Public Service Man

From legislative aide to government affairs, Vermont's new secretary of Commerce and Community Development has spent his life immersed in politics

by Rosalyn Graham

In January, Gov. James Douglas named Kevin Dorn secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development for the State of Vermont, and the lobbyist became the lobbied.

In a world where most people find themselves in careers drama- tically different from what they planned when they went to college, Kevin Dorn's career track took an unusually straight line. Ever since college graduation with a major in political science and a minor in economics, he has been immersed in the stuff of politics.

Public service or quasi–public service fills his resume: He was a legislative aide in Washington, D.C.; a government affairs director in Washington and Vermont; and most recently, chief executive officer and government affairs officer for a Vermont trade association.

In January of this year, taking the next logical step, Government Affairs Director Dorn became Secretary Dorn when he was invited to join Gov. James Douglas' Cabinet to lead the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. The lobbyist became the lobbied.

Dorn's straight-line career path began in Springfield, Minn. After high school graduation, he went on to Minnesota State University in Mankato, where he was on the student council and graduated magna cum laude. Mankato, he recalls, was a city a lot like Burlington, with the college on top of the hill overlooking the Minnesota River and a pedestrian mall on the main street.

His introduction to the halls of political power was in Washington. He served on the congressional staffs of Minnesota Sen. David Durenberger and Rochester, N.Y.–area Rep. Frank Horton; was manager of congressional affairs for Fairchild Industries; and was director of government affairs for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

In 1986 he married Kathy Finnie, a Barre native and member of Sen. Patrick Leahy's staff. In 1989, the couple moved "back home" to Vermont, where Dorn became government affairs director for the Association of Realtors. In 1993, he joined the Homebuilders and Remodelers of Northern Vermont as chief executive officer. This was exactly 10 years before he moved into his office with a spectacular view of the Winooski River valley and the golden dome of the Statehouse.

Dorn's agency is responsible for a smorgasbord of activities in the state," he says, "from attracting tourists, fostering growth among Vermont businesses and luring new businesses to the state, to preserving historic buildings and creating jobs for Vermonters. While Dorn is obviously skilled at the planning/brainstorming/strategizing/long-range planning/goal-setting activities that traditionally take up so much time for bureaucrats, the role he sees for himself in his new job is to "get out and implement. The proof will be in houses built, jobs created, tourist dollars spent here."

Of course, with the Legislature's sitting from January through May, the new secretary spent much of his first five months at the Statehouse working with the governor and House and Senate leaders trying to ensure that priority concerns were given their due. High on the list, he says, were permit reform and a jobs bill.

The public policy problems they tackled were those that Dorn says make Vermont a less attractive place to do business: the high cost of workers' compensation; the lack of affordable and plentiful housing; the high cost of training; the weakness of the telecommunications network; and the cumbersome permitting process. "They are all things we need to change to make Vermont a more attractive place to do business."

However, those first months were also a critical time for meeting the people who are the community of Commerce and Community Development. Dorn says there was lots of pressure to "get outside of this building and outside of Montpelier and go out and meet with the businesses and deal with specific problems they have." He says Vermont businesses were eager to talk to him and his commissioners about their problems.

Dorn's empathy for the problems facing business were honed during his tenure with the Homebuilders and Remodelers, a 375-member trade association of contractors large and small as well as suppliers of material to the trade and professionals such as attorneys and architects who serve the home-building trade.

Kevin Dorn calls the agency's Deputy Secretary Dawn Terrill "an extra resource with a strong business and finance background." A Certified Management Accountant, Terrill was president and CEO of Hill Associates in Colchester.

"Running an organization like that is like running a business," Dorn says. "In reality it is a small business. You've got customers who are your members and you are providing services that you are always trying to make better and more valuable so you can get more customers. The pressures and issues and tools are the same."

Mark Lords of the Snyder Companies in Essex, a member of the board and president of the Homebuilders, says he has been impressed by Dorn's ability to look at all sides of issues, always seeking a balanced approach. "He was a knowledgeable leader on local issues such as land-use planning and regional housing strategies and he used his national experience and contacts to benefit both the members of the Homebuilders and the community."

One of Dorn's responsibilities at Homebuilders was working to improve the regulatory process and making the permitting process more reasonable, predictable and efficient. He was also involved in the other programs of the organization overseeing the annual Home and Garden Show, the awards program for builders and education programs with speakers at monthly meetings and being a networking resource for members. He speaks with great admiration for the home builders' trade.

"Even though I was one step removed from actually building houses, I know what satisfaction the builders get from seeing the product they've built at the end of the day; the end of the week; the end of the month. It's such a hands-on business."

Laughing as he recalls that at the Homebuilders, he had "375 employers," Dorn says the communications skills and people skills he needed there are the same skills he is applying as secretary of the agency. While it could be said that he now has more than 600,000 employers, the team he leads in the agency is not especially large, numbering 105 in the winter and rising to 150 during the summer with the addition of staff for the state historic sites and buildings.

"From a mission statement, we're huge," he says, pointing to the responsibility for recruiting businesses, enhancing tourism, preserving historic sites and building the plan for more housing, "but for an agency with three departments, we're relatively small."

Faced with the task of choosing leaders for the three major departments, Dorn turned to people he had worked with in the Legislature or in the homebuilding industry.

He chose Bruce J. Hyde of Waitsfield as his commissioner of Tourism and Marketing. He had worked with Hyde in the Legislature, where he represented Washington-Addison District 1, and knew that he brought the extra qualification of having operated the Hyde Away Inn and Restaurant since 1987.

"He comes out of the hospitality industry, being an inn owner himself, and really knows how to target the marketing to get the best results," Dorn says.

He sees the challenge for Hyde and his department as marshalling the financial resources for competing with the other New England states and Quebec to increase Vermont's appeal as a tourism destination, especially to the potential visitors who live within one day's drive.

His choice for commissioner of Housing and Community Affairs was John S. Hall, who has owned and operated an auto parts and equipment business in St. Johnsbury since 1970. Hall has been active in civic affairs, serving as St. Johnsbury town manager and executive director of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association.

"We have a housing crisis in this state," Dorn says, "and John Hall comes from a regional planning background with lots of economic development experience, and he also was a legislator. He's getting in and tackling the challenge head-on and putting a priority on getting units built."

Michael Quinn of Essex Junction was Dorn's choice for commissioner of the Department of Economic Development. "Mike is extremely well qualified with many years in commercial banking," he says of Quinn, who was a senior vice president with Banknorth Vermont since 1998 and a vice president and development team leader with the bank before that. "He brings broad financial experience and something that is very important to me: This position needs someone who can do deals, and he's a deal maker, somebody who believes that process and studying is not enough, but that making deals and supporting deals is an outcome.

"The team of commissioners that has been assembled here are true professionals," Dorn says. "They are experts in their fields, have familiarity with their departments; they are people of accomplishment and I'm just thrilled with the team that is here."

Team is a key word in Dorn's description of the agency and how he expects it to operate. Monday morning management meetings are for all commissioners, their deputies and key staffers. "One of my objectives is to draw the departments closer together," Dorn says. "There is so much to be gained by supporting each other. Housing supports job growth; tourism helps market Vermont as a place to do business."

"I have told the commissioners that I want them to get together at least once a week," Dorn says. "Because they are all so multi-dimensional, because of the quality of the people involved, no one has to get up to speed."

Secretary Dorn describes his deputy secretary, Dawn Terrill, as "an extra resource with a tremendous technical background strong business and finance background and great diversity in her business experience." Terrill is a Certified Management Accountant with a bachelor of science in business administration, finance and management from Trinity College, and an associate's degree in accounting from Champlain College. She was most recently president and CEO of Hill Associates in Colchester.

Terrill's work with fellow Champlain College alumna Kathy Finnie on the Champlain capital campaign prompted Finnie to suggest her as a good choice for the deputy secretary job when Dorn described his search to his wife. "The network works in interesting ways," Terrill says with a laugh.

She recalls that when they met to discuss the position, Dorn said he had never run an organization with 104 employees and Terrill's experience was exactly that.

Mike Quinn (left), commissioner of the Department of Economic Development, was a senior vice president with Banknorth when Dorn called him to the post. Rick Smith is deputy commissioner; Kiersten Bourgeois is economic development director.

"We make a good, balanced team," she says. "He is good about setting the direction and relying on people to make it happen. He doesn't micromanage."

With the commissioners focused on their departmental challenges, does Dorn see his role as cheerleader, strategist and visionary? "I need to be all of those things," he says. "I spend a lot of time in public appearances, meeting stakeholders, be they innkeepers, ski area operators, business owners or housing developers; but the biggest role for me is public policy. The commissioners do their work and I support the public policy part to free them up to be on the front line.

"That doesn't mean the commissioners won't be in the Statehouse," he adds, "but they will be judicious about their time. I want them out supporting housing, tourism and economic development."

One longtime observer of the Vermont business, economic and political scene who is very pleased to see Kevin Dorn as secretary of the agency is Fred Hackett, president of Hackett, Valine and MacDonald in South Burlington. He met Dorn through the Homebuilders and worked with him on several political campaigns. "He has really strong political knowledge and experience and understands politics and government very well. He uses his knowledge of government and people in a very effective way to help make the community and the state a better place."

Hackett says Dorn did an exceptional job with the Homebuilders, building membership by providing association programs that attracted members and helping to focus their efforts so they could work together effectively. "He is intensely interested in the community and in making Vermont a better place," Hackett says. "I've heard very positive reports from the business sector about the work he's doing now. People feel reassured about the potential to work collaboratively with the state and the administration to improve the business climate."

Dorn's sixth-floor office is decorated with pictures of his family and family memorabilia such as tiny sneakers once worn by his daughters, Taylor, age 12, and Emily, 10. He speaks of a concern he thinks is paramount: how to stem the outflow of young Vermonters from their home state to jobs elsewhere at a rate three times the national average.

"As a society, a state, we cannot allow this to happen; but it has been happening because we do not have the job opportunities they need to have the quality of life they expect and those opportunities are to have a good job, affordable services, good schools, good housing."

Home ownership, Dorn says, is the critical cornerstone of our economy and our culture key to that quality of life. "Home ownership means roots in the community, commitment, involvement," he says.

Housing, jobs and a strong economy, key elements for a strong Vermont these are his personal priorities. Dorn is at the right place for those goals to be implemented. As Terrill says, he's "the right guy for the times we are in now and we are lucky to have him."

Originally published in July 2003 Business People-Vermont