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As The Revolving Door Turns

Columnist: Bill Meagher
January, 2019 Issue

Bill Meagher
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Change is hard, but not for the Marin Economic Forum.

The nonprofit organization’s website says it “strives to provide information and opportunities for improving Marin County economic vitality, while seeking to increase social equity and environmental protection.” Which is pretty worthy stuff, but the forum is only able to chase that objective when it isn’t seeking CEO candidates, which is a fair amount of the time.

Last November, the MEF quietly replaced Robin Steinberg with Mike Blakeley. Steinberg, a Marin resident, was hired in August 2017, so her time in the CEO suite lasted 13 months with an October departure. The MEF has said Steinberg wanted to explore other options.

She replaced Michael Kadel, who had the post on an interim basis for just three months. Kadel was covering because former CEO Jim Corderio departed in January 2017 after only seven months heading up the MEF. And Corderio replaced Steve Lockett, who left the fold in February 2016 after just five months.

The first CEO ever, Neil Stone, worked from June 2011 until the end of that year. After that chief economist and Sonoma State professor Dr. Robert Eyler filled in until Lockett was hired.

A pattern is emerging. If your sense is that MEF might want to save some cash on business cards, I’m with you.

To be fair, the CEO spot at the forum has some challenges beyond an executive suite equipped with an inflatable slide usually reserved for airliners. To begin with, it’s a nonprofit, which carries with it all kinds of issues like survival.

Next, there is a conundrum that is peculiar to the forum. It has a board of directors only slightly smaller than the active roster for the 49ers. With 34 board members, meetings aren’t held in a conference room, the MEF simply rents out AT&T Park when the Giants are on the road.

To give you a sense of the gargantuan size, most public company boards have fewer than 10 members, often times as few as five. In simpler terms, think of it this way—how tough is it to get everybody in your family on board with what’s for dinner? Now jump your kin’s number to 34 and debate what goes on the pizza.

Enter Mike Blakeley, the new CEO. Blakely comes from a international consulting background which includes serving on a number of nonprofit boards. He was at Nathan Associates before coming to the MEF. The Marin native was a candidate for the head gig when Steinberg was hired.

Blakeley is nothing if not an optimist. He says the parade of CEOs and the ginormous board gives him no pause. “The MEF has done great work, and I’m here to put global best practices in place,” he says. “I have spoken to many members of the board and they’re more excited than they have been in the past.”

He cited his experience in the past with other boards that have included international officials such as U.S. ambassadors, “They could be pretty demanding, so I don’t think the board will be any problem.”

The new CEO acknowledged that while financial stability is an issue for many nonprofits because of limited revenue streams, he was looking forward to the MEF becoming less reliant on donations and producing more services that could add to the bottom line. Blakeley wants to see the nonprofit produce more data driven reports that come with a price tag.

Useable information is a key to making the MEF an organization able to stand on its own feet without bailouts like the $100K that the Marin Board of Supes dropped on it in the past. The county has set aside $150,000 for the MEF to produce an as yet-to-be-determined project for the current fiscal year.

“The numbers don’t lie, we need to produce the information that is needed by businesses, the government, communities,” says Blakeley. “Raising the economic IQ is important.”

He listed sky-high housing, transportation mired in gridlock, and workforce retention as areas that continue to plague Marin and ripe for data that could help to improve outcomes.

MEF economist Robert Eyler is capable of deep dives in to econ issues facing Marin and the North Bay, his work holds value. The larger challenge beyond the MEF is what to do with those reports in order to make changes that can be embraced not only by the business community but the community at large.

Marin will never be a hotbed of growth, and with good reason. But the MEF needs to produce information that can be applied by others to ensure the county continues to be viable.

As they say in the NFL, Blakeley is on the clock.

Bill Meagher is a contributing editor at Northbay biz magazine. He keeps the wolf from the door as an associate editor at the Wall Street financial news portal The Deal. He covers small cap equity, alternative investment, cannabis, healthcare and the odd investigative piece.





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