TURNAROUND RECORD SECURED CHAMBER JOB - The Buffalo News

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TURNAROUND RECORD SECURED CHAMBER JOB

Kevin D. Keeley is a nice, trustworthy guy who just turned around a troubled chamber of commerce in Connecticut.

And that made him the best choice to take over the controversy-plagued Greater Buffalo Chamber of Commerce, according to the members of the search committee that selected Keeley from 175 candidates for the job.

"Kevin has extremely good interpersonal skills" in dealing with staff and business people, said Randolph A. Marks, who will continue as the Chamber's interim president until Keeley starts work Nov. 1. In addition, "he has a proven record in a turnaround situation."

The other six finalists for the Chamber post had plenty of admirable qualities, too, Marks said. In fact, he said, they would have made fine Chamber presidents.

But Keeley's personality and his track record at the Bridgeport (Conn.) Regional Business Council made him clearly the No. 1 candidate.

"Kevin was the unanimous choice as the one man who could do this job the best," Marks said.

Previously, some members of the Chamber's board had expressed a preference to hire a Buffalonian to replace Eric Swider, the former Chamber president who left the job amid charges of financial irregularities earlier this year.

They reasoned that someone already known and trusted in the community would be able to quickly repair the damage done by the Swider controversy. But that reasoning fell by the wayside during the selection process.

"It's like in the football draft: you want to get the best talent that's available," said Wilfred J. Larson, head of the search committee that selected Keeley. Larson was one of the Chamber officials who originally preferred a local candidate. "We just felt that the personality he exhibited was what we wanted and the results he achieved were what we wanted."

Members of the search committee said Keeley's personality stands in sharp contrast to that of Swider, who some Chamber board members criticized as arrogant.

"He's humble and self-effacing," Larson said of Keeley. "He's an ebullient person with a good sense of humor. He's the kind of person who you'd like as a seat-mate on a transcontinental flight."

That buoyant personality helped Keeley to improve the morale at the Bridgeport chamber, which sank in the wake of the financial problems left behind by Keeley's predecessor, Larson said. And so, members of the search committee hope he can do the same thing in Buffalo.

Keeley came to Bridgeport in 1983, after six years as president of the Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce in Pennsylvania. His predecessor in Bridgeport, like Swider, had left under a cloud of suspicion surrounding his spending practices.

Soon after Keeley started work in Bridgeport, auditors discovered that Keeley's predecessor had left behind a $380,000 deficit -- in an organization where annual revenues totaled only $500,000. So Keeley's first task was to repay that deficit.

"The organization was technically bankrupt and he had to try to sell it to the community at the same time," said Jay Gallagher, general superintendent at Carpenter Technology Corp. in Bridgeport, who was chairman of the Bridgeport chamber at the time. "That $380,000 deficit seemed like all the money in the world to us at the time, but he made the calls with us to all the businesses in town and we raised the money."

Gallagher said Keeley was the perfect person to sell the Bridgeport council to businesses that were disillusioned about its previous spending practices.

"If I had to sum up Kevin Keeley in one word, it would be 'integrity,'" Gallagher said. "With Kevin, there's no showmanship, no funny business."

That's exactly what the Chamber search committee in Buffalo was looking for. In fact, the search committee went out of its way to check out the background of the candidates: David N. Campbell, the chamber's chairman, said 20 people were contacted and asked about Keeley, just to make sure he didn't have any black marks on his record.

On top of that, "he's very quick and very bright, and he has a proven ability" in chamber work, Campbell said. "He just seems very Buffalo, very people-oriented."

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