the communications staffs of former Reps. Jim Martin (R-N.C.) and Alex McMillan (R-N.C.). Timmons then worked a decade for Virginia Republican George Allen during his terms as congressman, governor and senator. He was executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2004 election cycle. Joined NAM as chief lobbyist in 2005.

Family advocate: Along with husband Rick Olson, Timmons won a costly court battle in Wisconsin to gain parental rights for now 3-year-old son Jacob, who had been born through surrogacy in 2015. Early this year, the Virginia legislature passed “Jacob’s Law” to make the state’s surrogacy laws gender neutral.

To attend the Association Leadership Awards in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 3, 2019, visit

Correction: June 11, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated Timmons' title at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He was executive director.