Originally published in Business Digest, April 1997

Industrial Strength

by Craig C. Bailey

Sandra Dragon looks weary. Surveying State Street from the second floor above the Capitol Plaza Hotel and Conference Center in Montpelier, she rubs her eyes and bemoans the frantic schedule and assorted craziness inherent in representing 500 Vermont manufacturers and the like statewide. Her tone indicates that her patience and energy are spent, but even a casual observer can see right through her. If Dragon didn't constantly have the flames of impending challenges licking at her heels, she surely would be fanning the fire herself.

As president of Associated Industries of Vermont (AIV), now in its 78th year of representing the concerns of the state's industrial community, Dragon's job requires more than a passing knowledge of the ways of the Statehouse. When the Legislature is in session, Dragon and members of her staff spend most of their week on "the hill," as she refers to it, testifying on the record and at public hearings, and explaining AIV's positions to lawmakers.

Those positions are the result of a hierarchical flow of research and conclusions that begins in the eight or so task forces composed of AIV members who work year-round to pass recommendations up to AIV's 30-member board of directors. The board, in turn, boils those notions down into a list of issues that become the call to action for Dragon and her staff of five.

"We like to support things. Or oppose them. Notice I put support first," Dragon says, with an irony that insinuates her association spends more time fighting legislation than supporting it. "It all depends what the Legislature puts on the table," she explains. "We'd love to go up there and support a lot of things. But you can't exactly go up and support a property tax reform package that's going to absolutely, drastically hurt business."

[Dragon and William Sayre] "The very best vehicle to achieve higher paying jobs and good fringe benefits is through a manufacturing trade association," like Associated Industries of Vermont, says AIV president Sandra Dragon. She and board chair William Sayre help focus the efforts of Vermont's industrial community. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Dragon, who was named the first female president of AIV in 1993, lists property tax reform as a major issue for the association this session. She says a House Ways and Means Committee proposal that includes a statewide residential and non-residential property tax would mean more taxes for businesses, which AIV considers unacceptable.

The impending deregulation of the electric industry is another big portion on AIV's plate. "Some people have an opinion that the utilities should go bankrupt in order to get the goal and objective accomplished, which would be deregulation in this state. AIV takes a different view on that," she says. "Utilities in a bankruptcy court could take years. And in the meantime, it's costing them a lot of money to defend themselves, and the rate payers would be paying for some of that."

Dragon says the issue must be dealt with this session. "I don't think the utilities can afford to wait," she speculates. "It could mean double-digit increases in electric rates for our members, if something's not done this year."

But for all of AIV's lobbying on behalf (or against) specific legislation, Dragon's passion clearly is the bottom line: the people of the Green Mountain State. It's a passion she has been devoted to for a good many of her 40 years in the workplace.

A native of Burlington, Dragon, the former Sandra Dutra, has worked alternately in the public and private sectors. Resist the temptation to ask her about her possible relatives. "If I had a nickel for every time I was asked if I was any relation to Beaver or Bob Dragon the stock car drivers," she laments, "I could have retired when I was 30." Truth be known, the lineage on her mother's and father's sides reach back directly to Italy and Portugal, respectively, bypassing any Milton stock car driving family altogether.

Following school she spent time working at a brokerage firm, a few construction companies, and Shelburne Industries, as private secretary to Richard Snelling.

Dragon's secretarial position wasn't the last time she would work with Snelling. In 1977, he appointed her commissioner of the Vermont Department of Employment and Security, renamed the Department of Employment and Training during Dragon's eight-year tenure with the first Snelling administration, up to 1985. "He loved this state, and he loved the people in this state," Dragon says of the late governor. "I have a very high regard for Dick Snelling. I miss him dearly."

Training people and finding them work must have come somewhat naturally to Dragon by that point. Twenty years prior, she had joined the "war on poverty," the Kennedy-Johnson administration's initiative to end poverty across the nation, which she helped fight for nearly 15 years. After working for a few years in Burlington for the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, a community action agency, Dragon became the head of the Champlain Valley Work and Training Programs, focused on educating, training and finding jobs for low income and disadvantaged people. She administered the Federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) programs in Vermont, with more than 1,000 participants statewide, and helped develop innovative programs like the first model ex-offenders program in Vermont, Headstart and the Medicare alert program.

"We had beaucoup problems. We dealt with people who needed a lot of help," she says. "Never a day went by without a problem of one or another coming up, trust me." Nonetheless, Dragon thrived on the challenge and reveled in the satisfaction of, "helping people -- moving them from the place that they were at, to a different place, a better place. I was really into that," she says.

"There was a lot of resistance to the war on poverty in this country. It was federally funded, and some people thought it was a waste of money," she says. "So I was constantly defending my organization and the things we were doing for people." Frustration was part of her job description, "but it never made me waver. That is, pretty much, where I got the reputation," she adds, alluding, with a hint of pride, to her nickname: the Dragon Lady.

She says it's a reference to "being tough, but fair. Honest. I've had to take some strong positions in my career for the people I represent. I'm a very committed, loyal person to whatever it is I'm doing."

"She's very direct with people. She doesn't pull any punches," according to William Sayre, partner in The A. Johnson Co., a Bristol lumber manufacturer, and board chair of AIV. "She comforts the afflicted, and she afflicts the comfortable," he quips, after telling the story of how Dragon spent six hours with his family in a hospital waiting room, while Sayre underwent major surgery a year ago.

"She doesn't suffer fools lightly," offers Mary Alice McKenzie, president of McKenzie of Vermont in Burlington, who sits on AIV's board. "And she's very quick to tell somebody when they're being a fool!"

Ask Dragon to describe the smartest thing she's ever done in her career -- or ask her any other stock reporter question -- and she's likely to scoff and ask for the next question. Pretense doesn't seem to be in her vocabulary. Nor does it seem to be found anywhere within AIV's halls. Kerrick Johnson, the association's vice president, drops by during our chat not to offer an insightful quote, but to razz Dragon about last week's photo shoot.

On this particular Monday, practically the only day out of the week Dragon's available during the Legislative session, her dress is casual: jeans and sweatshirt. While her tough-as-nails reputation might precede her, she lists spending time with her grandchildren and reading (mostly biographies and history titles) as the way she likes to pass what precious little free time her job allows. But don't let her down-to-earth nature fool you.

"The organization needed a real boost in the arm, and Sandra really gave it that," says Pamela Linton, owner of Pollution Solutions of Vermont and Clean Solutions in Williston, and second vice chair of the AIV board of directors.

"The association was not very healthy at the time Sandra took over," confirms McKenzie, who served as chair a year ago. Before Dragon was appointed, she says, "There were budget issues. There were morale issues. She's really done a turnaround in that organization. And now the financial picture is the most secure that I think it has been in the history of the association."

While Dragon's current position is representing the interests of business, i.e. management, she sees the real goal as bettering the quality of life for Vermonters. "Our organization is committed to increasing the real income of Vermonters. That's what I've always tried to do: help people get better paying jobs," she says. "I represent the manufacturing community that pays good wages, good fringe benefits."

In fact, AIV represents more than just manufacturers. Small manufacturers might make up 75 percent of the group's membership, but the AIV roster also includes banks, insurance companies, law firms, forest products and businesses from other sectors. The majority of AIV's funding comes from membership dues, which are based on number of employees, but have a ceiling to assure that, in Dragon's words, "no one company, per se, owns Associated Industries of Vermont."

Getting business involved in the legislative process is vital, according to Sayre. "I feel that everybody in business has an obligation to make a contribution to the formation of good government policy in Vermont," he says. And Dragon has what it takes. "In Montpelier, even more than elsewhere in life, your word is your bond. And Sandra's word is rated triple-A," he says. "In the business sector, she's as comfortable talking to loggers and truckers from my industry, as she is with bank presidents and CEOs."

"Sandra, I think, is one of the most politically savvy individuals in the state," says McKenzie. "She's really seen both sides of the issues." It's that dual experience -- working with people struggling to better their status, as well as with businesses trying to boost profits -- that might make Dragon so well suited to her job. And if part of her lobbying is educating lawmakers about the effects of legislation on AIV's constituency, Dragon's experience of teaching at Champlain College's evening division from 1973 to 1993 can't hurt.

AIV's successes, in Dragon's opinion, can't be measured in black and white. "What's a success?" she asks. "That you hold back some taxes a couple of years in a row and then all of a sudden you get a double whammy? We don't measure it that way."

Like in the war on poverty, there are no big victories here -- only a committed struggle to apply constant, steady pressure to try to steer the tide.

But how long will Dragon keep on keeping on? "Oh, God," she exclaims. "Until I drop."