Current president of business lobby will also take on top title March 11
Donohue at CEO Update's inaugural Association Leadership Awards in 2014, when he was named Trade Association CEO of the Year
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce officially announced late Tuesday that its president, Suzanne Clark, will become CEO effective March 11, at the group’s next board meeting. She replaces 82-year-old Tom Donohue, CEO since 1997, who transformed the organization into an advocacy giant.
“Suzanne Clark's extensive experience through ever increasing responsibilities during her more than 16 years at the Chamber, combined with her ambitious vision and ongoing work to strengthen the U.S. Chamber of Commerce make her the resounding choice to lead the organization into the future,” said board Chair Christopher Lofgren in a statement.
"On behalf of all the board leaders who have been working on this multiyear succession process, we are profoundly grateful to Tom Donohue for his leadership, passion for this organization, and commitment to free enterprise over the past 24 years,” Lofgren said.
Clark was named president of the Chamber in 2019, taking the title from Donohue, who remained CEO.
“I am honored to lead the U.S. Chamber at a time when our members need us most,” Clark said in the statement.
“American businesses are dealing with the uncertainty of the pandemic, the challenges of a recession and uneven recovery, stark shifts in government leadership and policy, and near-constant disruptions being driven by rapid technological advancement.”
“It is with pride, enthusiasm, and confidence that I pass the reins to Suzanne Clark,” Donohue said in the statement. “Over the past several years, she has been my trusted partner, leading the team and designing the strategy for the Chamber’s bright future.”
The Chamber said it would celebrate Donohue’s legacy later this year.
A long history
Donohue was a vice president at the Chamber from 1976 to 1984, when he was hired to run the American Trucking Associations. He was credited with tripling ATA’s revenues during his 13-year tenure.
Donohue returned to the Chamber as CEO in 1997, turning an organization with declining political influence into a formidable and deep-pocketed advocate for business interests. But it was a herculean effort, according to some who were there.
“He used to say, ‘The hole is deeper and the ladder shorter than I realized,’” recalled Leslie Hortum, now head of the nonprofit and government affairs practice at executive recruitment firm Spencer Stuart, who was SVP of Federation Affairs from 1997-2000 and was a longtime Donohue aide prior to that.
Matthew Shay, CEO of the National Retail Federation and a Chamber board member, called Donohue a “mentor and a friend.”
“The U.S. Chamber has grown exponentially under Tom’s leadership—in influence, in resources and in the impact it has had on businesses large and small,” Shay said in a statement Tuesday night after the Chamber announcement.
“Tom will be missed, but I’m looking forward to working with Suzanne and her team to build upon Tom’s legacy,” Shay said.
Among the ways Donohue enhanced the Chamber’s influence was by building coalitions of business groups—and asking for money from his corporate members, said Steve Caldeira, CEO of the Household & Commercial Products Association and a member of the Chamber’s public affairs committee.
“At various points, the Chamber was home to literally dozens of important coalitions that spoke out on issues from tax cuts to free trade,” Caldeira told CEO Update in an email. “The guru of coalition building in D.C. for many years was (longtime top lobbyist) Bruce Josten, who was Tom’s right hand on policy and politics.”
“Tom is simply unmatched as a fundraiser,” Caldeira said. “He was able to fuel the machine that the Chamber is today by traveling around the country and persuading major-company CEOs to continue to support the institution. People who have watched Tom as he asked for money from prominent executives have come away amazed and astounded.
“He was unabashed about asking, and more often than not he delivered on his promises because he put together a first-rate team of executives at the Chamber who knew how to get things done,” Caldeira said.
The Chamber is one of a few trade groups to rely on fundraising, rather than dues, to sustain its operations.
But Donohue’s course was not embraced by all members: In 2009, three large electric utility companies and consumer electronics company Apple left the group over its opposition to federal efforts to limit greenhouse gases.
The Chamber was disappointed with election results in 2012, when its support did not turn the tide in several Senate races considered winnable. But the big-spending organization changed its strategy in the next election cycle. In 2014, Republicans regained control of the U.S. Senate with heavy Chamber support.
Donohue was well compensated for his successes. With take-home pay of nearly $6.7 million in 2019, he is the nation’s highest-paid—and arguably most influential—association CEO. The Chamber, including its foundation and other affiliates, reported revenue of $277 million in 2019. (By comparison, Chamber reported revenue of just $76 million in 2003, according to the earliest tax filing CEO Update could find.)
But recent years have been rockier for Donohue. His harsh, thinly veiled criticism of Donald Trump during the Republican primaries, and clashes over immigration and trade policy, limited the Chamber’s influence during the Trump administration.
Still, the Chamber played a major role in the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, Caldeira said.
In 2019, the Chamber announced that Donohue would retire in 2022. Donohue was to remain CEO and senior EVP Suzanne Clark was named president. The move came as The Wall Street Journal was preparing a report on Donohue’s use of a private jet for business and personal trips, with the organization picking up nearly all of the expenses.
In 2020, Donohue and Clark set off some internal turmoil and external backlash. In an unusual move, the Chamber endorsed nearly two dozen freshman Democratic members of Congress, in addition to nine other Democratic House candidates.
Longtime top political strategist Scott Reed left acrimoniously (the Chamber said he was fired for leaks). In subsequent news articles, Reed was quoted harshly criticizing Donohue and alluding to his advanced age.
But when Clark’s ascension to the presidency was announced in 2019, she had said that the Chamber was not an organization that only supports one party.
“If anybody here ever thought of themselves as working for a partisan place, they should stop,” said Clark told The Washington Post. “Because if we are for free trade, we have to be for whoever wants to work with us on that.”
Clark’s own career is closely tied to Donohue. In her early 20s, she took a job in the executive office at the American Trucking Associations when Donohue was CEO, and later became chief of staff. She followed Donohue to the Chamber in 1997, earned her MBA at Georgetown University, and was promoted to COO. In addition to her work as COO, she was managing director of the National Chamber Foundation and president of the Center for Corporate Citizenship.
Clark left the Chamber in 2007 to become president of the National Journal Group, part of Atlantic Media. In 2008, she founded Potomac Research Group—which provides analysis of legislation and regulation on markets for institutional investors—for Atlantic Media owner David Bradley. In 2010, Clark bought Bradley’s stake in the research firm and left Atlantic Media.
Clark rejoined the Chamber in 2014 as executive vice president, a new role created for her. She was promoted to senior executive vice president two years later following the retirement of longtime Chamber lobbyist Bruce Josten, becoming second-in-command to Donohue and taking over leadership of the business group’s advocacy operations.