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Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, with Wal-Mart CEO Bill Simon in October, sees the business community as a customer.

‘Knows how to get things done’

Can Commerce chief win over industry, reach myriad goals?

– Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker sees herself as the administration’s ambassador to the business community. The corporate world is banking on the reverse – that she’ll represent them.

“The first thing I know about being a business person and leading a business is, you listen to your customer,” Pritzker said during Detroit’s January auto show. “Our customer at the Department of Commerce is the business community.”

Pritzker strolled among the latest versions of Ford’s iconic Mustang and F-150 pickup truck as Mark Fields, the company’s chief operating officer, and Ziad Ojakli, one of its lobbyists, led the way, while also urging her to back efforts to prevent currency manipulation in trade deals.

Pritzker listened and took notes on her “Office of the Secretary” stationery. Two words she penned: “currency” and “trainwreck.”

Pritzker “may not be the point person, but with a seat at the table, she can convey that this is a real concern,” Ojakli said later.

After years of rocky relations between the business community and President Barack Obama, Pritzker, 54, a Chicago businesswoman and billionaire whose family founded and runs Hyatt Hotels Corp., may be the administration’s best and last hope of developing a working partnership with the corporate world.

Repairing the rift won’t be easy, as executives lodge complaints that include over-regulation of banks and costly burdens imposed by the president’s 2010 health care law.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue, who heads the nation’s biggest business trade group, vowed in January that when “regulators insist on overstepping their bounds, we will head to the courts and sue” the administration.

In her eight months in office, Pritzker has held town-hall meetings to hear companies’ concerns, led the government’s first summit to lure foreign investment and kick-started a program to increase workers’ skills.

In the first half of this year, she’s focusing on trade missions, including to Mexico, where Obama met last week with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

She’s also the first Commerce secretary to manage fallout from Edward Snowden’s leaks of data surveillance programs, which such companies as Google Inc. say threaten their international credibility.

If Pritzker succeeds, it could produce a bipartisan coalition to advocate passage of separate free-trade deals the U.S. is negotiating with 11 Pacific-rim nations and the European Union, as well as a bill on Capitol Hill to make it easier for companies to hire foreign-born, highly skilled workers.

“Having a Commerce secretary with someone of Penny’s caliber is extremely important to solidify those partnerships,” said Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president who has known Pritzker and Obama for decades.

Her background and early steps show some promise. Even the chamber’s Donohue, in a statement, called Pritzker a strong appointment.

“She’s a pragmatist who understands business and knows how to get things done,” he said.

Facing dissent

Some of Pritzker’s positions, such as a proposal to upgrade the North American Free Trade Agreement with a new Pacific-rim trade pact, are opposed by Obama’s supporters among labor and consumer groups.

“She’s fairly tone-deaf on what the Congress and the whole country think about NAFTA,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch program.

Wallach said the pact has caused American job losses, and he noted that the U.S. trade gap with Mexico has dropped from a $1.4 billion surplus in 1994, when it took effect, to a $54 billion deficit last year.

Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, said Pritzker should do more to prevent imports from erasing jobs. The agency has “a kind of one-sided view of trade policy” by focusing on export promotion, he said.

Pritzker is also working in an administration that has empowered the National Labor Relations Board, advocated for raising the minimum wage and imposed what Republicans call “job-killing regulations” on companies.

The Harvard University graduate, who also holds business and law degrees from Stanford University, shrugs off those differences. She says she regularly talks to Obama, for whom she was the chief fundraiser in 2008 and campaign co-chairman in 2012, and is focusing on areas where business leaders and the White House can work together.

“What’s shocking to me is how aligned I think the president’s economic agenda is (with) the business community’s top concerns,” Pritzker said.

Listening up

Her calls to executives began before she got the job.

On a Sunday afternoon after her May nomination, Pritzker called Caterpillar Chairman Douglas Oberhelman to learn more about a problem he said affected the company in its overseas business. She called to check on the issue’s status after her confirmation in June.

“That’s the kind of follow-up we’re used to seeing in business,” Oberhelman said.

Three weeks after taking office, Pritzker began a “listening tour” through 12 states to hear from businesses and local officials.

“She asks, basically, good financial questions about the business,” Mary Andringa, chief executive officer of Vermeer Corp., a farm equipment company in Pella, Iowa, that the secretary visited on her tour.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who also attended a session with Pritzker, said “she wanted to know where they could be the most helpful in the shortest period of time.” The message delivered from his city’s leaders was for Washington “to break down the stovepipes” so departments can work faster by acting simultaneously, he said.

Pritzker keeps a sign on her office door that says “Open for Business,” and she titled her department’s agenda the same.

In November, she announced her priorities, including boosting trade and investment, developing a skilled labor force and advanced manufacturing, and making better use of the trove of data the Commerce Department collects from its bureaus, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“She understands the priorities, and she understands the goals because she’s been a businesswoman herself,” said Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. “Now she’s in a role where she can bring that knowledge and capability to the job.”

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