Those of you in downtown Boston, did you feel the ground shift last week with casino magnate Steve Wynn on his way in and Boston chamber chief Paul Guzzi on his way out?
There’s a changing of the guard in the business community as a generation of leaders move on and fresh blood — and money — flow in. Change is always unsettling, especially to Bostonians because we can be so set in our ways.
But really, it’s about time. There are so many silver-haired white guys running this town that they all started to look alike to me.
No disrespect to any of them. They’ve done a lot for Boston. Jack Connors, the cofounder of advertising juggernaut Hill Holliday, raised a lot of money for good causes. Michael Widmer, the respected head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, has been a faithful watchdog of our hard-earned money. Guzzi, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, has been a fixture in business and political circles for decades.
Before them, there was a cabal of financial CEOs, back when local institutions were truly local: Bank of Boston’s Chad Gifford, Citizens Bank’s Larry Fish, and John Hancock’s David D’Alessandro. And before them, there was the Vault in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s — a clubby group of executives who worked with Boston mayors to help reshape the city, acting at times like a shadow Cabinet.
We won’t be going back to the days of the Vault — nor do we want to — when power was concentrated in the hands of an elite few. Our economy is different and more diverse — and better for it. We have far fewer giant headquarter companies and many more startups and medium-size firms across a spectrum of sectors from tech to health care.
So why does it matter if business leaders come down from their glass towers? Because they’re the ones who can use their money and power to get things done. They can fortify our economy and help drive a civic agenda at a time when Boston has a new mayor and the Commonwealth is about to get a new governor. Even with the region booming, there are persistent problems that will require uncommon collaboration to solve. For starters, we need to build middle-class housing, upgrade our public transit, vastly improve education, and close the growing gap between the rich and poor.
So who’s out there — besides Suffolk Construction’s John Fish — trying to fill the power vacuum?
There are people who are already active such as Vertex CEO Jeff Leiden, Hill Holliday CEO Karen Kaplan, Putnam Investments’ Bob Reynolds, Eastern Bank president Bob Rivers, Wayfair cofounder Niraj Shah, developer Adam Weiner.
Leiden, in particular, is exciting because he’s uniquely qualified to be a connector: a cardiologist who is running an important biotech that recently moved its headquarters from Cambridge to the hottest part of Boston — the Seaport District. He’s plugged into the old and new Boston, navigating the various worlds of medicine, drugs, and technology. One project involves working with EMC chief Joe Tucci and Beacon Hill to help Massachusetts become a global hub for technology like it already is today for biotech.
“In the old business community, there was a sense of competition,” said Leiden Thursday, sitting in the seventh-floor cafeteria of Vertex’s gleaming building overlooking the Boston Harbor. Now, “there needs to be collaboration with competitors.”
A class of technology leaders has been terrific at corralling Kendall Square types, but now should reach across more boundaries. I am thinking about HubSpot cofounder Brian Halligan, Care.com founder Sheila Marcelo, Flybridge Capital’s Jeff Bussgang, Communi-space chair Diane Hessan, PayPal’s David Chang, MassChallenge founders John Harthorne and Akhil Nigam. And it’s hard to forget Karmaloop founder Greg Selkoe, who started the nonprofit Future Boston Alliance with an eye to make Boston more welcoming to entrepreneurs and creative minds.
I’d like to get our health care CEOs to play a bigger role, especially since so many of our hospitals are run by women. I’m thinking about Betsy Nabel at Brigham and Women’s, Kate Walsh at Boston Medical Center, Sandi Fenwick at Children’s.
But the executive I would most like to see step out of her shell is Abby Johnson , the president of Fidelity Investments and heir apparent to the Boston mutual funds empire. Her father, Ned, is notoriously private, and so is she. The Johnsons have quietly given away gobs of money to nonprofits and museums, but wouldn’t it be great if Abby broke family tradition and gave of herself to become a visible force in the city?
There’s no better time to step up.Shirley Leung can be reached at Shirley.firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.