It took 130 years for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce to hire a woman and a Latino to fill its top staff job. In August 2018, Maria S. Salinas took over as president and chief executive of the chamber, which has a membership of more than 1,650 businesses with a combined workforce that exceeds 650,000 employees. The organization’s goal of “being the voice of business, promoting collaboration and helping members grow” is even more important with a new governor taking over in Sacramento, said Salinas, 52. She’s in charge of 88 employees and works with an annual budget of about $14 million.
Ready to go
Decades before she was schmoozing with politicians and executives, a teenage Maria Sanchez faced a roadblock. Her parents thought that Loyola Marymount University was too far from the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood where they lived. Cal State L.A. was acceptably close for their only daughter.
“We laugh about it now,” Salinas said. “It seemed like a big distance to them.”
After her parents finally relented, Salinas began studying accounting at LMU. “Accounting and finance to me are the fundamental framework of a business. If you don’t understand the numbers, then it’s hard to grow a business. All those years I spent working on financials — that was a tremendous lesson for me.”
Salinas was offered her first accounting job while still in school and later was recruited by Ernst & Young and then by Walt Disney Co. She spent 11 years there doing “a lot of different project work that touched so many divisions,” Salinas said. Eventually “I was responsible for financial reporting on a global basis for all the merchandise divisions, everything from the Disney stores to our publishing business, to the video business, to licensing.”
Salinas left Disney in 2006 and started Salinas Consulting, a “one woman show” buttressed with clients suggested by a trusted group of mentors. By then, Salinas was the mother of two sets of twin boys and she was seeking balance in her life. Launching a consulting firm made sense because “I had a sound understanding of business on multiple levels and I could serve as a consultant for other companies looking to bridge gaps in their growth strategies.”
That same year, she was invited to become a founding board member of ProAmerica Bank, formed to focus on the Latino community. She later became audit committee chair and, in 2014, was appointed chairwoman of its board. In 2016, Salinas led the team that brought about the acquisition by Pacific Commerce Bank. “I took it all at the speed that worked for me,” Salinas said. “If it was during the school year, I spent more time working and picked up more business. If it was summer and the boys were home, I lightened my load.”
Small and big
A lot of Salinas’ clients were small businesses. Her work with the bank also “really gave me insight on the importance of being strategic in running a business,” she said. “I got an opportunity to work with people across the city and try to bring the resources of the bank to the small-business community in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.” But her biggest consulting client was Toyota Motor Corp., which she worked with for more than a decade.
Salinas even wound up helping Toyota make the big move out of California, to Plano, Texas, announced in 2014, taking 3,000 jobs with it. “It was unfortunate that the company made the decision to leave California, but it gave me a really great insight in terms of the financial decisions that a company of that size needed to make” in terms of the tax breaks and lower housing costs, among many other reasons for the move.
In 2018, she received another call from an executive search firm. This time it was for the job leading the Chamber of Commerce.
Salinas thinks she has an idea why she repeatedly ends up on the short list of candidates for jobs she hasn’t even applied for. “I believe what they saw in me was a person that knew the city, a person that had the background and the business expertise, that had demonstrated leadership in other previous roles, and that hopefully what came through was my passion and love for the city and really wanting to see it grow.”
“We definitely want to amplify our advocacy efforts for Los Angeles on a statewide basis. That would be one of the most important things we could do,” Salinas said. “A lot of the issues around affordability, whether it’s in housing or education, are what hurt us in attracting more business.”
Sending a message
Salinas is using her position to highlight issues facing California that will ultimately affect its ability to attract and retain businesses. “We in California don’t just have a story of great diversity, we also have one of great inequality,” Salinas said in a recent panel discussion on diversity and race in higher education. “If we don’t solve this inequality problem, it will increasingly be an economic and national competitiveness problem.”
By September, Salinas will have been married to her husband, Raul, for 29 years. Their four boys are in high school and college. She’s a founding board member of Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine, a new national medical school set to open in 2020. She’s also on the board of trustees and chair of the board of regents of her alma mater, LMU.