When Rhett Dawson took over a struggling computer manufacturing association 15 years ago, few people knew about the Internet. The dot-com boom was still two years away.
Dawson, 64, a former Reagan administration official, in 1993 became CEO of the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association, which is now known as the Information Technology Industry Council.
He announced last week that he was stepping down later this year from the group that represents IBM, Microsoft, Apple and Oracle, among others. His departure will touch off a six-month search for a successor for the $500,000-a-year position.
“I just got to the point in my life where it became clear to me that I really wanted to have time to do the things I wanted to do, and not have a job like I have today where I am really pretty much consumed by running a very dynamic, lively trade association in a very dynamic, fast-moving industry,” Dawson said.
He is not retiring, though, and plans to remain on the ITI board in 2009.
When Dawson joined the organization, he says, the group was losing membership and looking for a niche in the emerging tech sector.
“It was, frankly, kind of falling apart,” Dawson said. “As part of the interview process, we determined that it had a terrible name, CBEMA.” The group’s budget was a little more than $2 million; now it exceeds $7 million.
Though Dawson says firmly that he has no desire to return to government service, he is a longtime friend of presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and is a District of Columbia delegate for McCain. The two got to know each other 30 years ago when Dawson worked on the Senate Armed Services Committee and McCain was the Senate’s naval liaison. Together, they traveled the world on Congressional delegations.
Since Dawson’s tenure with ITI began, so much has changed that he recalls bringing in a speaker to address a board meeting about “this new thing called the Internet.”
Josh Ackil, a former ITI lobbyist who now has his own firm, Franklin Square Group, notes that “the industry grew up in Washington on his watch under his guidance.”
The field of tech-related associations is a crowded one, and member companies are often talking about doing away with some of them. After the Electronic Industries Alliance disbanded, ITI expanded by picking up the Environmental Issues Council last year from EIA.
“He’s built it into the premiere high-tech voice in the entire city,” said Tim Regan, an in-house lobbyist with ITI member company Corning. “When he took it over, it was really an organization that nobody knew. He’s been able to do it without something a lot of associations have, a trade show, which generates revenue.”
ITI also started a voting guide, Dawson said, an idea attributed to former ITI staffer Connie Correll Partoyan, now chief of staff to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). Partoyan worked up the voter guide with then-ITI staffer Phil Bond, who now heads the Information Technology Association of America.
As the tech industry started to flourish in the late 1990s, Dawson said ITI members began acquiring one another, and the group’s membership once again declined.
Then we decided instead of just having computer hardware, we would include Microsoft and eBay, Intuit, so we became a much more broad-based organization, more reflective of all the parts of the industry,” Dawson said.
As for Dawson’s successor, industry insiders say that ITI’s chief lobbyist, Ralph Hellmann, who was an aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), is a possible contender for the position. Dawson would not comment. And the ITI board is setting up a search committee.
Corning’s Regan, who will be part of the search committee to find a new CEO, said there won’t be a party affiliation litmus test.
But, he said, “this town is going through a political transformation, and we’re going to have to find a way to fit our association into that. We’re looking at a business agenda that could get pretty tough.”
Before he joined ITI, Dawson — a Republican and a native of Canton, Ill. — was senior vice president, general counsel and lobbyist at Pepco, where he managed a staff of 100.
The highlight of his ITI tenure, Dawson said, happened nearly a decade ago, with the passage of a multi-nation accord, the Information Technology Agreement, which reduced tariffs on high-tech goods to zero.
“A fellow from IBM came to me with this idea,” Dawson said. “I saw the immediate promise in it and I was able to sell it to my international counterparts.”