Alison S. Winter, the first woman chairman of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce in its 110-year history, wants to make her mark by achieving a monumental task: Getting L.A.’s disparate businesses to collaborate on addressing regional issues.
Winter says she is no stranger to the task of convincing people to collaborate; it’s been part of her managing style as president and chief executive of Northern Trust Bank. Winter has been with Northern Trust, a trust company with assets exceeding $8.8 billion, for 27 years. She helped set up the company’s original L.A. branch in 1988 and built the company from “scratch” when “we had no employees, no clients.”
Winter also is director of the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, a board member of UCLA’s Anderson Graduate School of Management and helped establish the “Women for Women” program at the Union Rescue Mission.
Question: Why did it take so long for the chamber to appoint a woman chair?
Answer: The chamber got close to naming a female on more than one occasion. I believe that in both cases the women declined. I don’t think it was a reflection that they were blocking some diversity within the ranks. A lot of it is timing and a lot of people have to be in the right place.
Q: How diverse is the chamber?
A: It’s not so much 50-50 male-female. We’ve probably made greater strides, in terms of numbers, of diversifying the board across businesses, small business and big businesses, geographic diversification, industry diversification. We try hard to make sure that we’ve got not all banks, but that we have agricultural interests, technology, health care, manufacturing, and so forth. We try to make sure that we’re getting a cross section to represent the community.
Q: The chamber 20 years ago had a lot more muscle than it does now. Why is that?
A: Yes, we look different. What people are saying is, we look different than a Denver or a Minneapolis, where a handful of businesses, because they employ so many people, can make a change and force through a structure of government. I think that there is a strength to that, but the downside is that if a business or an industry gets in trouble, the whole community suffers. When you look at the region here in Southern California, the fact that we are so diversified in our economic base is really a tremendous strength for us.
Q: Doesn’t this diversity make the chamber’s job tougher?
A: Yes. It’s a real challenge for everybody in terms of how do you get your arms around this. That’s what we’re trying to do as a chamber. I think the days when one business organization could speak for all of the business community have long been gone in Los Angeles. We’re the most geographically dispersed city in the country. We’re far more ethnically diverse and diverse in terms of the number of industries.
Q: How do you plan to pull these businesses together, particularly the small ones?
A: You’ve got to find a way to reach out to sub-segments and find common ground. The chamber led an effort to set up a business collaboration group. It’s made up of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association and the Central City Association, the Economic Development Corp., the Latin Business Association. We’ve reached out to some of the Asian business communities, and there are others that we’re pulling in. We’ve gotten together over the past year on a monthly basis, starting a year ago.
Q: What are you working on?
A: We have to reach out to other organizations, labor groups, government groups, and homeowners associations and talk about things where we share a common interest. We all need safe neighborhoods, we all need clean air, clean water, transportation.
Q: Are businesses open to working together as one big group?
A: I think they are. The L.A. business community is big and that’s why you’ve got to break it up into smaller pieces. For example, we held a workforce readiness summit last December. You can’t have a summit and invite representatives of all business in Los Angeles. It takes them two hours to get here or they don’t have time, they’re running a business. You don’t just send out an invitation and people show up. You have to call on these organizations and show that you have common interests and there is a lot more of that outreach being done.
Q: Lack of unity has been a chronic problem among L.A. businesses for years. Why is that just starting to be addressed now?
A: I think most organizations and businesses change as time changes, but there’s a lag factor. I think we were still operating under the structure of institutions that worked in the ’70s and ’80s.
Q: You helped establish the “Women for Women” program at the Union Rescue Mission. Why did this intrigue you?
A: They are a client of Northern Trust, so I wanted to meet this new client. So we said, “How could we work with you and help you?” And they said, “the women homeless population in Los Angeles has really skyrocketed.” When missions were expanding (in downtown L.A.) it was to serve men, and men are very different from women. The Union Rescue Mission understands that women are different from men. You can’t put them in a big warehouse with bunk beds. That’s what really intrigued me. They bought these old mansions and converted them into homes for women.
Q: You are involved with so many organizations and also head a company. That must make for hectic workdays.
A: I start early. I will usually be at a breakfast by 7:30 someplace either meeting with a client or on a subset of a board I’m on. I’m typically in my office between 8:30 or 9:30, on any given day. I almost always have a business lunch. In the afternoon I may be visiting clients. It’s not unusual for me to jump in my car and go to the chamber during the day, three days a week. Sometimes I’m there for a good part of the day. Almost every evening is taken up with something because we support so many non-profits in Southern California.
Q: What management skills have you taken from your position at Northern Trust and applied to your chamber responsibilities?
A: Direct involvement and this whole idea of collaboration that’s what I do in the (trust company) business. I want people to buy into what we’re doing. I look at delegation as a tool to take on more things myself. There’s always room to roll up your sleeves, and I look at my management style very much that way. When I got involved with the chamber I spent a lot of time meeting individually with all the key staff members to really understand how it operates.
Q: Why do you take so much on?
A: I have this attitude where if there’s a problem, I assume it’s my responsibility. My husband will sometimes say, “It’s not your responsibility.” It’s hard to say no.
Q: Are there times when you want to pull back?
A: There are times when I think, there’s just so much I’ve just got to step away. But when you start to get down to it you say, “Who’s going to do this and who’s going to do that?” Quite frankly, we need all hands on deck.
Q: A year from now, after your term has ended, what would you want to be remembered for?
A: I’d like people to think back and say, that was a year when the chamber really was a catalyst for bringing the broader business communities together so that we cooperated on issues that are really important to our future.
Alison S. Winter
Organization: Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce
Born: Omaha, Neb., 1946
Education: Bachelor’s degree from San Francisco College for Women; MBA from the University of Chicago
Most Admired Person: Winston Churchill
Hobbies: Listening to rock music, flower arranging, reading and collecting antiques
Turning Point in Career: Attending University of Chicago; moving to California to start a business from scratch
Personal: Married with a son and daughter