From retail and restaurants to tech and media, contractors to coworking spaces, large, small, and everything in between, a diverse array of businesses call Alexandria home. In our blog series, Growing in Alexandria, we sit down to talk with businesses and business leaders around the City to learn more about who they are, what they do, and why they love it here. When our President and CEO was named as the 2019 Business Leader of the Year by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, it gave us an idea. Over the next several months, we will be rolling out a new series of interviews with some of the past Alexandria Chamber Business Leaders of the Year.
If you’ve been in Alexandria long, chances are you know the 2004 Alexandria Chamber Business Leader of the Year- Kerry Donley. Kerry has been a fixture in the community for many years, serving as mayor, on City Council, and on many boards for organizations around the city. Kerry is currently serving on the AEDP Board of Directors, and continues his work as a Senior Vice President at the John Marshall Bank.
AEDP: To get started, can you share your favorite thing about Alexandria?
Kerry: Alexandria is unique in the Washington region. What most people don’t realize is that Alexandria is the second largest city behind Washington, D.C. What I love about the city is that Alexandria is big enough to solve our own problems but we are not so big that we lose our sense of community. I often times tell the story about my father who relocated to Virginia Beach when he retired. When he moved down there people would ask where he came from. When he told them he was from Alexandria they would say, “Why the heck did you come down here? Alexandria is such a great place to live.” The sense of community allows people to locate and remain here when they retire.
AEDP: Looking back, how has business in Alexandria changed since you were business leader of the year?
Kerry: It certainly is a lot more competitive, both within the city and in the region. For example, the Potomac Yard metro station is invaluable in helping that neighborhood transform but it comes with the challenges of getting it financed, competing for dollars, getting it approved by metro and going through the other layers of approval. In addition, the way we use commercial office is changing. We have always wanted to achieve a balance of 50/50 commercial office and residential, but we are falling further behind on this goal. The main contributor to this imbalance is how we are using commercial office. For example, it used to be that everyone used to have a desk but now we have teleworking, flexible hours and multiple people sharing the same desk as they rotate the days they work. We also have to keep competitive for government leases since that is a major economic driver in our area, even as we look to diversify our economy.
AEDP: Now, on the flip side of that, where do you see Alexandria in the future? 5, 10, 15 years from now?
Kerry: The business climate in Alexandria is changing. For so long, we have been focused on tourism, government, and trade associations. With the introduction of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus and with Amazon locating to Arlington, it gives us a chance to diversify our economy. I believe the changes that are coming will be good for the city, as a more diverse economy will help lessen our exposure to the economic winds that guide the region. With the addition of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, we can join the other communities across the United States that define themselves with a university presence. This is another way Alexandria can further enhance our relationship with Virginia Tech and try to redefine the city a little bit.
AEDP: And what business trend are you currently most excited about?
Kerry: This may be a little controversial, but I think the business trend that excites me the most is the opportunity for Alexandria to redefine itself. For 40-50 years we have defined ourselves as Old Town and we have relied on our historic character as a community asset. It has been and will continue to be important.
However, communities have to evolve and continue to grow. Communities that stop growing, start dying. Think about the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) – that is the hub of creativity and innovation certainly in the United States, and perhaps globally. Both of these organizations are spawning new ideas and protecting that intellectual property. Soon, we will welcome the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus and that will help define Potomac Yard as a new business hub and center of commerce, just like NSF and USPTO did for Eisenhower. The ability to successfully rebrand ourselves with these new developments will go a long way to ensure our economic and civic viability for decades to come.
AEDP: Moving a little away from business, and more to leadership- what is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
Kerry: The ability to listen and understand. We live in a very diverse and pluralistic city and that will continue. Our ability to understand the needs of our fellow business people and fellow citizens is critical; as is the ability to appreciate their backgrounds and experience, because this understanding will lead to a richer community.
AEDP: Finally, what is the best piece of professional advice you give to up and coming leaders?
Kerry: Get involved. Civic involvement and business success is not a spectator sport. You have to get involved in the community for a few reasons. First, to promote your business or profession. Second and most importantly, to contribute to the community’s welfare. Whether that is getting involved in the chamber, local business groups, civic associations – being involved in these groups allow you to see a greater perspective. Not only will it open up business opportunities, but we all have the duty to leave our communities a better place in the future.
Rising leaders should understand that they can’t fully participate in the community if they have a 9am – 5pm mindset. Unfortunately, I see true civic participation declining. When I moved back to Alexandria after college, there were a number of community stalwarts that were responsible for helping to transform the city from a sleepy suburb of DC into the thriving community it is today. Naturally, most of these leaders have moved on but I don’t see that they have been replaced to a large degree.
I think that has to do with the impersonalization of our lives through electronic communication and social media. I think we have lost some of the opportunity to really know our fellow citizen. Community gathering places like a bank, library or rec center have been replaced with social media. I don’t think the changes that come with social media will ever be reversed, but we have to figure out how to use social media as a tool in building a strong community that can band together and solve problems.
To learn more about John Marshall Bank, visit their website.