Boston chamber taps convention center’s Rooney as next CEO
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s board wrapped up one of the most high-profile job searches in the city Tuesday by hiring convention center chief James Rooney to be its chief executive, a move that could create a ripple effect on Boston development.
Rooney’s departure brings added uncertainty to the $1 billion expansion plan that he spearheaded for the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, a project that is waiting for a green light from the Baker administration.
In Rooney, the chamber landed a consummate insider, someone who knows his way around the marble halls of the State House as well as any business leader in the city.
But he also happens to be a longtime member of Boston’s establishment. So Rooney’s appointment, scheduled to take effect on July 1, is bound to disappoint some who hoped chamber leaders would signal a new direction when they replace 19-year veteran Paul Guzzi at the helm of the organization charged with promoting the region’s business interests.
Chamber leaders said they cast a wide net for Guzzi’s successor: Hill Holliday chief executive Karen Kaplan, cochairwoman of the search committee, confirmed that headhunting firm Korn Ferry reviewed 290 potential candidates and interviewed 50. Of the 10 who met with chamber leaders for more in-depth interviews in February, Kaplan said, four were women and two were out-of-towners.
The hunt for Guzzi’s replacement was closely watched in Boston’s business community, with a number of high-profile candidates — including former Patrick administration honchos Greg Bialecki and Rachel Kaprielian, and New England Venture Capital Association executive director C.A. Webb — under consideration.
Kaplan said she went into the process hoping it could end with someone unexpected, a fresh face. But she said Rooney, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority’s 57-year-old executive director, rose to the top among four finalists partly because of the future he articulated for the 1,500-member business organization.
“His thinking was the most sophisticated and nuanced,” Kaplan said. “And he presented the clearest vision and the clearest plan for how to articulate that vision.”
In an interview Tuesday, Rooney said he didn’t originally go looking for the chamber job. But he said he is excited about the opportunity it presents, the potential to influence business and policy on a broader level. Rooney said he expects to help the chamber tackle issues such as energy prices and housing costs. But he also wants the group to adjust to big shifts within a variety of sectors vital to Boston’s economy.
“The whole way that business is conducted is being transformed, and much of that transformation is being initiated right here in Boston,” Roo-ney said. “The chamber needs to embrace that new dynamic.”
Kaplan said Rooney would receive a base salary of $370,000 with an annual bonus of up to $55,000, subject to a review by the chamber board. She said the chamber worked with compensation consultants Towers Watson to craft Rooney’s pay package, basing it on a midpoint of pay levels at peer chambers in other cities and large business associations in Boston. At the convention center authority, he was paid $270,000 last year.
Rooney spent much of his career at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, working his way to deputy general manager before leaving in 1994. He then had positions with the Big Dig operation and Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration. The convention center authority hired him in 2001 to help oversee the initial construction of the South Boston complex, and he rose to the top spot in 2003.
Rooney’s pending departure raises a host of questions about the convention center expansion proposal and whether his successor will have the same tenacity and political connections to keep it on track. If the expansion gets stalled, it could set off a domino effect.
The Legislature last year approved a $1 billion bond bill to complete the expansion by 2019. However, Governor Charlie Baker has expressed some skepticism about the project, and his administration is expected to soon decide whether it makes financial sense to take on the additional debt. The bonds would be financed by tourism taxes and fees — the same revenue stream being used to pay off the bonds for the existing convention center.
The convention center is also a key site in plans to bring the 2024 Summer Olympics to Boston. Documents made public in January show several sporting events envisioned as taking place there, with volleyball specifically slated for the new wing.
Hotel operators remain hopeful that Rooney’s exodus won’t jeopardize the project. But political reality isn’t so simple.
“A lot of everyone’s confidence in the convention center expansion revolves around Rooney’s track record,” said Thomas Glynn, chief executive at the Massachusetts Port Authority.
Few people are watching what happens at the convention center more closely than Glynn. Massport owns land across Summer Street where it wants to build a hotel complex with at least 1,200 rooms. Three teams have already submitted bids, but Glynn said Massport may have to restart the process and consider a smaller hotel if the expansion gets scrapped.
Even though construction hasn’t started, the expanded center is already being marketed for events. John Murtha, general manager at the Omni Parker House, said anticipated revenue could be jeopardized if the expansion doesn’t advance.
“We have convention blocks that are assigned to us for 2019 and beyond, and some of those would be in jeopardy if the BCEC expansion does not occur by then,” Murtha said.
Rooney, for his part, said he expects to champion the expansion in his new role at the chamber, which has taken a public stance in favor of the project.
State Representative Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat who cosponsored the convention center bill, said he’s not worried that Rooney’s job change will interfere with the expansion plans.
“Jim played an integral role in that,” Collins said. “However, I don’t believe it’s about one person.”
To Pioneer Institute executive director Jim Stergios, whose right-leaning think tank has long criticized the expansion as a waste of public money, the convention center is essentially a one-man show that rested on Rooney’s shoulders.
“His departure marks the end of an era at the convention center,” Stergios said. “It’s going to be a real tough lift to put someone else in there who can generate and maintain the set of relationships that are necessary in the Legislature and the executive branch to make sure this thing goes forward.”
The board of the authority has not begun to search for a replacement. Rooney said he plans to stay on through the end of June.
Glynn said he would prefer to see a familiar face taking Rooney’s place. “This is a very political town,” Glynn said. “It’s a very civically engaged town. . . If they bring in someone from the Cleveland convention center authority, that might make life more complicated.”
A video interview with James Rooney: