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A change is gonna come: BCA eyes orderly transition amid smear campaign

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

Change is inevitable.  That’s true in business and politics, just like in life.  How change occurs is sometimes just as important as the substance of change itself.

A season of change appears to be underway at the Business Council of Alabama, one of the state’s largest political advocacy groups. After 15 years at the helm, CEO Billy Canary is set to retire in about 18 months when his contract ends.

According to current BCA Board Chairman Perry Hand and previous chairmen, the organization has been talking about formalizing an orderly transition for the CEO position for several years. On Monday, the BCA executive committee is meeting to discuss a way forward, attempting to inject some stability into a change process that has never had it before. 

That’s all well and good and seems expected in the life span of a business association, or any organization for that matter.

But, as I wrote a month ago, that timeline for change is not quick enough for a few of the state’s largest corporations, Alabama Power chief among them, who want Canary gone immediately.

The Power Company doesn’t share the same zeal for core BCA agenda items like education reform and right-to-work. That’s perfectly understandable. Different companies have different goals, and an energy provider’s advocacy needs are going to differ from those of other companies.

It’s also understandable that BCA would resist fundamental shifts in its agenda and timeline for change.  As long as major manufacturers want a political presence in this state, BCA will fight union-friendly policies. As long as firms buy into the need to improve education outcomes, BCA is going to advocate for school choice and accountability. It’s who they are and what they do.

Apparently, in its 33-year history, BCA has never had an orderly transition in leadership. Go figure. Hand tells me they would very much like to avoid the dramatic, disorderly shake-ups that have marked the departure of every previous CEO. So much, in fact, that they’re willing to buck the demands of the state’s most powerful company, as valued and respected as they are, to ensure an orderly transition process. Some might say that’s a gamble, but I respect and understand it.

So, having not achieved the abrupt change in direction and leadership it wanted, it looks like the Alabama Power might withdraw from BCA. Again, that’s understandable. Why continue a relationship when you don’t see the world the same way?

What I don’t understand is the drama.

The not-so-subtle campaign to humiliate and vilify Canary and others in the BCA organization as a way to press the issue has been downright nasty. In just the last year while this tiff has been going on, I count 23 separate articles by Alabama Political Reporter Editor Bill Britt disparaging Canary and BCA. I haven’t watched them all, but I’d bet Canary and BCA come up 85 percent of the time on the Britts’ video show “The V.”  And most mentions online or on air are dripping with the kind of hatred and vile I couldn’t imagine directing toward my worst enemy. In the same stretch, Steve Flowers has advocated for Canary’s ouster at least four times in his weekly political column.

A few weeks ago, the tack changed. Britt began focusing his attacks on Perry Hand, the BCA Chairman. Hand is a former state senator, Secretary of State, and Department of Transportation Director who has run Mobile-based engineering firm Volkert for the past few decades. He’s a respected guy in political and business circles, to say the least. But now his integrity and business ethics are being attacked as part of this smear campaign.

The newest strategy seems to be working through the Yellowhammer Multimedia Editorial Board. Of the nameless board’s six total editorials, four are about BCA and Canary.

BCA is an influential organization and its actions within state and federal politics are fair game for public scrutiny. And I’m sure Billy has botched an issue or two in his day. But for a non-elected official, this campaign is beyond a little attention. It’s obsession, and it doesn’t happen by accident.

Personal attacks are unfortunate and detrimental to productive public discourse, but that’s not why I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it because it’s not effective.

Did anyone really think serious business men and women who make up the BCA board would be persuaded by hyper-personal, conspiracy-driven smears from a state political news site? From talking to BCA board members, public attacks against one of their own have only galvanized support for both Hand and Canary. It turns out loose claims of financial trouble and BCA leaders not being welcome in Senate offices have been pretty easy to debunk with just a few phone calls.

If the intent was to drive a wedge between Billy and the board, it hasn’t worked. In fact, it might have backfired. Starting a media-driven drumbeat to run off Canary in the middle of the night made what could very well have been legitimate gripes about organizational effectiveness seem like an attempt to hijack the transition process. Business types don’t respond well to that kind of thing.

Change was always coming at BCA and it still is. But Hand and the other Board members sound deeply committed to seeing that change occur orderly and on their terms. It appears the Board has made a difficult strategic decision: they’d rather lose their largest member company than allow the organization to be run by it.  

Actually, maybe I do understand the drama after all.

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