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Removing the handcuffs

No matter where his responsibilities take him as executive director of the Unshackle Upstate coalition, Brian Sampson will not miss any athletic event involving his two sons.
“I don’t miss their games,” he says. “I may miss a practice, but I don’t miss a game.”
Sampson, 40, is on the road regularly, spending one or two nights a week on trips throughout the state as he lobbies for legislative changes on behalf of Unshackle Upstate.
“He is doing phenomenally well,” says Sandra Parker, president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance Inc. and a co-founder of the Unshackle coalition.
“We wanted him to take Unshackle to the next level, just to create a higher visibility and to have a regular presence in Albany. We were doing it without staff, so we were kind of squeezing it in with everything else we did. We weren’t able to be in Albany every week.”
Unshackle represents some 45,000 employers, as many as 1.5 million employees and 75 trade associations, chambers of commerce and business groups in 48 New York counties over 40,000 square miles.
“He’s in Albany every week,” Parker says of Sampson. “He’s also out meeting with some of the smaller chambers that belong to Unshackle, so he’s in a fundraising mode for us as well. He’s trying to get everybody on the same page in terms of our advocacy efforts.”
Yet Sampson is always at his home in Irondequoit when his sons, 13-year-old Zachary and 9-year-old Jacob, take the field for a ball game.
“I can adjust my schedule appropriately to be able to do those things,” he says. “That’s important to me.”
He learned that from his father.
Sampson is president of the Irondequoit Vikings Youth Football Association. On July 1 he became chairman at the Arc of Monroe County, a non-profit that serves more than 3,500 individuals and families affected by developmental and intellectual disabilities.
“I don’t look at it as a burden,” he says. “It’s giving back, which to me is an incredibly important thing. That (chairmanship) is a two- to three-year stint. I can do that, and I’m still president of my kids’ football program. Life’s a balance. You just have to figure it out.”
Sampson’s father taught him that, too.
“He was non-existent,” Sampson says. “He left when I was 4. I don’t have a lot of memories of him. But in a lot of ways he’s a role model for me because I want to be everything to my kids that he wasn’t.
“When I would come off the sports field or the court and my friends would be hugging their mom or their dad, I’d walk to the locker room because my mom was working. And that was OK with me, but in the back of your mind you think, ‘One of these days when I have my kids, I’ll be there.'”
Sampson’s dad lives in Pennsylvania. He is not directly involved with his son or grandchildren.
“He chose his lot in life, and we chose ours,” Sampson says. “I think he got married young, had kids young, and it wasn’t for him.
see him at family functions occasionally. It’s not awkward anymore. He made his choices. I look at my kids, and my niece and my nephew, and it’s his loss. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Upstate native

Sampson was born in Arcade, Wyoming County. His mom, an accountant, moved the family to Rochester’s west side when Sampson was 10 to begin a new job. The family moved to Penfield when Sampson was in junior high.
Sampson earned a two-year degree from SUNY College at Morrisville and a bachelor’s degree in psychology and communications in 1992 from Michigan State University, where he played on the school’s lacrosse team.
“I was sort of your quintessential big, dumb jock,” he says. “I thought I’d be doing something sports-related.”
His dream job is to be a college football coach. His first job after graduation, however, was with the Arc of Monroe as a worker in a group home. He also did some work for his mom, who had taken ownership of a video store in Fairport, and for Mail Boxes Etc.
“When you’re a spunky 22-year-old, you think going back home is not a good idea,” he says. “But I came back.”
Sampson got engaged to his wife-to-be, Kristin, and in 1993 moved to Lincoln, Neb., when Kristin received a scholarship from the University of Nebraska. Two years later, the couple returned to Rochester, with Sampson taking a job as coordinator of community-based services for the local office of the Learning Disabilities Association of America.
“When she was done with school, we were sort of looking at whether to come back or to go farther west,” Sampson says. “Of course, you again think New York is kind of a terrible place, so why would you go there?
“But when it came time to raise a family, you want to be where you’re comfortable and where your family is. New York is a great place to raise a family.”
Kristin took a job with the Rochester City School District. Sampson spent three years with the Learning Disabilities Association before leaving in 1998 to do business development in the contract staffing division of the Industrial Management Council.
When the IMC merged with the Greater Metro Rochester Chamber of Commerce Inc. on Jan. 1, 2003, the combined entities became the RBA. Sampson became its director of public affairs.
Later that year, Sampson launched the Builder Partners coalition on behalf of the RBA and the Rochester Home Builders Association. Builder Partners now represents 8,000 members and 250,000 employees statewide. It lobbies government officials on issues such as workers compensation reforms, the state’s labor laws and economic development.
Sampson left the RBA in 2005 to become vice president of Builders Exchange of Rochester Inc., where he oversaw day-to-day operations of the 550-member association and lobbied local, state and federal officials.
He left Builders Exchange in February 2008 to become the newly created upstate director of business outreach for the Empire State Development Corp. under Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Sampson worked with business and trade organizations to improve the ESDC’s reputation upstate.
“What Governor Spitzer did when he hired Dan Gundersen (as upstate chairman of the ESDC) was to say, ‘I want to change how our businesses interact with Empire State Development,'” Sampson says.
The business outreach position was designed to make the agency more approachable, he says.
“That was what I had subscribed to,” Sampson says. “Both Governor Spitzer and Dan Gundersen had this unique vision of trying to reform how the state does business. They wanted to grow the businesses that were already here, in addition to attracting the new things.”
A month after Sampson joined ESDC, Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal and Lt. Gov. David Paterson took over.
“It was kind of a slippery slope,” Sampson says. “It wasn’t what I had signed up for. I was wondering what it was I was going to do.
“Governor Paterson came in and said, ‘I don’t believe in the upstate/downstate dual approach.’ He said we’re one state; we’re going to function as one state. So he wanted to merge back into the same model that had been in place. That isn’t a bad model, as long as you continue to look at things in a very interactive way and in a helpful way. Unfortunately, it created a huge logjam.”
Patrick Foye, the ESDC’s downstate chairman, resigned shortly after Spitzer. Gundersen resigned three months later, with Robert Wilmers, M&T Bank Corp. chairman and CEO, announced as ESDC chairman by Paterson.
Wilmers resigned in June, as did ESDC president and CEO Marissa Lago, who operated out of the agency’s New York City offices. Rochester-based Dennis Mullen, who had replaced Gundersen, became president and CEO on July 1.
“I got to work with Dennis, and Dennis had the same sort of vision that Dan had: You really need to work the deals,” Sampson says. “But it’s an organization that at this point is fairly significantly controlled by Albany and New York City politics. That’s not how I wanted to spend my time.
“I could’ve sat there and collected my paycheck and probably have been perfectly happy, but that’s not who I am. I want to be out there seeing the results of my work.”

Joining the coalition

Then the call came from Unshackle Upstate. Sampson became the coalition’s first, and only, paid employee.
“When we got to the point where we knew we needed to hire someone, I mentioned to Brian that if he was interested he certainly should apply,” Parker recalls.
Sampson was attracted to the coalition because he could continue to work with many of the people he worked with in his business outreach position with the ESDC.
“My job with the state was perfectly safe,” he says. “I had no issues, no concerns. I got to work with Dennis and had a great respect for him and the work he’s trying to get done. But I could see the bureaucracy end of it and the fact that it wasn’t going to move.
“(Joining Unshackle) was my opportunity to go back and work on the grassroots side, really affect the way state government operates and give back to my community. I have two young kids. I would love it if they stayed in the state of New York and raise their families so we can stay close.”
Sampson was hired in January, after interviews in December. Since then, he has watched Paterson and the state Legislature pass a 2009-10 budget that included an $8 billion increase in taxes and fees and an $11 billion increase in spending.
“Out of the box he was talking the right talk: being fiscally responsible, taking care of businesses, the need to keep the jobs and grow the economy,” Sampson says. “But then, for whatever reason, the wheels came off.
“A lot of it was the national and global recession. But at the same time all those things are taking place, you see other states being incredibly proactive on how to keep and retain their businesses and grow their jobs. There just wasn’t that push in this state.”
The $131.8 billion budget closed a deficit Paterson estimated to be $17.7 billion but which has since widened as the economic crisis continues. Paterson issued warnings about the looming shortfall months before the budget agreement. He announced a two-year, $5.2 billion deficit reduction plan in November that included spending cuts in education, health care, human services and the state payroll.
“When I go out to speak to people, I’ll be very honest and frank with them about what has happened when they passed the deficit reduction plan,” Sampson says. “Then they come up with this disastrous budget.
“What we need to do through Unshackle is keep people educated so that next November, when they go to the polls to vote, we shift that traditional viewpoint of taxpayers that Albany and all 210 people are bad, but my two are pretty good to me so I’m going to keep them in office.”
Unshackle plans to lobby for no new fees and assessments, no new taxes and no additional state debt, Sampson says.
“If you can do those three things, you’ll have no new state spending,” he says. “If you can get there, you’ll at least hold the line and then ultimately start to come down a little bit.
“When they do what they just did in passing that budget, it becomes incumbent upon us to educate people about the 95 people in the Assembly and the 32 people in the Senate that voted for this budget. If they represent you, ask them why they voted for the budget.”
Sampson’s job includes three areas, he says. One is to mobilize taxpayers and businesses to effect change. The second area involves lobbying rank-and-file members of the state Legislature. The third is trying to create a statewide voice for economic growth.
“Albany puts out thousands of bills a year, so there’s absolutely no way that a rank-and-file member can fully understand every bill and its implications, the budget being a key example,” he says.
“We take those bad public policies and sit with rank-and-file members and say we’re opposed to it, and here’s the reason why. And if you vote for it, we’re going to remember that down the road and we’re going to let people know that this is how you chose to vote on this bill.”

Lack of fear

The frustrating part of the debate, Sampson concedes, is legislators might not listen.
“While the individual rank-and-file member can say I agree with you and I support you, ultimately it’s about getting re-elected,” he says. “It’s about campaign finances for them. The business community and the individual taxpayers in the
state of New York are not feared by rank-and-file members.”
Creating that fear has not been easy, Sampson says.
“Anytime you’re trying to build something from the grassroots up, it’s slower than you probably want it to be,” he says. “But wherever I go in the state of New York now, people are ticked off about the budget. How can you increase spending by $11 billion and
increase taxes and fees by $8 billion when we’re in the worst recession global economists say we’ll see in two lifetimes?”
Unshackle got its start in 2006, with Parker and Andrew Rudnick, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, leading the way.
“It got started because upstate felt like it was the ugly stepchild,” Sampson says. “We’re not New York City. We’re not downstate. Yet we have a lot of agriculture, and agriculture continues to be the biggest business in the state of New York. We have a big voice and a big stake in what happens.
“When I came in, it was known. It was recognized. It was credible. Now we’ve been able to amplify that even more. We get calls from the governor’s office saying, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do. This is what we’re thinking. What’s going to be the reaction?'”
The Unshackle philosophy applies to Sampson’s other interests as well, he says. That includes the Irondequoit Vikings.
“My sports team is that grassroots,” he says, “being out there and educating them and working with them, giving them something that they can be proud of, something that’s representative of them.”

College sports junkie

Sampson played football, basketball and lacrosse in high school. He describes himself as a college sports junkie and a golf addict.
“I’m a huge college football and college basketball fan,” he says. “During the fall around my house, our friends and family come over. I went to Michigan State. My wife went to Michigan. We have a natural rivalry in our house.
“Our best friend is a huge Notre Dame fan. Another good friend is a Penn State grad. We have these great rivalries in the fall.”
The perfect job for him would be as a college football coach, Sampson says.
“It’s that interaction with the kids, teaching them, educating them, seeing them grow,” he says. “It’s working with the fans and the school to really build what people can be proud of.”
Camaraderie, he says, is an integral part of his professional and personal life.
“Having good, close friends, learning different things from other people, that’s always been a big part of what I do,” Sampson says.
“Having grown up in a single-parent family and watching my mother work two and three jobs to keep food on the table and clothes on our backs, hard work didn’t scare me off. So I didn’t really know what I would do. But I have this belief that life leads you down a certain path and you just go with it.”
Andrew Claus is vice president at the Builders Exchange and a board member at Arc of Monroe County. He joined the board after talking with Sampson about increasing his volunteerism.
“Brian has been very generous in his friendship and his counsel,” Claus says. “I can e-mail him or call him at just about any time, and he finds a way to make time. He’s involved in a lot of things and really stretches his time. It’s amazing how well he manages his time.”
Sampson’s next endeavor could be a job as an elected official, though he says not until his children are older.
“I am perhaps the luckiest person,” he says. “I love my job. I enjoy what I do. There are not a lot of people that can say that. The next part comes five or 10 years down the road.
“You can talk and you can do, but at some point you want to affect the policy side from the inside,” he says. “Running for public office is going to be, hopefully, as that voice of common sense that seems to just go away when you hit Albany.”
If the political world does not fit, Sampson has other ideas.
“It’s being in a leadership role somewhere down the road,” he says. “Whether that’s running an organization like a chamber of commerce or another not-for-profit, or even another for-profit business, it could be just being in that leadership role and helping guide an organization down the road to bigger and better things.”
For now, his focus is on forcing state legislators to change their ways.
“Am I saying we need a revolt and a revolution?” he asks. “No. But taxpayers need to take accountability for what they’re doing when they go into that booth and close that curtain and pull their levers. If they’re just going to continue to say the rest of them are bad but my two are good, we’re going to continue down this path.
“An organization like Unshackle can say, ‘Here’s why I don’t think you want to vote for your elected official,’ and be very frank and pragmatic about it. If we have that conversation across upstate and our counterparts have that same conversation downstate, maybe one or two people get bumped off. When that happens, all of a sudden people have to stand up and pay attention.”
rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

Brian Sampson
Title: Executive director, Unshackle Upstate
Age: 40
Home: Irondequoit
Education: A.A. in individual studies, SUNY College at Morrisville, 1989; B.A. in psychology and communications, Michigan State University, 1992
Family: Wife Kristin; sons Zachary, 13, and Jacob, 9
Hobbies: Golf, college football and basketball
Quote: “I’m not in the office very often. I’m on the road quite a bit. But I enjoy that. Getting out and interacting with the different communities and the different groups across the state, and getting their feedback, is important. Every interaction with somebody is an opportunity to educate. We’re so busy as a society, we don’t take time to step back and listen to what’s going on. That, to me, is an incredible part of what I do.”

07/10/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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