Any board that counts a former longtime CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority as a member is packing a punch.
Caren Franzini, who held that spot for more than 20 years, helped found and now serves as co-chair of Greater Trenton, an independent nonprofit that will coordinate economic development and revitalization projects in downtown Trenton. The structure is similar to Choose New Jersey, in that the organization will apply private funding to public redevelopment projects.
Like so many other business opportunities created in the state, Greater Trenton started with a few influential people sitting around a lunch table and asking the question, “What are we going to do about Trenton?”
After three years of lunches, a growing formation committee got Greater Trenton officially open for business with $2 million in funding from local corporations.
For, Franzini and her co-chair, Bernie Flynn, CEO of New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co., the first order of business is to hire a CEO. Recently, she spoke about how Greater Trenton got started and why she considers board service to be a two-way street.
NJBIZ: How did you first get involved with the Greater Trenton project?
Caren Franzini: It was the November of 2012 and I had just left state government. I was asked to attend a lunch in Trenton with a group of concerned citizens. Four people hosted this meeting. It was two former executives, Elliot Daly and Russ White, Peter Kasabach of NJ Future and Jack Huston from Colgate-Palmolive.
“There was not a group focused on bringing jobs, businesses and places to live to the downtown.”
This was a group of concerned people who wanted to figure out what is needed in Trenton. We added to the lunch group over time and met with the goal of doing something to make Trenton a better place to live, work and have fun in.
Now, there were a lot of groups around the city already doing things for human service issues, children’s issues and health issues, but there was not a group focused on bringing jobs, businesses and places to live to the downtown.
We spent three years doing research. We raised money from businesses in the area to hire a consultant to do research in three (criteria). The first was, what are some best practices from revitalizations in cities similar to Trenton? The second area was to understand the level of interest in this type of organization from businesses in the greater Mercer County area. And third was talking to organizations already working in Trenton, to find out if this was needed or would we be redundant to the work already being done.
We also met with people who live in Trenton and community leaders to ask what they think. After all of that, we met with candidates running for mayor at the time. We all agreed as an early formation committee that if there wasn’t a mayor who believed in this, we wouldn’t create this organization. It’s a public-private partnership and if we didn’t have the public side, then we would have been done.
With that, we reached out to corporate leaders, and said, ‘OK, we’ve worked on this for three years, would you be willing to fund this organization, set it up to form a not-for-profit board of directors?’
NJBIZ: What do you personally bring to the board?
CF: I have more than 30 years of economic development experience in the state. I’ve had the fortune to work in cities across New Jersey and I got to see what worked and didn’t work. I can share lessons learned.
Inside the board
Organization: Greater Trenton
Founded: October 2015
Organization mission: This independent nonprofit will leverage private funds to promote economic development and revitalization projects in the Trenton area.
Board of Trustees:
When Skip Cimino (of the Kaufman Zita Group and Princeton Area Community Foundation and former CEO of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton) asked Bernie Flynn, CEO of New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co., to serve as chairman, he said he’d do it if I did it. We are both on NJM’s board together and we really do complement each other.
Each board member brings his or her own experience and point of view. One of our board members from Wells Fargo also sits on the board of Cooper’s Ferry (Development Association) in Camden. So, she is coming to this organization as a board member of similar organization as well as a president of a bank in South Jersey.
It is important to have key decision makers on the board. There has to be a link or a nexus between what they do and what we are trying to achieve, and there has to be a mission that makes sense.
NJBIZ: You sit on the board of Greater Trenton and NJM. What other boards do you sit on currently?
CF: I’m on three private boards — NJM, the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York and the Horizon Blue Cross Foundation Board. The nonprofit boards I’m on are NJBIA (New Jersey Business & Industry Association), New Jersey Future and Greater Trenton.
NJBIZ: Why did you start board service in the first place?
CF: I began serving on boards when I ran the EDA. From that point of view, I served on boards to obtain a firsthand knowledge of issues facing the business community. It was great because it gave me both insight to issues they believe the state was facing, as well as for me to get input and feedback about new programs and initiatives and get their feedback happening at the EDA.
I had the good fortune of serving on the New Jersey Tech Council and the Research and Development Council of New Jersey, which gave me a lot of information about what is needed by the technology community in the state. I was on the Alliance for Action, focused on infrastructure issues that are important for businesses in the state. I was on the South Jersey Chamber of Commerce, which is a great chamber organization. I was on the Aviation Research Park Board, which is trying to build a new tech park with the FAA Center in South Jersey.
Serving on different boards was part of a two-way street. I was getting an education on the issues facing these particular organization and it was an opportunity for me to share information with them of some great things happening in the state of New Jersey that they may not have been aware of. Hopefully it was a win-win on both sides.
NJBIZ: While you bring experience to boards you sit on, what do you get out of the experience today?
CF: With not-for-profit boards, there is a personal reward from helping to make a difference for an organization. It’s personally gratifying. I’m on Greater Trenton and it’s going to be long-term, but making a difference in Trenton and making a difference in the future of New Jersey. We are making it a place for development in a smart way. And with NJBIA, we serve the needs of the business community.
NJBIZ: What makes a board powerful?
CF: Two things. The first and most important is the board gets results. They are seen as the go-to entity for getting something done. A powerful board is able to achieve what they said they were going to do. That is a combination of having a great CEO or president and having a great board. One follows the other.
The other thing that makes a board powerful is that is has people who are energetic, smart and focused on a vision. They stay laser-focused. Boards sometimes get involved in other areas they shouldn’t.
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