Is Jorge Franco a godsend for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, or a liability?
For many years, “award-winning” was practically part of the name of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin. In 2005, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce honored the Milwaukee-based nonprofit as the best Hispanic chamber in the country, and for almost a quarter-century Maria Monreal-Cameron served as the agency’s steady leader, someone who could open almost any door in politics or business.
In the wake of her retirement, a new leader has taken control of the chamber: the determined Jorge Franco, who’s short and dark-haired and touts the organization’s growth while also causing alarm in some insiders about changes to the chamber’s leadership structure, business practices and mission.
“I have no idea what the chamber’s focus is anymore,” says Ivan Gamboa, president of the Cesar Chavez Drive Business Improvement District. Gamboa ran afoul of Franco in 2014 when the BID tried to attract the Forest Home Library to its street in the heart of the Latino community. Franco instead backed the Mitchell Street option, which won. “That was very disappointing,” Gamboa says.
Monreal-Cameron’s tenure ended in 2013, following a successful but costly fight with the City of Milwaukee to kill an unwanted minority contracting ordinance. The battle burned through about $100,000 in legal fees, money that could have been used to recruit a new leader. Franco, then chairman of the Wisconsin chamber’s board, stepped into the vacuum and agreed to serve as interim CEO without pay while he led the search for a new CEO. But the search was soon dropped, and Franco stayed on in the job for free.
A Chicago native with apartments in both the Windy and Brew cities, Franco says he left the Milwaukee company he owned, National Financial Corporation, a few years ago and can afford to work without pay for the time being. Franco’s career history also includes a stint as part owner of a Milwaukee check-cashing company in the late 1990s and another as chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Under his guidance, the Wisconsin chamber has expanded at a dizzying rate, from three or four Milwaukee-based staffers to 50 full- and part-time employees, Franco says, with new operations in Madison, Green Bay, Wausau, Racine and the Fox Valley. Meanwhile, the chamber’s budget has more than doubled. New money is flowing in from corporations and public grants, Franco says, with much of it due to the organization’s new workforce development programs that teach workers life and “soft skills.”
Franco appears quiet and reserved but talks big and likes to impress. He also has an unusual fixation on secrecy.
A request for a list of the chamber’s board of directors initially met with Franco’s refusal. “That’s private information,” he said, but later released the list after checking with board members. When asked for the agency’s 2014 tax return, a public record, Franco said it was “a work in progress.” But the document later appeared on the GuideStar website, showing revenue of $1.3 million and expenses of $1.4 million.
Franco serves as president, CEO and board chair, an arrangement that could lead to “a lack of oversight,” says Douglas Ihrke, executive director of the Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
In January, the chamber failed to hold its annual fund-raising gala for the first time in 26 years. Franco delayed it until the spring and again until this fall. “It’s a slow-moving process to re-engineer and redirect the chamber,” he says. “Program delivery is a higher priority than getting the message out and tooting our own horn.”
Some local leaders think the chamber has strayed from its first focus of helping Hispanic businesses grow. “The new emphasis on workforce development is a stretch,” says former board member Nancy Hernandez, owner of Abrazo Multicultural Marketing.
The chamber board’s vice-chairman, Thomas Mason, calls the expansion under Franco “incredible,” and both men praise Monreal-Cameron, who declined to comment on the chamber’s current state. Perhaps she’s wondering what many are: Will Franco create a bigger, better organization, or lose his footing along the way?