The last time we spoke to Virginia Bauer, in October, 2004, she was the new CEO and secretary of the New Jersey Commerce, Economic Growth, and Tourism Commission. She made it clear that she prized her ability to listen and advocate for business — to bring problems to the right agency or legislative body.

Two years later, working for a new governor, she welcomes some sweeping changes that another bureaucrat might resist. Governor Jon Corzine set up an Office of Economic Growth (OEG), headed by Gary Rose (a former Goldman Sachs cohort of Corzine’s) who is supposed to figure out ways to support the business community.

Some people in Bauer’s position might resent Rose and see the OEG’s power as a loss of power for the commerce secretary. But Bauer welcomes the OEG’s help. Though proud of what she has accomplished, she says it has been an uphill climb. “No matter how hard you work, New Jersey has a lot of problems — taxes, cost of living, and regulations — over which I can have no control. I have been busy putting out fires.”

She considers Rose to be the wind at her back. “Why would I argue when the governor says, ‘I can make your job easier,’” says Bauer. “He knows it has been very difficult over the past couple of years.”

Rose has the power to knock heads together to make things happen. When he brings a problem to an agency, he has the governor’s clout behind him.

Rose also has the experience, as a former investment banker, to do the analysis for which Bauer freely admits she has little experience and less interest. “We have different skill sets. As an investment banker he can look at a balance sheet and analyze ways to provide better help. I am not the strategic planner. I don’t want to sit and look at numbers. My strength as commerce secretary is to communicate to the business community. I certainly have a strong sense of what the business community wants and needs, but I do not have a monopoly on good ideas.”

A power shift like this might have intimidated someone who did not have a healthy ego, but Bauer says she was not personally intimidated by the change. “I am very happy to have Gary advising the governor and to have the governor support what we are doing on a more elevated scale. I am here to work for the state and the governor, however best I can do that.”

Bauer will be the luncheon speaker at the Princeton Chamber trade show on Friday, October 6, at noon at the Westin hotel, Princeton Forrestal Village. She will give a progress report for the past two years and preview what New Jersey businesses can expect from the Corzine administration. Cost: $40. Call 609-924-1776 for reservations.

With Rose firmly ensconced, Bauer sees herself as a vital part of the plan: “I don’t view my role as second as much as different from Gary. The governor considers us partners.”

Bauer, a 9/11 widow, had gained a reputation as a can-do person when she was an advocate for 9/11 families and as the head of the New Jersey Lottery. She replaced former commerce secretary William Watley, who resigned under a cloud (U.S. 1, October 27, 2004).

The eldest of five children, Virginia “Ginny” Bauer grew up in the small New Jersey shore town of Little Silver, where her mother taught fourth grade, and her father had a bar and package store. She had a lot of responsibility and took care of her brothers and sisters. “I knew at an early age that I had good people skills,” says Bauer. “It is not an act with me. I was always the ‘smart one,’ the cheerleader, and I never felt there was something I couldn’t do.”

She went to a small woman’s college, Rosemont, on the outskirts of Philadelphia and dated her future husband, David Bauer, a Villanova student, in her senior year. They graduated in 1978 and married two years later. For seven years she worked at Merrill Lynch, where she was one of the first — and certainly the youngest — female account executives.

Less than a month after her husband was killed at the World Trade Center, Bauer began working in Senator Torricelli’s office on a 9/11 tax bill, advocating for other 9/11 widows. She says her children — two lacrosse-playing sons at Georgetown, and a daughter, a senior at Blair Academy — are her greatest accomplishments, but that she is proud of what she has done in two years at Commerce. “I have done a great job. In two years we have helped save and attract over 40,000 jobs and promoted tourism and expanded that in a way that no commerce secretary has done.” Her list of accomplishments:

Establishing a small business continuity task force to help small businesses prepare or react to any disaster or terrorist attack.

Increasing international trade. “Though I never set foot out of the country, we had over 2,000 matchmaking opportunities that brought in 20,000 new jobs, and we had 43 foreign companies invest in New Jersey businesses. We are doing matchmaking throughout the world and had over 8,000 international meetings over two years.”

Helping struggling business communities. She supported an energy sales tax exemption for Salem County manufacturers, and she serves on the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Planning Committee.

Helping particular industries. She started a dialogue to help the state’s glass industry, located in south Jersey, and helped launch New Jersey’ biotechnology presence at an international convention.

Streamlining the information process. The customer call center that Bauer planned in 2004 was implemented in 2005 and has assisted more than 40,000 calls. It also incorporated travel and tourism calls, which saved the division $130,000 per year.

Improving tourism marketing. Bauer reformed a marketing sponsorship program to leverage limited funds in ways that benefit tourism destinations large and small. In the past the Princeton Regional Chamber has qualified for this program by raising 25 percent of the funds from non-state sources in order to fund a promotion. Last year it helped pay for “Holidays in Princeton” banners in railroad stations in New York and Philadelphia and four-color tourist brochures.

She’s also particularly proud to have secured celebrity backing from New Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi for use of his song “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” for use in tourism television commercials.

As for the future, Bauer will cite the familiar slogan about how this governor, with his investment banking background, is committed to the cause of helping business.

And why will his plan work? Bauer answers by telling why previous strategies did not work: “In New Jersey we tend to be reactive.” If a company wants to leave the state, officials try to persuade them to stay. If a company asks about moving into the state, they rally to support that. And then they go back to their desks. “But now we are in a much more proactive position. With the governor’s strategic business plan, we now have policy and long term goals and suggestions and ideas that we never had before.”

Previous governors did have think tanks, like Prosperity New Jersey, which were supposed to present ideas and strategies, but they were understaffed and had little power. “Business never had the support of the past couple of administrations,” says Bauer. “If you don’t have your commander in chief involved with business leaders, nothing is going to happen.”

A new website is the visible centerpiece for Rose’s efforts. Entitled “Taking Care of Business” (www.state.nj.us/njbusiness) it links to other divisions (state, commerce, Economic Development Authority, Small Business Development Center) to help the reader find what they need. Rose also promises to revamp the call center, one more time.

Incentive grants are being reviewed, Bauer promises. Is the Business Employment Incentive Program (BEIP) really working to retain companies in this state, or are companies just pretending to want to move out of state in order to get the BEIP money. “You always hope, in good faith, that businesses are honest,” she says. “A company has to give us a material factor that, for want of this factor, they WILL move.”

And does the program really result in more jobs? Two years ago New Jersey promised NRG $7.5 million over a 10-year period for creating 140 new jobs on Roszel Road, and the company now has 240 people working there. But in New York State NRG is under fire in New York State for gaining similar grant monies program without delivering the jobs.

“We are starting to look at these incentives but plan no dramatic changes,” says Bauer. “We have to make sure they are still relevant.”

She acknowledges that many important location decisions are made for personal reasons. Interactions LLC, for instance, just finished moving 50 jobs from Princess Road to Carmel, Indiana, where it plans to create 140 more jobs.

“The state of Indiana provided enormous incentives,” she explains but adds that the company’s founders pointed to personal reasons as a major force behind the move. Both of the founders and their wives have parents in Indiana (see story in Life in the Fast Lane page tk).

“We have looked at other states best practices and a lot of New Jersey programs are very good,” says Bauer. “Hopefully we have more winners than losers. We have saved major companies like Verizon, Celgene, Citigroup, and Novartis — all of them had strong reasons to leave the state.”

Another area of change will be support for minority-owned and women-owned businesses. Citing dismaying statistics — these firms represent from 20 to 28 percent of the state’s small businesses, yet just three percent of them get state contracts — Corzine created a new Division of Minority and Women Business Development to hold every everyone’s feet to the fire.

From now on, any state organization, whether it is a college, a department, or an agency, must submit a quarterly report defending the number of contracts it has made with women and/or minority owned businesses. Each entity must also appoint a liaison to the new division. An electronic database of qualified suppliers will be created, and methods of monitoring MWBE participation will be developed, all to be overseen by the new Minority and Women’s Business Development Advisory Council.

This council, says Bauer, is an example of what can be accomplished by executive order. Under this plan, white males “will have as much opportunity as anybody else, they just won’t have more.”

Skeptics may have questioned whether Bauer was suited for the office, but she has strong support now, says Kristen Appelget, who recently left the CEO’s job at the Princeton chamber to be director of community and regional affairs at Princeton University. “I found her offices to be very receptive and responsive, and she supported initiatives that we launched,” says Appelget.

Virginia Bauer “is certainly a refreshing change from the previous administration,” says Dick Woodbridge of Synnestvedt Lechner & Woodbridge on Nassau Street, though he questions whether the state pays enough attention to start-ups and high tech businesses versus big business. “I admire the way she can walk into a group and talk to them — not talk at them. I am still a fan.”

Bauer’s current mission: to implement and advocate what the Office of Economic Growth establishes, “to continue to listen to the business community, find out how we can support them, let the business community know how we can support them. Call centers are great, websites are great, but businesses still need a face, somebody out there who can communicate with them,” she says.

“I am very confident in competing with men. If I didn’t feel this was the right thing to do, I would have said so. I like being the ambassador to the business community.”

New Jersey Commerce, Economic Growth and Tourism Commission, 20 West State Street, Box 820, Trenton 08625-0820; 609-777-0885; fax, 609-777-4097. Virginia S. Bauer, CEO/secretary. Home page: www.commerce.state.nj.us She speaks on Friday, October 6, at noon, at the Princeton Chamber’s trade fair luncheon at the Westin at Forrestal Village. Cost: $40. 609-924-1776.

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