When Gregory Biryla goes to Albany to advocate for Upstate New York businesses, no doubt he is fighting for the companies for whom he speaks.
But he also is fighting for the future of young professionals like himself and his friends.
Biryla, 31, and his new wife, Ashley, spend their summers traveling the “wedding circuit,” attending the weddings of friends who went to high school and college with them in the upstate region.
Where are these friends now? Charlotte, N.C.; Austin, Texas; Charleston, S.C.; and Florida.
“They graduated and many of them tried (to find jobs here) for a year or so,” Biryla says, “and then they left and they found greener economic pastures.”
As the new executive director of Unshackle Upstate Inc., Biryla is fighting to bring job opportunities back to this region. Unshackle Upstate is a Rochester-based bipartisan coalition of 85 business and trade organizations statewide, representing more than 70,000 companies with more than 1.5 million employees. Biryla declined to provide financial information on the organization.
“The core mission is to make Upstate New York a better place to do business, raise a family, start a future,” Biryla says.
The biggest barriers to this, he says, are taxes, unfunded mandates and regulations that overburden businesses.
“It’s state government,” Biryla says. “And it’s a tax-and-spend climate that has got increasingly worse for 50 years.”
Biryla took the top position at Unshackle Upstate in December, after former Executive Director Brian Sampson left to become president of the Empire State Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.
Unshackle Upstate was created in 2006 by Sandra Parker, then president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance Inc., and Andrew Rudnick, then president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, when they realized they were fighting for many of the same issues in Albany.
The coalition soon grew to include the North Country Chamber of Commerce, Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce and the building trade group that Sampson now runs, as well as dozens of other regional, county and town business associations, trade associations and taxpayer groups in Upstate New York.
“One of its functions is to provide a counterbalance to New York City influence in Albany,” Biryla says.
Biryla started at Unshackle Upstate in March 2014 as director of development.
Sampson, who was Unshackle Upstate’s sole paid employee until that hire, says he chose Biryla knowing he could one day take over as executive director.
“He had that right blend of skills and experience,” Sampson says.
Biryla is the organization’s sole employee now, but expects to hire an additional person eventually.
Knowledge of politics
Most importantly, Sampson says, Biryla knew his way around the state Legislature, having worked for both a state assemblyman and state senator.
Though Biryla’s entire career has been in politics, he fell into it almost by accident.
A native of Hamburg, just outside Buffalo, Biryla majored in journalism at St. Bonaventure University near Olean in the Southern Tier. Though he would not have turned down a sports writing job, he chose that major without intending to be a journalist. He hoped basic writing and communication skills would help in some other professional pursuit. What that would be, he did not know.
He started law school for the same reason. After his first year, he got a legal internship with a young state assemblyman, Jack Quinn III, a Republican then serving the 146th District near Buffalo.
Biryla had developed a casual interest in politics at St. Bonaventure, reading magazines at the library—The Atlantic, the New Republic, National Review and the Weekly Standard—before studying.
At that first job in Albany, he was hooked.
“We really got to learn everything because it was such a small staff,” Biryla says.
Within four or five months, Biryla was doing the office’s communications, legislative work, policy work and politics, he says.
In 2010, Biryla helped Quinn run a tight race for state Senate in a heavily Democratic district, which he lost by 1 percentage point.
“It was the highest-profile race in the state,” Biryla says. “At the time it was the most expensive state legislative race ever run. I think the total cost was up over $2 million.”
So there Biryla was on election night, his candidate defeated and not sure what to do next.
He considered returning to school to finish his law degree or maybe studying something else.
“I thought about maybe not staying in politics,” Biryla says. “It was fun, you get to meet a lot of great people, make a lot of important contacts, but maybe that little ride was over.”
It was not.
A friend of his had helped former Erie County Sheriff Patrick Gallivan, a Republican, win a state Senate seat in a district that includes Wyoming County and parts of Monroe and Livingston counties. The friend, who had become Gallivan’s chief of staff, recruited Biryla to be Gallivan’s communications director.
“He actually was the youngest member of our staff when he first started with us,” Gallivan says.
And yet, Biryla immediately was a valuable member of the team.
“He was the only new member of our staff that had experience in Albany,” Gallivan recalls, “and so while he was the youngest, we also looked to him for guidance.”
For Biryla, the move was dramatic. From working in the small office of a Republican in the Democratic-majority Assembly, he was now in the comparably large office of a Republican in a Republican-majority Senate.
Biryla developed the senator’s communications plan and then, Gallivan says, had “an incredible amount of leeway” putting it into action.
“I had complete trust in his judgment,” Gallivan adds, “and I had complete trust in his attention to detail.”
His path shifts
Biryla might still be working for Gallivan today if he had not attended his five-year reunion at St. Bonaventure.
It was there that he reconnected with Ashley, a friend who had lived two doors down from him in off-campus housing. They started dating. She was in Rochester. He was in Buffalo. After about a year, they knew somebody was going to have to move.
Ultimately, it was Biryla who came to Rochester, when a mutual friend put him in touch with Sampson. Biryla soon was hired at Unshackle Upstate, which is based out of the RBA office.
“He’s very open-minded,” Sampson says. “He likes to hear both sides of the debate and he likes to gather information before forming an opinion. That’s a necessary skill in the role that he has.”
Biryla jumped right in, running the coalition’s communications, social media campaigns and political engagement activities, including scoring, endorsing and campaigning on behalf of political candidates in the 2014 election cycle.
“He’s very thoughtful,” Sampson says. “I jokingly called him my Aristotle. He’s a very deep thinker, wants to dig into things.”
But Biryla also is a strong advocate, he notes.
“At the end of the day he’s highly competitive,” Sampson says. “He doesn’t want to lose, and for upstate, that’s what you have to have in that role, someone who will unabashedly, unapologetically stand there on the front line and take the punches.”
While Biryla likes to win, he also believes in maintaining a positive attitude, even in the face of defeat—a critical skill, he notes, in this line of work.
“To succeed in politics, particularly in Albany, or in New York State, you have to be an eternal optimist,” Biryla says. “There’s no other way.”
Unshackle Upstate’s top priority right now is making permanent Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s property tax cap, which is set to expire in 2016.
The coalition also is fighting new taxes on health care plans and another minimum wage hike, while pushing for tax relief for small businesses, government spending caps and infrastructure improvements.
“A big part of the job is educating the business community, educating the taxpayer community,” Biryla says, “letting them know that this organization exists and that we seek to defend your interest and support your interest in Albany.”
Off the job
Biryla married Ashley in September. The couple lives in Irondequoit. They spend their time traveling together, skiing, running road races and even a Tough Mudder obstacle race (her idea, not his), and playing with their dog, Chewy.
As for the future, Biryla says he is not thinking much beyond the task at hand, which is growing Unshackle Upstate and continuing to strengthen its voice in Albany.
“His future is very bright, but it’s really up to him,” Gallivan says. “I don’t know where he ultimately wants to go, but he is certainly talented enough, the right type of person that he’ll be able to succeed in whatever he wants, in whatever field he ultimately chooses.”
Sampson says he would not be surprised to see Biryla run for office one day.
“He’s someone that I hope people really get to know,” Sampson says, “because where he is today is not where he’s going to be tomorrow.”
Biryla points out that he just started his new position, so it is too early to think about the next step. Mostly, he hopes Upstate New York’s economy will continue to grow stronger so he never has to move away, like so many of his friends did, for a job.
“Whatever the future holds, I hope it’s here,” Biryla says. “And I hope it’s continuing to advocate in some way, shape or form for the future and the vitality of the region.”
Julie Kirkwood is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
4/10/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.
Position: Executive director of Unshackle Upstate
Education: B.A. in journalism and mass communication, St. Bonaventure University, Olean, 2006
Family: Wife, Ashley
Interests: Skiing, watching the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, and outdoor exercise such as half marathons, road runs and Tough Mudder races
Quote: “To succeed in politics, particularly in Albany, or in New York State, you have to be an eternal optimist.”