So, why such fat paychecks? Mainly because Washington is now playing a key role in the economy. "If you look at the size and the scope of some of the public policies being talked about in Washington, they can have a huge impact on an entire industry, and corporate CEOs have come to understand it really matters who is in charge of your trade association," Doug Pinkham ($355,352), president of the Public Affairs Council, said. Corporate executives want their trade association leaders to help their industry navigate legislative and regulatory processes, and to secure a seat at the negotiating tables where key decisions are made.
The complexities of running a trade association also put a premium on individuals with the business acumen to manage an association when the going gets tough. As the economy slumped in 2009, those skills were more in demand than ever. "It's easier to manage [a trade association] when the economy is chugging along and you have more money than God," said Ivan Adler, a principal at the McCormick Group, an executive search firm. "It's more complicated in challenging times."
"The Business Roundtable is a pool of folks who are inclined to be temperate and less confrontational," O'Brien said. "That has been a boon in terms of developing working relationships with this administration, because it makes it easier to maintain a productive business dialogue."
After working with the Obama administration to help pass the stimulus package in February last year, the U.S. chamber, led by Thomas Donohue ($3.78 million), took an increasingly strident role in opposing the rest of Obama's agenda -- health care, energy, and financial services -- generating criticism from Democrats and causing internal strife. Several of the chamber's biggest members, including Pacific Gas & Electric and Apple, left last year. In the financial reform debate, administration officials criticized the chamber for running a "misleading" ad campaign against the proposed Consumer Financial Protection agency.
The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Financial Services Roundtable, and the American Bankers Association were able to mount effective lobbying campaigns even though several of their big members were the targets of public anger and of heated rhetoric from the White House and Congress.
"It has been an extremely difficult public-relations and political environment," acknowledged Edward Yingling, the president and CEO of the bankers association, who made $2.29 million in 2008. "We're used to major storms, but this is a level 4 hurricane." The group has managed to fend off some financial services reforms that it dislikes.
At the Financial Services Roundtable, president and CEO Steve Bartlett felt the public backlash as well. "I believe I enjoy a great reputation and have credibility," said the former Republican lawmaker from Texas, who made $1.63 million in 2008. "But it's a tough time. It's harder to communicate our message if a congressman hears complaints about us at a town hall meeting." So Bartlett set a goal for the 100-member organization to "rebuild trust in everything we do." He recently assessed membership fees as high as $75,000 to retain a public-relations firm to work on messaging.
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