Brandon promises innovation in new role.
Just four days into his job as the new president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, Zach Brandon was energized. After the chamber announced he’d be the successor to retiring president Jennifer Alexander, his life, in his words, instantly got busy, hectic, and fun. “I am honored and flattered by the outreach from the community,” he reported.
Brandon, who considers himself a centrist, is anxious to light a fire under the business community he loves but describes as underperforming. “I believe Madison can and should be a global innovation hub,” he stated. “There’s no reason, other than ourselves, as to why we’re not on a short list.”
Just 39 years old, Brandon has already gained a broad business perspective in Madison and beyond. In addition to his most recent role as executive director for the Wisconsin Angel Network, he’s owned a private business, served as a Madison alder, and held office as deputy secretary for the Wisconsin Dept. of Commerce (now the WEDC) under former Gov. Jim Doyle.
Additionally, Brandon recently served as vice president of the National Angel Association and was in Washington, D.C., on related business when he started getting calls from business acquaintances back home suggesting he consider the Madison Chamber position. After some due diligence, he found the chamber’s goals to parallel his own and threw his hat in the ring. It wasn’t until much later that he learned he was one of 130 candidates answering the call.
The interview process was long, he admitted, and culminated in a 30-minute vision presentation to a selection committee that he found surprisingly open to ideas. “I realized at that moment that if they’d offer me the job, I’d take it.”
After all, he’d long been lobbying for a better Madison. While at WAN, he joined a circle of Milwaukee movers and shakers through a group known as MiKE (Innovation in Milwaukee). At a recent MiKE retreat, Brandon, the only representative from Madison, used the opportunity to stress to the group the importance of developing a stronger Milwaukee-Madison relationship. “It was two days with no cellphones or laptops,” Brandon said of the retreat. “We had very intense discussions about how to drive innovation in Milwaukee. I’d like to do something similar here. Innovation exists in both cities, and much of that has portability between the two.”
Brandon said he envisions a collaborative environment benefiting the state’s largest population centers along what he terms the innovation corridor (I-94). And he will challenge the Greater Madison Chamber, and other chambers throughout the region, to be just as innovative. “The word that will define this chamber will be intrepid,” he promised, explaining that IN stands for innovative, TREP stands for entrepreneurial, and ID for identifiable. “We need to be relentless and untiring. The days of printing a membership directory and mailing it out are long gone.”
His record of fiscal conservatism coupled with an ability to reach across both sides of the aisle have, he explained, kept him from being labeled a partisan Democrat. “I believe in taking the best of both parties and using it to grow the economy,” he said, and he notes with pride that John Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times, once labeled him a “radical centrist.”
That said, will the Democrat face opposition from local business owners who are often lumped together under a conservative umbrella? “If you look at political donations, it’s pretty split [between political parties],” he answered, unfazed. “By and large, businesses want predictability and stability. I’m not sure that businesspeople in general have a strong entrenchment to either political party. I think they realize there’s good and bad in both.”
Alexander, meanwhile, has been forthright in sharing her knowledge of the greater Madison business scene. “I’m getting an unfiltered look,” Brandon assured. “She wants me to succeed, and I couldn’t have asked for a better person to help during my transition.”
He’s learning everything he can from the outgoing president, crediting her public policy expertise with creating a more politically involved chamber. “That’s an important piece of our economy,” he said, “and it’s made the city and region better. She’s also managed the chamber through the worst recession we’ve seen.
“We’ll continue to build on what was done in the past. I believe great things are ahead for this region. I’m hopeful and certain.”
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