Respondents to Inc.’s annual State of Small Business survey poured plenty of partisan vitriol into the open-comments sections. Much was directed at President Obama (“worst President in decades”) and the Democratic Party, although Republicans (“an obstructionist philosophy for six years”) also attracted criticism. When asked who is most responsible for political gridlock, 40 percent of respondents said, “They are all to blame.” Just 3 percent didn’t blame anyone.
So, a lot of anger out there.
But on the ground, in businesses, most CEOs don’t waste time gnashing their teeth about that other party’s perfidy. They are too pragmatic for that. Instead they seek to work with whichever side of the aisle can help them resolve pressing issues. And even deep-dyed blues and reds readily voice frustration to their own parties’ leaders.
Deb Carey calls herself an independent. But the founder and president of New Glarus Brewing, in New Glarus, Wisconsin (No. 4,209 on the Inc. 5000), is also a friend of the Obama White House. Anyone doubting her status can check out photographs from the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. That’s Carey sitting between Apple CEO Tim Cook and Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, just one row behind the First Lady. Carey has appeared in a video supporting the President’s American Jobs Act and has also advocated for the Affordable Care Act. In Wisconsin, a purple state, Democrats have raised her name as a possible candidate for governor. (“I’d rather be boiled [in] oil,” says Carey, whenever that subject comes up.) At the same time, a smattering of conservatives have vowed to stop drinking New Glarus’s locally beloved brew Spotted Cow because of what they see as her company’s liberal positions.
Yet Carey doesn’t give the current administration a free pass. Two years ago, during a meeting of the White House Small Business Council, she let loose about her hiring woes with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. “We need more skilled trades,” Carey recalls telling them, “and that has got to start in high school. Shop classes. Auto classes. All these things are being cut, and that has a real impact on my hiring pool. I’m not asking anyone to train my workers. But I’ve got to have people who have some idea of spatial skills, who have good math skills.
“I have legal boxes filled with applications from people who want a desk job answering the phone that pays $50,000 a year,” Carey said. “Well I want that job, too.”
The Wisconsin legislature plays a major role in that state’s iconic beer industry, ruling on issues like microbreweries’ access to distribution. In response, Carey has hired a lobbyist for New Glarus and also donates to both political parties, which she characterizes as a necessary evil. “A lot of decisions that affect my industry are really driven by those [who] can afford large lobbying teams and who purchase their access to politicians,” she says. “Politicians will often say [contributors] don’t buy my vote, but they do buy access. That has nothing to do with party.”
And while Carey is no fan of Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker, she doesn’t rule out the possibility that he might do some good. Specifically, the state started experimenting with integration of vocational training and traditional high schools, a development that could help alleviate the skills crisis Carey brought up at the White House. “We have a Republican governor and maybe this comes from him,” she says. “I don’t really know who to give credit to.”