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October 7, 2019

From Business to Political Powerhouse

Thomas J. Donohue, MBA ’65, ’98 (Hon.)

Thomas J. Donohue, MBA ’65, ’98 (Hon.), shows no signs of slowing down—either in his successful career, advising tomorrow’s leaders or supporting his alma mater.

There are two tenets to success that Thomas J. Donohue, MBA ’65, ’98 (Hon.), president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has followed for most of his 80 years. The first is the quote attributed to baseball’s Yogi Berra: “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The other is that relationships are critical. Throughout his early college education and his career, these two beliefs have worked in tandem.

It started with borrowing his classmate’s psychology notes as an undergraduate at St. John’s University. He later married her. “I needed her notes because I had three jobs,” said Donohue, who was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Rockville Centre, New York, where he started working as a teenager.

In 1964, while working for the Boy Scouts of America, he met James Bender, PhD, who was dean of the new School of Business Administration at Adelphi University.

“I found him to be a very practical, experienced guy who had worked at Kimberly-Clark and knew a lot about what he was talking about,” Donohue recalled. “He said to me, ‘Why don’t you come here and get an MBA?’ I said that would be a great idea, but I have to work. He said the program was designed so I could take credits later in the day.”

So Donohue took 36 credits in 21 months while still working. He said that while his classes taught him a lot about marketing and human resources, his lifelong skills came from his relationships with his professors and classmates.

Many classes, he said, were taught by “people with practical experience who were teaching from what they do, about what really happens in business. There were also class discussions with students who were more experienced than I was. I loved the back-and-forth.”

He said that earning his MBA gave him a “huge advantage and I’m still appreciative of the fact that it helps me right up until today.”

After a series of fundraising jobs, he “got a really big break” to serve as vice president of Fairfield University in Connecticut in 1967. From 1969 to 1976, he served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Postmaster General, where he tangled with unions over labor contracts. He worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for eight years, until 1984.

He then seized an opportunity to serve as president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, where he became a well-known Washington, D.C., lobbyist. “I was there for 13 years, and I hired some really smart people and we made it four times bigger than it was, and then I came back here.”

The Business of Commerce

“Here” is the chamber, where he has served as president since 1997, after he was once again recruited by a colleague who said he was needed to fix the organization. “This has been the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my business life and a lot has been written about it,” Donohue said.

He’s referring to the fact that when he returned to the chamber, the revenues were less than $50 million. Currently, he said, revenues are near $300 million and there are 480 employees. He’s also made the chamber a commanding business lobby that has visible political influence nationally and abroad.

As an alum, he’s always willing to lend support, such as helping students with internships and hosting alumni for meetings at the chamber. In January, he hosted President Christine Riordan’s Momentum Tour. “She had a clear strategic plan and she took on the tough issues and she did them,” he said.

Donohue said emphatically that he has no plans to retire. “As long as what I’m doing is worthwhile and helpful to the country and the business community, I should keep doing it,” he said. “You can’t judge your ability to work or make a contribution by your age.”

He does have advice for current Adelphi business students. Referring to Berra’s quote, Donohue said, “The most important decisions you make are the jobs you don’t take. And all along, you have to build relationships.”


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