Originally published in Business Digest, May 1998

Looking forward
to the fifth decade

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Passion. A great word; easy to overuse. Yet it bubbles up again and again talking with Chris Barbieri. Since 1969, Barbieri has been the chief executive officer of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. And in almost all of its meanings ?ardor, enthusiasm, zeal, determination and fire ?passion is evident in his bearing and in everything he mentions, whether it’s speaking of people he knows or works with, describing the antique cars he collects or singing the praises of Vermont as a place to live, work and visit. And passion also invariably comes up when others who know him well describe him.

For example, Jolinda LaClair, who oversees U.S. Sen. James Jeffords’ Vermont operations and personnel, has known Barbieri since the mid-1980s, when she worked for him as the chamber’s first director of congressional relations. “Passionate is the word I would use to describe Chris,” she says. “He takes his passion for life ?and it is truly a zest for living ?and transfers that into everything he does.” Like many of Barbieri’s former employees and business associates, LaClair is both friend and fan.

Chris BarbieriChris Barbieri, the irrepressible president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, has a passion for old cars, Dodge Rampage pickup trucks, hockey and working with business people.
(Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Joe Choquette, executive director of the Vermont Petroleum Association, also worked for Barbieri for a couple of years in the mid-1980s, and remains a racquetball partner. He was the chamber’s first staff lobbyist. “We share some passions,” Choquette says with a chuckle. “Chris does the things he does all the way, not half way.” To explain, he mentions Barbieri’s wild deportment at UVM hockey games, for which Choquette is the announcer. “Chris graduated from Cornell, got a letter in crew. So when Cornell comes to play, I’ll invite him up to the booth. He comes in wearing his Cornell letter jacket ?even though it’s a tad too small,” Choquette adds teasingly, “and it’s not unusual to see him standing on the bench cheering on the opposing team over the glass!”

Barbieri tells these tales on himself. “I’m a hockey nut,” he says. “I love hockey. Much to the dismay of most of my friends, I’m a Canadiens fan and a big time Cornell fan. Now while UVM is first in my heart in many ways, it is second to Cornell when it comes to hockey.” He says with chagrin that he once might have embarrassed a U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive who accompanied him to a Canadiens game in Washington, D.C. “I was in my Canadiens shirt, up there just huffing and puffing and screaming and yelling.”

Perhaps Barbieri’s lust for life harks back to his Mediterranean roots. Because, while he’s “fourth or fifth generation” American, he says, his heritage is 100 percent Italian. His name translates “barber.”

“I went to Milan once and saw my name on every street corner,” he quips. He was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island in “a classic Italian-Irish-and-maybe-a-little-bit-of-German neighborhood,” he says. His father worked for the New York Daily News as superintendent of the company’s landmark building. “He had access to everything in the building and used to do all kinds of things, from getting me into the television station they operated to getting me sportswriter passes to ball games in New York. My friend and I would take the Long Island Railroad, at 12 or 14 years old, to see the Dodgers at Ebbets Field.” A cherished possession is the original drawing of the cartoon ?a gift from his father ?that appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News the day the Dodgers won the World Series. It was an illustration of the famous Brooklyn Bum and the headline, “Who’s a Bum?” Barbieri recently unearthed it and plans to have it framed.

Of all Barbieri’s passions, perhaps his longest-standing is his love affair with Vermont. Okay, lots of people claim to love Vermont. But Barbieri once left a job for it. He had his first encounter with the state as a child. His uncle had been enraptured by the state on a visit while serving in the Navy. “He scratched up his savings and bought 20 acres and an old farmhouse in Cabot,” says Barbieri. “So back in the ’40s, my mother and father started coming up in the summer, and I made my first trip here when I was six.” He and his family spent every summer in Vermont, and almost every one of those summers, Barbieri worked on Ted Bothfeld’s dairy farm in Cabot. “Ted’s grandchildren are still running it today.”

Barbieri’s parents eventually built a summer home in Vermont. They even retired here, until winters got the better of them, and they moved to Florida, where they still live. One of Barbieri’s brothers lived and worked in Vermont for a while, but both brothers now live and work on Long Island.

It was those summers on Bothfeld’s farm that led Barbieri toward agriculture and convinced him he wanted to spend his life in Vermont. “Go back to my 8th grade autograph book. It says that what I want to be when I grow up is ‘a farmer.’ ”

He enrolled in the animal husbandry program at Cornell’s College of Agriculture. But halfway through college, Barbieri realized that, while “being a farmer wasn’t going to work” he still had an interest in dairy and economics, so he switched majors to agricultural economics. In his senior year, he applied to the Peace Corps and was accepted. “They wanted to send me to Thailand, and that was when Vietnam was starting to heat up,” he says, “and concurrently, I had applied to graduate school at UVM and a couple of other schools. I got a call from Ray Trombley in the agriculture department at UVM out of the clear blue. He said, ‘I’ve got your application, and we’ve got an assistantship we would be prepared to offer you if you’re interested.’ And I said, ‘Wow! They’ll pay me to go to school?’ ”

He was so delighted to be back in Vermont, he wrote his thesis on Marketing Pure Vermont Maple Syrup in Urban Areas, which became the subject of an UVM Extension bulletin. He was also delighted to reconnect with Joanne Barnett, a friend from earlier days in Cabot, and they were married not long after he graduated.

Barbieri really wanted to work in Vermont, but “I just couldn’t find anything that paid anything at the time.” H.P. Hood hired him as an assistant new products manager in its Boston sales department. “They were trying, at the time, to keep their 1,000 home delivery routes in New England alive, and you couldn’t compete with the cheap milk at the Cumberland Farms stores, even the A? and Stop & Shops. They all used milk as a loss-leader.” Barbieri and his supervisor came up with a multitude of ideas to bring more added value to the product. “We put bread on the milk routes, put Hood’s branded cola and other sodas on, we put detergents on the routes, had special items, such as Christmas gifts. We even experimented with cosmetics and film developing.” Eventually, deliveries were reduced to once a week in order to lower prices. And it worked, because the quality was far superior, so you could keep the milk three weeks, if necessary,” he says. Free refrigerators were given to large families, who could buy 10-quart dispensers with spouts. “I researched those, and they still have them!” he exclaims.

All the time he was in Boston, he was angling to get back to Vermont. But, while the company had plants in Burlington and St. Albans, there was only one marketing branch in the state, so Barbieri didn’t hold out much hope. One summer Saturday night, while he was home for a leave from summer camp with the National Air Guard, his boss called and asked him how he’d like to run the retail sales operation in Burlington. “I said, ‘Wow!’ and so I came to Burlington.” They bought a house in Jericho and moved “home.”

Working for a large company requires mobility, however. “After seven months here, the company said, ‘Gee, you’re doing such a great job, we want you to take over the wholesale and retail sales out of Portland, Maine,’ a much bigger operation.” Barbieri reluctantly agreed, but he didn’t move his family there. “My heart was not into moving to Maine.” After a few months, he decided that, as hard as it was to consider leaving Hood, he would start seeking a job in Vermont.

He came across an intriguing job listing for an executive vice president of an organization called the Greater Vermont Association, or GVA. Deane Davis had founded it in 1950 to represent the private sector, primarily the tourism industry, as a voice for promoting Vermont. On Oct. 20, 1969, just two weeks after the birth of his third child, Barbieri took the job.

At the time, GVA, (official name, Greater Vermont Association: The State Chamber of Commerce Inc.) had only 21/2 employees, including Barbieri, serving about 600 members, 500 of whom were tourism-related. “They were primarily a publishing house,” he says, “doing tourism guide books, a few other things, but mainly working with the travel industry.”

Nearly 29 years is a long time in one job, but Barbieri (whose title is now president) seems a far cry from bored as he says, with a chuckle, “I want to hold this job until at least the year 2000, so I can say I worked in five decades, even though I’ll be cheating on two of them by a big margin.” He admits that, working at Hood, he had established for himself a rule that he would never work in the same job for longer than five years. Yet he remains fresh in his approach to this one. He credits the growth of the chamber (membership is approaching 1,600 companies) and its programs. “We have continued to take on new programs, which have kept me energized,” he says. “From brochures, we took the whole tourism thing and dramatically expanded, and we are now the primary lobbyist for the travel industry, go to international trade shows, etc.”

The chamber did no lobbying when Barbieri arrived, and for years after initiating the program, he was the chamber’s lobbyist at the Statehouse. “It was very controversial at the time,” he says. “Not many organizations were doing it. At meeting after meeting, our board of directors was debating whether it was appropriate for the GVA to be in there trying to influence legislators.” He now has a staff person dedicated to lobbying, and he attends “once a week or so to testify.” And that’s how it went. “When we’d start a project, get it going and get good staff people to do it, I’d move on to a new project.” He cites the chamber’s trade show, the Vermont Business and Industry Expo, an annual May event in Burlington now in its 14th year (May 20 and 21 this year), which now has a staff person assigned to it. Partly because of the expo’s success, the chamber is launching a Vermont products trade show this year in Manchester in partnership with the Small Business Development Center in Randolph and the Manchester in the Mountains Chamber of Commerce.

In the mid-1970s, the chamber entered the economic development arena when Jack Moore, economic development specialist from Central Vermont Public Service Corp. approached Barbieri with an idea for emulating a Georgia State Chamber of Commerce program that involved hosting a tour of corporate executives during the Master’s Golf Tournament in Augusta to show off the state and entertain them. “We created our version, the Green Mountain Industrial Tour, under Jack’s leadership,” says Barbieri. “We convinced Steamtown to provide us with a steam train, and we took them all over the state. So that was another new, interesting project that kept me energized.”

International trade has been the focus of Barbieri’s interest in recent years, in particular, Taiwan, which he says has really piqued his energy again. “I’ve been there six times. I love the Asian culture, the people, the lifestyle. I’d even like to find a way to live there a little while. And as of January 1 this year, our little stinkin’ chamber of commerce has a real office in Taipei, Taiwan, with a full-time representative working for little old Vermont,” he crows. “I’m very proud of that. There’s no state chamber in these United States that’s got anything like that.”

In late April Barbieri announced the formation of a political action committee (PAC), The Resource Center, to back 12 to 20 candidates -- not with cash -- but research, marketing and fund raising.

“We’re like jugglers here,” says Barbieri. “We’ve all got 15 things going at once. My philosophy is that we need to be an open organization. We can help the business community by working in a number of different venues that may not, on the surface appear beneficial, but have benefit in the long term. If I had to single out any one thing that I’m proudest of, it would be a broad involvement in public policy that has led to other things.”

He continues his enthusiasm to the home front, where his second wife, Laurel, shares his passion for old cars. They own 12 “if you don’t count everyday normal drive-to-work cars,” he explains.

“I like unusual cars,” he says, and lists some of his favorites, including The Green Hornet, a 1953 Plymouth two-door coupe that is virtually identical to the car he learned to drive in and had in college (pictured with Barbieri on the cover). All of his cars have names. Goldie is a gold 1970 Dodge Charger his uncle bought new from the factory. “He never married, and when he bought a new car, he would give the old one to one of his three nephews. My turn came up for the Charger. He mentions an ’89 Chrysler LeBaron Turbo convertible, bright red (“That’s my color!”) named Lee (for Iacocca, of course), and a white 1984 LeBaron convertible bought on President’s Day 1997 named, appropriately, George.

For reasons he can’t really explain, he says, “I developed a fetish for Dodge Rampage pickup trucks. They only made them from 1982 to 1984 ?only 27,000 in all ?and I’ve got four nice ones ?very nice ones, real nice ones! ?and then four ‘parts’ ones.” He and Laurel are active in the Stowe classic car meet and he does collector car appraisals on the side. “I’ve also got a pretty extensive collection of model cars, mostly older ones. And I’ve got a pretty good collection of old car literature, signs, paraphernalia and memorabilia.”

It’s this enthusiasm about everything he encounters that seems to be at the core of Barbieri’s success. “And he understands the issues,” says LaClair, “whether it is taxes, utility restructuring, basic cost of doing business or all the related things, such as workers’ comp or just day-to-day operations. He’s put together a tremendous team of employees at the chamber of commerce who know how to advocate for small and large business and are very successful at networking and coalition-building to gain goals.”

According to Choquette and LaClair, Barbieri’s belief that opportunity is abundant everywhere is at the core of his success. “He’s willing to take chances to explore opportunities,” LaClair says. “That’s somebody who makes a good leader ?somebody willing to take risks.” Barbieri puts it this way: “The greatest people in the world are business people. And the variety in a chamber of commerce job is enormous. It’s the spice of the job.”