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Former pol takes business lead

Rochester Chamber CEO Robert Duffy has served as police chief, mayor and lieutenant governor. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

Robert Duffy has had four distinct and notable careers. But he sees his job as president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce as his last.

“When this opportunity came up I thought about it for quite a long time,” the former lieutenant governor says. “I had other opportunities I could have gone to, but this one seemed to really fit with the things I wanted to do. I wanted to come back to the region and be involved with something where I felt I could make a difference.”

To be clear, Duffy has no intention of running for public office again, although he has been asked about it numerous times.

“When I was lieutenant governor people thought I’d come back and run for something, county executive, Congress. I had no intention,” Duffy, 61, says adamantly. “I see this as my last career and one that I love. … I’m at a different stage in my life.”

Duffy was appointed to his current position in January 2015, following the retirement of Sandra Parker, who led the organization for a decade. Although Parker was not involved in the decision-making process, she supported Duffy as her replacement, she says.

“I thought that the fact that he loved Rochester, I knew he wanted to return to Rochester, the fact that he had great political capital in Albany would be a nice asset for the role as chamber exec,” Parker recalls.

Duffy oversees a staff of 37 at Rochester Chamber’s State Street offices. Its mission is to support businesses in the region and represent the interests of those businesses at many levels.

As a membership-driven organization, Rochester Chamber derives a portion of its roughly $20 million annual budget from dues. Unlike many other chambers of commerce, though, the organization has several business lines that generate revenue, including RBA Staffing, which offers temporary employment services; a full-service background investigation and reference-checking business; a human resource services business line; and health insurance.

“I’m in the midst of discussing other potential business lines we can offer our members,” Duffy says, adding he is not ready to divulge what those business lines might be.

“We’re doing our due diligence and listening. In today’s world we have to stay ahead of the curve. No chamber of commerce can stay in business doing what it did 20 years ago,” he says. “We have to look at what the needs are today. The world is changing, the economy is changing and we need to make sure the services we provide are consistent with the needs of our members.”

Four careers
Duffy’s role at Rochester Chamber is his first in the private sector. His first job was as a police officer. He joined Rochester’s police department in 1976 and was named police chief in 1998.

“It taught me a lot about people, about human nature. It taught me a great degree of empathy,” Duffy says. “I saw people who were so incredibly poor but gave so much to others; that worked so hard to keep their heads above water. I had an appreciation for that.”

In 2004, Duffy was invited to a dinner party where several people attempted to convince him to run for mayor of Rochester.

“At the end of the night I said it was highly unlikely I would consider that,” he recalls. “Three months later I decided to run.”

Duffy retired from the police force on April 1, 2005, and began his mayoral campaign April 2.

“I was out of the house every day by 8 o’clock in the morning and I walked neighborhoods. I walked Park Avenue, I walked Jefferson Avenue, I walked Plymouth Avenue, I walked Main Street, you name it. I was in all four corners of this city,” Duffy says. “I was in barbershops, I was in stores, I was on front porches, I was in kitchens, I was in backyards talking every single day. We had over 100 public events.”

Duffy won the election and was elected to a second term in 2009. One thing that stands out about his time at City Hall was how often he was stopped on the street or at the grocery store by constituents.

“So I carried 3×5 cards with me all the time. I’d write things down,” he says. “My wife would complain because I’m going for a loaf of bread and I’d be gone for two hours.”

As mayor, Duffy shut down the fast ferry service from Rochester to Toronto and helped launch a $5.8 million initiative to demolish 400 vacant, uninhabitable city houses. His administration also was responsible for boosting financial support for the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.

In 2010, Duffy was courted by then state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to run alongside him in the gubernatorial race. He served as lieutenant governor of New York for four years, choosing not to run for a second term.

“The day we spoke, he asked a question about lieutenant governor, if I would run,” Duffy recalls of Cuomo’s proposal. “The first 20 minutes I spent saying no and offering different mayors’ names in Upstate New York. The next 40 or 45 minutes he gave me all the reasons I should.”

He learned a lot in his four years in state government, Duffy says. As lieutenant governor, he chaired the Regional Economic Development Councils aimed at rebuilding New York’s economy. He also served as chairman of the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission.

“To this day I have relationships in all four corners of the state that I never would have had,” he says.

Chamber changes
Rochester Chamber was founded in 1887 by 20 Rochester-area business leaders who had gathered to discuss the city’s railroad and canal problems, banking concerns and trade with Canada. Its first president was Hulbert Warner, an entrepreneur who patented a number of medicinal cures.

The first chamber was located on the top story of the Rochester Savings Bank at Main Street and Fitzhugh Street. Its first tasks were working on proposals involving one-cent postage rates, port improvements and an increase in the city’s water supply.

By the end of the 19th century, George Eastman had joined the chamber’s executive committee. Its achievements included all-night streetcar service and the publication of Rochester Illustrated.

Membership in the chamber opened to suburban businesses in 1904. In 1915, Eastman offered $500,000 for property on St. Paul Street for a new headquarters for the organization. President George Todd added $100,000 and the building was dedicated in 1917.

By 1956, chamber membership had reached 6,700. In 1975, the chamber changed its name to the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce. Two years later it became the Greater Rochester Metro Chamber of Commerce to solidify the organization’s regional reach.

The chamber’s staffing services business began in 1996, directly competing with the Industrial Management Council. That year the chamber also started its website, offering visitors the course catalog for the Rochester Corporate Training Initiative and the chamber’s regional wage and salary survey.

In 2003, the chamber merged with the IMC to form the Rochester Business Alliance Inc. Former IMC leader Parker became president of the merged organization, while Thomas Mooney was named CEO. The organization moved to its current location on State Street the following year.

When Duffy arrived at the organization last year, one of the first things he set about doing was changing its name. He saw rebranding as the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce would help the organization more clearly define its mission.

“I think our staff here has gone through a lot of changes in the last year. Change is very hard for anybody,” Duffy said. “I think everybody here has been very accommodating and very supportive of the changes that we’re making.”

Those changes include the organization’s new name and rebranding and logo, as well as board changes that included the appointment of Robert Sands, Constellation Brands Inc.’s CEO, as chairman. Sands succeeded Nazareth College president Daan Braveman, whose term expired in December. Braveman continues to serve as a director.

Rochester Chamber also developed a new mission statement, which reads: “Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce passionately serves, promotes and advocates for its members in order to secure economic prosperity for our Finger Lakes region.”

“Sandy Parker did an outstanding job in her 10 years here. When I came in I think the organization was very strong,” Duffy says. “What I’ve looked at is really re-examining ourselves inside and getting ready for the next 10 years.”

Rochester Chamber serves some 1,350 members in the nine-county Rochester region. Advocacy is its top priority, Duffy says.

“Advocacy can take on many different definitions. It may be local, state or federal laws or rules, from workers’ compensation to scaffold laws to minimum wage, things that affect business,” he says.

Rochester Chamber also connects member and non-member companies with other members, Duffy notes.

“It’s like matchmaking,” he says. “We never promise results, we promise effort.”

The organization also provides training, networking and tours of member facilities.

“We try to offer whatever we can,” Duffy says. “I don’t want anybody at the end of this year, beginning of next year, saying, ‘Why are we paying these dues?’”

Rochester Chamber also is the home of Unshackle Upstate, a bipartisan coalition of more than 80 business and trade organizations representing 70,000 companies and employing more than 1.5 million people. The organization’s goal is to achieve reforms in Albany that make Upstate New York a stronger place to do business.

While Duffy declines to discuss specifics of possible future changes, he is upfront about his desire to see the various economic development agencies in the region under one roof.

“I’ve often said this, if you want to bring a company from California to the Rochester and Finger Lakes region, you’ll probably make about six to eight different stops to get the answers you need. We should be in one building,” he says, “I’m not saying merge as much as align, co-locate.”

If Rochester was the No. 1 growing economy in the nation, Duffy adds, he would say do not change a thing.

“But when we are dead last and we end up doing the same things over and over again, in many ways our actions define the term for insanity,” Duffy says. “Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. We’re not getting different results.”

Duffy’s frustration, he says, comes in part as a result of the divisions he sees here politically, demographically and geographically.

“We are mired in silos. We are mired in turf. We are mired in the concept of who gets credit for what,” he says. “We are mired in a sense of, if we align or join, it may diminish my job in the company. We have to think much more as a team. And I honestly believe if we did that everybody would grow. We compete against each other at a time when we should be collaborating.”

While Duffy is a perpetually upbeat, positive individual, his demeanor shifts slightly when he discusses the contrast between how the region’s business, community and political leaders treat each other in public vs. behind closed doors.

“We have press conferences and we have arms around shoulders, say great things about each other. We have love fests in front of the cameras, but behind the scenes we don’t play well in the sandbox together,” he laments. “And our results are beginning to show that.”

Duffy refers to recent reports that the region is economically stagnant, that Rochester’s poverty rate is exceedingly high and that only about half the youths in city schools end up graduating. And he refers to disagreements leaders have that get played out in the media when they could be dealt with in a way that makes Rochester look good to outsiders.

A public disagreement occurred last year over where headquarters for the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics should be located. Some community leaders, including Duffy, supported the Legacy Tower at One Bausch & Lomb Place, while others thought the Sibley building was a better choice. Duffy says we tend to have battles publicly.

“And what I’m concerned with is people in other parts of the country who will read, see, hear that and maybe have a view of our area that might not be the most complimentary,” he says. “I think we can do a much better job resolving disagreements, because we’re always going to disagree on things.”

Duffy weighed in on whether U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s investigation into Cuomo’s upstate economic development initiatives would have an effect on AIM Photonics’ funding. So far, the investigations into conflicts of interest and improper bidding have centered on the Buffalo Billion and Nano—two economic development initiatives outside of Rochester—and in particular two members of Cuomo’s staff.

The state attorney general’s office also is investigating alleged bid-rigging at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, which has ties to the photonics center here. SUNY Polytechnic last year appointed Duffy to lead the AIM Photonics Leadership Council.

“I’ve heard nothing to indicate any slowdown of investment,” Duffy says of what impact, if any, the investigations would have locally. “I tend (to) hope it’s not true at all because I know them. And I know them in a very good way and they’re good people. I’m not worried about investment changing. I’m not worried about it slowing down.”

When Duffy talks about public disagreements, he notes the Renaissance Square debacle, a project he and many others were in favor of, but which was downsized by City Council and then quashed by then County Executive Maggie Brooks in 2009.

“Major projects often come to a slow death here in Rochester for sometimes political disagreements, Renaissance Square being one. The casino discussion is coming up soon,” he says. “I find that a lot of projects will come up (and) those that oppose the project will often be upset when nothing happens on that site five or six or eight or 10 years later. I thought Renaissance Square was a classic example of that.”

Rochester Chamber has some of the same objectives that for-profit organizations do: increase membership and net revenues. But its most important goal is service, Duffy says.

“We can look for metrics to help companies grow, help them be successful, help them grow their revenues and create more customers, help them address some of the challenges they have,” he says.

Duffy would like to see more teamwork and connectivity and reiterates his goal of getting all the agencies that want to see the region’s businesses succeed in one central location. He also would like to see each of the area’s other chambers of commerce working together more.

“We are too fragmented. We have too many issues of turf to overcome. The outlying counties sometimes look at Rochester and Monroe County like we do at upstate and downstate,” he says. “We have to involve this entire region. And that means sharing.

“We don’t all succeed by staying in different lanes,” he adds. “We need to merge into a much bigger lane and be a team.”

What makes Rochester Chamber a success is its service to members, Duffy says.

“We have over 1,300 members and we are focused on trying to be as flexible as we can in serving them in ways that they find the most valuable,” he says. “The chamber is only as successful as its relationships and service to its members.”

He and members of his team visit area businesses every week to get to know their members and what services may be helpful to them.

“I find it to be an extraordinary educational experience for me. I walk away with a very different view of what they need,” he says. “And I also walk away with a great degree of pride in our region. Because there are so many jewels in our region.”

Another goal Duffy cites is engaging the region’s millennial population.

“They are our future. They outnumber baby boomers,” he says. “And we need to lay a much stronger foundation with our new, younger, emerging business leaders to make sure we remain relevant in the future.”

Leadership style
Not much about the job keeps him up at night—although Duffy acknowledges he rarely sleeps through the night and often is up jotting down notes for the next day—and he says he loves coming to work every day.

“I would not do anything I didn’t enjoy doing,” Duffy says. “I’ve been blessed with four great careers. I have loved all four of them.”

He does not minimize his hard work but says he also has been very fortunate in having opportunities presented to him. And he is passionate about what he believes in, he says.

“I’ve toned my style down dramatically over the years,” he says of going from an active, high-pressure job to one in which he has time to make decisions. “My first career (as a police officer) … you don’t sit around and discuss what to do next, you do it.”

He thrives in chaotic situations, Duffy says. He is decisive but listens, and he does not lose his composure.

“His leadership style is one where he does delegate. And he listens,” Parker says. “He is very energetic. He doesn’t ask anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t be willing to do himself.”

Parker, who has known Duffy since they were in Leadership Rochester together in the early 1990s, says he is one of the most ethical individuals she has met.

“I think in Bob’s first year I saw that same level of enthusiasm and excitement and energy that I had in the great majority of years I led the organization,” Parker says. “It was very refreshing to see that. He used his contacts in Albany to the advantage of the region. I think he’s been a breath of fresh air for us.”

Sands has known Duffy some 15 years.

“Bob has a collaborative leadership style that brings results because he is widely respected and trusted,” Sands says.

What he brought to the table as Rochester Chamber’s new leader was strong relationship-building skills, a passion for public service and extensive experience, Sands adds.

“He is the focal point of our efforts to recruit—and sustain—new energy in our richly diverse arenas of commerce and culture,” Sands says, adding Duffy’s first year as CEO was a successful one. “Bob’s genuine concern for the people and businesses in our community is an integral part of who he is and what motivates him to continually give his best each day.”

Dixon Schwabl Inc. CEO Lauren Dixon also has a long history of working with or collaborating with Duffy. She also points to his collaborative management style as one of his strengths.

“He is a leader that goes out of his way to create win/win situations for everybody every time,” Dixon says. “And he has an ability to bring everybody in the fold in a positive, productive way. There’s no ego with Bob Duffy.”

She calls him enthusiastic and charismatic and says Duffy is passionate about creating a chamber culture that is positive, energetic and one that people look to for good ideas.

“On any given day we may make a decision that might upset one party or another, but if we really do our work and try to do what’s right for this region, I think that’s what leadership is all about,” Duffy says about his role at Rochester Chamber. “You should be absolutely fearless in doing the right thing, but look for ways to seek a win/win.”

Although many of his colleagues give him high grades for his first 18 months at Rochester Chamber, Duffy gave himself a C+.

“I’m never satisfied,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of things, but we can do better. I don’t think any of us ever get to an A.”

The future is bright, Duffy says.

“This region is going to be one of the hottest commodities in the next 10 years,” he proffers. “I really believe that. It’s because of brain power, our colleges and universities, our talent, the water.

“What we take for granted are some of our biggest assets,” he says.

At home
Duffy was born and raised in Rochester, and he and his wife of 31 years, Barbara, have two daughters, Erin, 28, and Shannon, 26.

His family is his biggest accomplishment, Duffy says, and spending time with them is one of the things he enjoys doing when he is not at work.

Duffy also enjoys music, has an extensive iTunes collection and at one time thought he would grow up to be a musician. Both of his daughters played piano when they were younger.

“I used to walk to lessons on Dewey Avenue. I didn’t keep up with them. I was playing these keys and it was the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and I thought, I want to play some rock music,” he says with a smile. “I got frustrated that we weren’t doing that. I lost my interest and later on in life I wish I’d stuck with it.”

Duffy is a lifelong learner and has several college degrees, including a master of arts in public administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Duffy also is athletic and as a child wanted to be a professional baseball or basketball player. He is an avid runner and ran in three New York City marathons. Although he has not run a marathon in some time, a few years ago he ran a Brooklyn half-marathon.

He enjoys reading, and the first thing he does when he gets up at 5 a.m. is scour the local and national news. Duffy also enjoys being on the water. He and his wife purchased a home on Keuka Lake from Parker in 2013.

Duffy is enjoying being back in Rochester and at the helm of an organization he has a great deal of respect for. In recent years he has lost his parents and some high school friends, events that have given him pause and reiterated his desire not to get back into politics.

“It’s given me a different outlook on life,” Duffy says. “Life is to be enjoyed and treasured and every day is a good day. Every day I get up I feel great. I just cannot imagine every day getting up and seeing the glass half empty. Work hard, but also have fun and enjoy life.”

Robert Duffy
Position: President and CEO, Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce
Age: 61
Family: Wife, Barbara; two daughters, Erin, 28, and Shannon, 26
Home: Victor
Education: B.A., multidisciplinary studies, 1993, Rochester Institute of Technology; M.A., public administration, 1998, Syracuse University
Hobbies: Family time, music, being on the water, reading
Quote: “We are mired in silos. We are mired in turf. We are mired in the concept of who gets credit for what. We are mired in a sense of, if we align or join, it may diminish my job in the company. We have to think much more as a team. And I honestly believe if we did that everybody would grow. We compete against each other at a time when we should be collaborating.”

6/3/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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