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Franzini saluted by business leaders as she steps down from EDA

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Longtime EDA Chief Executive Caren Franzini. (NJBIZ file photo)
Longtime EDA Chief Executive Caren Franzini. (NJBIZ file photo)

New Jersey Economic Development Authority CEO Caren S. Franzini announced this morning she will step down from the position after nearly 20 years running the agency that's been likened to the state's business bank.

Franzini, a well-liked official to the New Jersey business community, will step down effective Sept. 30, to be replaced by Michele Brown, currently appointments counsel for Gov. Chris Christie.

Franzini has been the head of the EDA since 1994. Her resignation was first reported Wednesday morning by NJBIZ on its website.

Al Koeppe, chairman of the EDA's board, said, "There's no question that Caren has shaped the core values of this organization over 20 years," and added that he first discussed the matter with Franzini three months ago. As part of her departure, the agency is splitting the CEO and president and chief operating officer positions, with Tim Lizura, currently senior vice president of finance and development at the EDA, taking on the president and COO role.

The CEO will be responsible for setting the organization's strategic direction and deal with the administration and the Legislature, as well as being responsible for the EDA's ethics. Lizura, meanwhile, will be responsible for overseeing the EDA's business operations, its incentive and financing program portfolio, real estate development, and its financial and accounting matters.

"It really is a perfect match of people to lead the organization," Franzini said.

Prior to joining the Christie administration, Brown served for 18 years as an acting first assistant U.S. attorney for New Jersey. In her role in Christie's administration, Brown has shepherded the governor's appointees through the nomination process, which has proved contentious for some positions. Additionally, she was the subject of press scrutiny for a $46,000 loan she received from Christie; Christie said he and his wife wanted to help a friend after Brown's husband lost his job.

"It's just an extraordinary opportunity to work in one of the areas in public service that is critical to the success of the state," Brown said, adding that she looks forward to meeting with Franzini over the two-month transition period: "You couldn't ask for a better teacher."

Brown worked on securities fraud litigation at the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Koeppe, who called her "a thoughtful leader with an adaptive mind." This puts her in position to step quickly into intricate, complex issues, which he said would serve her well at the EDA.

Koeppe acknowledged that some business community members may contrast Franzini's record of working across the partisan aisle with Brown's closeness to Christie, but "obviously Michele isn't blind to" the issue, he said. "She deals on a substantive basis with issues."

Koeppe said Brown will also benefit from the EDA board having ties with both parties.

He also said having a litigator as EDA CEO may help the organization avoid some of the legal challenges it has faced over incentive programs.

"Having a savvy, strong litigation lawyer as CEO, I think gives you not only the ability to react a little bit better, but to stay out of them in the first place," he said.

Lizura said he looked forward to working with Brown, and appreciated the work Franzini has done.

"Caren has put us on the best foundation anybody could possibly imagine," he said.

'A bit of an icon'

Those inside and outside the agency had high praise for Franzini's tenure at the agency. Agency board members in Christie's cabinet — including Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin and Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Hal Wirths — had praise for her. Martin was perhaps the most earthy in his comments, saying, "We never had any BS from you, at all."

New Brunswick Development Corp. President Christopher J. Paladino, who worked at the EDA with Franzini in the early 1990s, said Franzini is unique.

"Caren is one of the few individuals who felt comfortable and was effective at the intersection of public policy, politics and business," he said. "She has been a bit of an icon."

Paladino said he wasn't surprised that she was retiring, adding he's "a little surprised she waited so long to explore" her options. "She has a lot to offer from a business perspective to a lot of different types of organizations," he said.

Paladino was encouraged by the appointment of Brown, a member of Christie's inner circle, which "certainly signals that the administration takes the role of EDA very seriously."

Vito Nardelli, Franzini's predecessor at the EDA and now president of OceanFirst Bank, said Franzini made an impact from the beginning, overseeing the $200 million Economic Recovery Fund in 1992. He added that thousands of business owners in the state can tell stories about how EDA funding helped them.

"She's just a wealth of knowledge, always able to smooth the way between the agencies," Nardelli said.

Real estate attorney Ted Zangari, a member of Sills, Cummis & Gross who works on economic development issues, said Franzini's resignation is a "tremendous loss to the state." He recalled telling then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine that he should take out an insurance policy on Franzini equal to the value of all of the economic development projects in the state's pipeline, " because she was responsible for all of them."

Zangari added Franzini has been selfless in serving the state.

"Lord knows she could have made a tremendous amount of money in those years in the private sector," said Zangari, who heads the New Jersey Smart Growth Economic Development Coalition.

Brown will receive the same $225,000 salary that Franzini received, while Lizura will be paid $205,000.

In prepared remarks, Christie saluted Franzini for her service, which stretches back to her appointment by Gov. Jim Florio.

While saying he'd miss Franzini "a great deal," Christie called Brown "a person of great intellect and integrity. ... I am confident she will lead the EDA with her honest, open and effective style."

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