Former NJBankers Chairman Bracken Elected State Chamber Chairman
By Timothy E. Doherty
Sun National Bank President and CEO Thomas A. Bracken, chairman of NJBankers from 1999 to 2000, has just taken on a new role. Bracken was elected June 23 to a two-year term as chairman of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.
It’s an organization in which he’s long been active – he can’t say exactly for how many years, but he knows he’s been on the Chamber’s Annual Walk to Washington train trip for more than 25 consecutive years.
Bracken took a few moments recently to chat with New Jersey Banker about the Walk to Washington, his new role, how it relates to banking and the Chamber’s six-point Platform for Progress initiative.
Q: What kinds of things have you seen from going on the Walk to Washington annually that have made you want to continue that with an unblemished record?
Well, you know New Jersey is a state that’s all about networking. And I don’t know a better function in the state that there’s an opportunity to network than that function. It’s 24-plus hours of solid interaction with the business and political leaders in the state of New Jersey.
Q: On their turf?
On everybody’s turf. And, it’s a good way to get updated on things to find out about what’s going on, to renew acquaintances. It’s just a very valuable use of time.
Q: You bring, obviously, a very interesting perspective to your chairmanship of the chamber, having served as chairman of NJBankers first. And, of course, your prominence within the banking industry as a CEO. You really have three interesting things going for you simultaneously. Bringing all of that banking background, what can you offer to the chamber that perhaps hasn’t been covered before? What do you bring to the position that can put a banking perspective on economic development and other key issues in New Jersey?
As you know, banking touches every piece of New Jersey. It touches people, it touches every business, it touches politics, it touches the nonprofit world. Being in banking, you find out about a lot of different industries, a lot of different businesses, a lot of different municipalities, a lot of different counties. You know you touch about everything there is to touch in the state of New Jersey.
So, when you take that kind of knowledge and the ability to tap into resources around the state – either people, businesses or nonprofits – and get their perspective on things, it could do nothing but help if you’re trying to improve the business climate of New Jersey.
Q: So as a banker, obviously, you’ve been trained all throughout your career to learn the businesses of the folks you’re coming in contact with, so this is a natural extension of that.
Absolutely. You know, New Jersey is the most densely populated business state in the country. The demographics are phenomenal and the potential for business is enormous. The state’s never achieved the potential it has. So, maybe by creating a few waves here and there or bringing a few people together that might not otherwise have gotten together to help promote a very important business initiative, maybe connecting with a politician or two about some needed things that are being ignored, that will help the entire state of New Jersey – forgetting about any industry or any geography in New Jersey.
By doing some things like that, hopefully we can improve the business climate. The state’s prominence is only going to be maintained or improved if we can retain businesses here, let them grow here, bring new businesses in here and have more jobs created that can provide the income to pay for the very heavy infrastructure we have. Infrastructure meaning financial infrastructure, the state infrastructure, the county and municipality infrastructures. And maybe at the same time find a way to add improvements there, where economies of scale and efficiencies can come into play and maybe reduce the cost of all that which would only benefit the state because it makes it more affordable.
Q: What are your key objectives that you hope to either work on or accomplish during your term?
Well, the chamber has a six-point Platform for Progress that touches on economic development, education, the environment, government reform, health care and transportation. Those six are what we’re trying to promote and we’re not trying to promote them just to benefit the chamber, we’re trying to promote them because improvement on any one of these or all of these is going to make life better in the state for everybody.
So we’re trying to bring groups in to partner with us to promote all these things so that we have a common theme and we can make progress faster and we’re reaching out to many trade organizations around the state. We’ve done it through a series of luncheons. NJBankers has joined the crusade and many other trade organizations have, and the ones that haven’t yet we’re still working on them because we realize that we can’t do it ourselves. We realize that we don’t have the expertise to lead all these initiatives. Others have that expertise, and those who do have that expertise, we’d be very willing to participate with them taking the lead, but we need to get these things moving and improve on these things. The state’s going to become even less competitive and we cannot afford for that to happen.
Q: You have a special concern that you’ve had for a long time with transportation. This is also obviously one of the objectives that you’re addressing.
It’s crucial. The strength of this state is its infrastructure and if that infrastructure deteriorates and it becomes much more difficult to move goods and people through the state it’s going to cause frustration and that’s going to impact the attractiveness of this state from a business standpoint. So transportation is directly linked to business, there’s no question about it.
Q: What’s your prediction for an increase in the gas tax to reinitialize the transportation trust fund?
The transportation trust fund has to be renewed, it has to have a new source of funding, because if it doesn’t, there’s no money for the infrastructure and probably even more importantly, we lose the matching funds that the federal government has just authorized, which are significant. I mean billions of dollars for the state of New Jersey.
So if we don’t do something to get a permanent source of dedicated funding for the transportation trust fund, we run the risk of losing those dollars. So something’s got to be done. Is it going to be done with a gas tax? I don’t know.
The gas tax, I go back for at least five years or more, to me was always a logical way to provide for a dedicated source of funding. A blue ribbon commission, that then-Gov. McGreevey commissioned, came out with the same recommendation. That was a commission full of the best business and labor leaders and academicians in the state. They came out with the same recommendation and it was ignored. It’s still on the table. Unfortunately, the price of gas has gone up and continues to go up, which probably puts more pressure on that from a political standpoint. But as of right now, I don’t know of a better alternative. Any alternative that’s put on the table, personally, I’d be willing to look at, but it’s got to be fully thought out, both short term and long term.
Unfortunately a lot of things are not thought out from a long-term standpoint and then come back to haunt us. So as it stands right now, of all the alternatives, that is the most viable. But, if there are others out there and they’re fully researched and analyzed, and there is one that seems to be better, I think everyone would be flexible with regard to that, but right now there is none better that I can see.
Q: Politically speaking, do you find the fact that your chairmanship occurs during a gubernatorial election year a particularly exciting opportunity?
Yes, it’s a time to take all of our initiatives and get them in front of the candidates and get them fully versed in what the business community thinks are the important issues facing this state as they begin to campaign in earnest for the job. If we alert them to it before they get into the job, whoever wins, we can continue to go back and beat the drum on those issues and they won’t be new, they’ll hopefully research them during the campaign and we can continue to bang the drum and hopefully get progress made. So, yes, it’s very good timing from my standpoint.
Q: Anything else that you’d like to add either with your banker hat on or your chamber chairman hat on?
I think the thing I’ve always said is there’s no better state in this country to do business in than New Jersey when you add in the location of the state, the density of business, the affluence of the state, the wealth of the state, the infrastructure we have – you add that all together and I’d be hard pressed to find a better state potentially for business than this state. From a banking standpoint, it’s a great state in which to be a bank because of all those dynamics.
The problem is the state is not taking advantage of all it has, and by not taking advantage of it, it’s probably losing opportunity and quite frankly may be losing the competitive edge that all those different dynamics give the state of New Jersey. So, it’s great on one side but frustrating on the other because nobody seems to want to take everything the state can offer and make the state even better. We’re kind of stuck, and if anything, maybe we’re sliding backwards a little bit and that’s very disconcerting to me and I think others who have been in the state as long as I have, because there’s no reason for it.
Q: It’s certainly not a dull or boring time in New Jersey.