The Sweet Buy and Buy

Tasha Wallis injected a shot of energy into a sleepy organization

by Will Lindner

vtretail_64_leadAfter a career that took her from a Washington, D.C., think tank to the Congressional Budget Office, from the Canadian consulate to the University of New Zealand and back to Vermont, where she worked for both the Dean and Douglas administrations, Tasha Wallis has put her collected experience and connections to work for the Vermont Retail Association. The injection of new life has increased membership and put the organization on a sound footing.

The plan all along was that I would go off and have all sorts of adventures, and then come back someday. Those are the words of Tasha Wallis, the executive director of the Vermont Retail Association since September 2007.

It would surprise no one who knows her that she executed that plan to the letter. Wallis has established herself at the VRA as a leader who thinks carefully about the intersections of business, economics, regulatory structures, and society, then makes a plan and moves forward.

Tasha and I served in state government together, both under Dean and Douglas, says Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, and that work prepared her well for her current job. In Montpelier, it is critical to understand what is possible to get achieved, knowing that small changes that move the ball up the field can lead you to where you want to be.

Torti is impressed by what Wallis has achieved at the VRA since leaving state government (in the same position commissioner of Buildings and General Services that he once held). Tasha has moved the organization from one that was trying to find its voice to one that clearly has a sense of mission and purpose. Under her leadership the VRA has become a respected voice in Montpelier, from advocating for the sales tax holiday to changes to credit-card exchange rates, both of which benefit retailers and Vermonters.

Wallis entered government as a policy liaison in the Dean administration, aiding communication between the governor s office and the agencies of state government, and eventually becoming commissioner of the Department of Labor & Industry. To her own surprise, she made the transition to the Douglas Administration ( I hadn t expected things to work out that way, she says), where she was deputy secretary of Administration before moving to Buildings and General Services.

Some of the challenges were different, Wallis reflects, but there was a common theme of understanding the roles and purpose of state government, the importance of management, and how to think about policy. Everywhere you go you accumulate knowledge you didn t expect to, and it becomes useful down the road.

For Wallis, 48, that process started long before she encountered state government. Although born in England of a British father and a Bay State, Mass., mother, she grew up in Norwich. Her father commuted across the river to teach engineering at Dartmouth. Her international pedigree is reflected in her full name: Rosamund Natalya Wallis (Tasha deriving from Natalya).

An avid skier as a youth, Wallis went off to Cornell after high school, studying government and economics. She put her learning to use in Washington, D.C., working in what she describes as a range of defense-related jobs in a D.C. area think tank. She then moved into government for the first time, taking a job with the Congressional Budget Office.

Still young, still adventuresome, Wallis next turned up in Minnesota, where a chance assignment for an office-temp agency led to a job with the Canadian consulate working in (pre-NAFTA) trade-related issues between Canada and the United States. From there it was on to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a master s degree in public policy. Following another stint in D.C., Wallis was ready for big adventure, and the opportunity soon came her way.

I saw an advertisement in The Economist for a teaching position in commerce at Victoria University in New Zealand, she says. I applied and got the job.

She was there for three years, during which she bore a son, Jeremy. Then, with her parents still in Norwich (where her mother raises sheep tended by a guard llama), she was ready to execute the last part of her plan the part about coming back someday.

Wallis service in heady positions in two gubernatorial administrations brought her into contact with the Legislature and provided lessons in how to accomplish things in that arena. That has been one of her assets for the VRA.

But not the only one, says Bonnie Hawley, VRA board president, a 25-year member of the association and proprietor of Hawley s Florist in Rutland. Tasha came to us at a time when retail was drastically changing, with the advent of the Internet and other influences.

The VRA was formed in 1968 in response to Vermont s adoption of a sales tax; retailers suddenly realized they needed a voice in Montpelier. But longtime members admit that at some point the association went into a period of stagnation. Hawley explains that many members joined to procure group health-insurance plans for their employees, but their participation didn t go much further. That s changing under Wallis leadership.

She s brought such a different perspective, says Hawley enthusiastically. She s an extremely inspiring person, and she knows the Statehouse inside-out and backwards.

Wallis has had, essentially, two missions at the VRA. One has been to re-establish the association as a financially secure organization with a growing, interested, and involved membership. Her efforts in this direction have been both practical realizing economies by selling the VRA s longtime home in Essex Junction and moving to rented quarters in South Burlington and motivational. She initiated a Retailer of the Year Award and celebration, which Hawley says has instilled an air of enthusiasm and camaraderie in the membership. We all need that, Hawley says. Running your own business, you can feel that you re all alone in the world.

Wallis most striking achievements, however, have involved working with state government to cut a new deal, as it were, for Vermont retailers. A signature accomplishment (the movement is national in scope, but Wallis engineered Vermont s participation) involves legal changes in the relationship between retailers and the credit card corporations that had held store owners at a disadvantage.

When you use a credit card to buy an item, the merchant is charged about 2 percent of the cost of the transaction, says Wallis, adding that with a rewards card for airline miles, for example fees placed upon the retailers are even more onerous. Retailers appreciate what debit and credit cards have done for the ease of transactions, she says, but the fees and the anti-competitive power of the major card companies were a high price for merchants to pay.

Working with the Vermont Grocers Association, Wallis and the VRA in 2009 enlisted Senators John Campbell and Richard Sears to draft Senate Bill 138, designed to reign in some of the power of the credit card companies, while more sweeping actions were taking place in Congress. The Vermont bill passed in 2010, unanimously in both houses.

The things in our bill were not huge, Wallis concedes. But small concessions can be important. For example, the new law allows merchants to place a minimum for credit-card purchases previously forbidden, with fines imposed by the card companies. Says Wallis, They were forced to engage in transactions that would lose them money because of the fees.

Merchants still may accept a Visa or MasterCard for coffee and a doughnut, but at least the decision is theirs. And what was neat, says Wallis, was working with the legislators in a bipartisan manner and seeing their concern about their local retail establishments.

The same chemistry has worked with her advocacy for a statewide sales tax holiday, an event that s been held three times in Vermont (on a weekend in 2008, and on two separate days in 2009). It s an idea Wallis discussed with retail associations in other states, pairing tax holidays with the buzz of federal stimulus programs and back-to-school sales.

Their success surprised everyone. Wallis has heard from merchants who compare the sales tax holidays to Black Friday in terms of excitement and a bump in business. The Legislature, desperate for revenue, declined to hold a tax holiday in 2010, but Wallis hopes the event will return in 2011.

People seem to agree that it s a new era for the Vermont Retail Association, led by Wallis and her small staff (office manager and membership coordinator Ceil Stryminski is the only other full-time employee). Membership has increased by some 200 during Wallis first three years, to around 570 merchants, from individually owned small businesses to franchise holders of national chains.

Somehow, amid the hubbub, Wallis carves out time for her personal life. She recently blended her family (consisting of her and Jeremy, who is now 17 and attends Tabor Academy in Massachusetts) with that of Kevin Goddard, an executive at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont, whose sons, Patrick and Tim, are grown and working in New York. The couple recently purchased a rural home in Morrisville and are planning a July wedding.

Meanwhile, she skates three nights a week from October through February with the Evolution, a women s hockey team in the Senior C Division of USA Hockey, and other organizations. She and Goddard are avid photographers (her photographs are posted on Flickr).

It appears there was just one miscalculation in Tasha Wallis plan of three decades ago: She did, as she intended, come back someday, but the adventures are hardly over.