Chicago Confidential: Chamber's chief-in-waiting doing little waiting

Theresa Mintle takes over Aug. 5 but is already trying to align efforts of area's business groups

Theresa Mintle doesn't officially take over as chief executive of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce until Aug. 5.

But operating with the same frenetic energy as her former boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, she has already made two requests of the chamber's board.

In an interview Friday, which she squeezed in between meetings, Mintle, 48, said she has asked for a transition committee and "an alignment committee." The latter would help her coordinate chamber activities with those of World Business Chicago, the city's nonprofit economic development arm; the Executives' Club; the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club; and the Economic Club — "so that we're all pulling in the same direction on behalf of the Chicago region's business community."

These civic groups operate at the nexus between business and government, which helps explain why leadership at many of them has changed as power at City Hall has transitioned from the Richard M. Daley to the Emanuel administration — and from an older to a younger generation.

Mintle, Emanuel's first chief of staff, is succeeding Jerry Roper, 72, who ran the chamber for more than 20 years.

"We look at the change of leadership at the chamber and World Business Chicago as a unique opportunity to make sure we're aligned, maximizing each one's core competencies and creating synergies rather than duplicities," said Scott Swanson, the chamber's chairman and the regional president for Illinois at PNC Bank. "Frankly, it's something we have to do."

However, the groups Mintle seeks to align take widely different approaches to promoting the city's business community. The Economic Club and Executives' Club, for instance, are viewed as nonpartisan. At most, they offer pols with a national profile — Emanuel or Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, for instance — a large, affluent audience to listen to their views.

At the other end, World Business Chicago is led by the mayor and serves as an executor of and cheerleader for his economic agenda. And the Civic Committee has launched the "Illinois is Broke" public relations and advertising blitz, leading a controversial charge for reductions in state workers' pensions.

"My feeling is that government and business are two sides of the same coin," Mintle said when asked about the chamber's independence from the mayor's office. "We want the same things. We want a vibrant and growing economy. We want people to work and live in our region. With that shared vision, while there might occasionally be disagreement about issues, at the end of the day, we're all in this together."

Robert Wislow, a real estate executive who led the search committee, said Roper's successor had "to be somebody who can deal with the legislature, city, county and the state." However, he struggled to recall a recent instance when the chamber and City Hall were at odds.

"We definitely have lots of times when that happens early on, but we have an ability to show the mayor and the staff the potential negative impact (of a policy change) on business and get it adjusted and modified before it comes out publicly," Wislow said. "That, the chamber has done a lot of — before it has gotten to the point of public debate. … That's really the way it should work."

Hence, the selection of Mintle, who has worked in government for more than 25 years, including as chief of staff to the Chicago Transit Authority Board and a liaison to the City Council. Her husband, Michael Toolis, is the CEO and chairman of architecture firm VOA Associates Inc.

"One of my biggest personal goals is to grow the membership," Mintle said of the chamber.

The chamber is not required to report how many members it has, but Swanson said that number hasn't changed significantly in recent years. Instead, revenue increases can be attributed to members upgrading their membership. According to the chamber's website, the organization has seven membership levels ranging from small business to platinum, which grant people perks, such as "three custom Facebook posts," "two newsletter stories" in a year, or "an opportunity to serve on a committee."

According to the chamber's most recent tax filing, it generated nearly $2.4 million from membership dues for the year ended June 30, 2011. That's an all-time high for the five-year period for which online records are available and more than double what it collected for the year ended June 30, 2007.

"For maximum effectiveness from an advocacy perspective, the chamber would benefit from having a broader constituency …," Swanson said. "We'd like to be the unifying voice of business, so you've got to have broad representation."

Wislow said the group was eager to expand its ranks among medium and small businesses. He said executive search firm Spencer Stuart culled about 140 candidates, which were narrowed to 28 and then eight. Mintle said she was offered the position Wednesday.

When Mintle resigned from her City Hall post in March, Emanuel's spokeswoman, Sarah Hamilton, told the Tribune that Mintle's father died recently and that she had been considering retiring from government to recharge even before she assumed the role of chief of staff.

"They came to me and I was, of course, flattered immediately," Mintle said of the chamber. "I was not looking. I was actually fully intent on taking some serious down time. I haven't recharged yet, which is why I'm hoping to not really start until August. … But when they came to me, I shifted gears from 'I'm going to ride my bike and be retired' and jumped into it."

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential

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