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Setting New Course for Chamber

Alison Winter Broke the Mold in Moving Group Forward


The downtown headquarters of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce is filled with photos of each year's top volunteer executive: row after row of distinguished-looking white men, more than 100 in all.

It is photographic documentation of an old boy's network that was synonymous with chambers of commerce in this country.

But the most recent portrait is different. The subject is Alison A. Winter, chief executive of Northern Trust Bank of California, a fast-growing division of Chicago-based Northern Trust Corp. And Alison Winter is not an old boy.

Winter, 52, is a working mother and sometime radio pitchman for the private bank she heads. She also happens to be the first woman to hold the job of chairman--she prefers that title to "chairperson"--in the 110-year history of the Los Angeles chamber.

During her yearlong term at the top of the Los Angeles chamber, which ends Dec. 31, Winter has used the high-profile position to help steer the business organization, still burdened with a somewhat stodgy image, into a role that is more activist and more collaborative. Many in the business community say her efforts are paying off.

The work has been a partnership with chamber President Ezunial "Eze" Burts, 52, a longtime city administrator who took the top chamber staff job less than two years ago and, as the first African American to run the group, vowed to change its direction.

Burts gives Winter substantial credit for helping drag the chamber into the 1990s and push it toward the next century, through technological improvements; more contact with elected officials; and increased attention to sometimes forgotten quarters such as small firms, minority business groups and welfare recipients.

But the task Winter and Burts have set for themselves is akin to turning an ocean liner that has been cruising in roughly the same direction for decades. The captains can point to progress, but the reorientation still seems too stately for some of the passengers.

The volunteer chairman gets only one year to make a mark before handing the job to another well-placed executive. Next up is Bank of America Executive Vice President R. Thomas Decker.

"I feel really good about the direction that the chamber has taken on really important issues for the region like welfare-to-work," Winter said. "The real test will be how many people will be placed in jobs," rather than what critics say.

Winter's reassuring voice can be heard on radio commercials inviting investors to bring their banking and trust accounts to Northern Trust's growing network of offices--the 10th just opened in Beverly Hills. Her style is a mix of welcoming den mother and results-demanding boss.

"Alison is highly organized and efficient and yet she has a very relaxed, warm style, and I think this relaxed, warm style has served her leadership very well," said Andrea Van de Kamp, chairman of Sotheby's West Coast and a member of the chamber's 70-person board. "She's very good at getting other people involved so that it's not her plan, it's suddenly our plan."

The plan this time--the remaking of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce--is one that has been tried many times in response to the changing characteristics of the business community. Gone are the days when the heads of a few large banking, retail and manufacturing corporations could dominate the business scene. New industries and small and ethnic firms have proliferated.

Winter and Burts have been working to implement recommendations made in a 1995 study by McKinsey & Co., which found that the chamber needed to be more responsive to its more than 1,500 members and more of an advocate for business.

This year, the chamber's leadership chose to concentrate on welfare-to-work programs, local government reform, transportation and water. In 1999, it will continue the focus on welfare reform, water and transportation--specifically the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport--plus education, Los Angeles City Charter reform and business-related year 2000 computer problems.

Burts said Winter "has forced this organization to modernize, to think forward."

"Alison is not only a vision person and a long-range thinker, she's a bottom-line person" who instituted a quarterly reporting system on specific objectives in the chamber's strategic plan, Burts said.

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