Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the former newspaper marketing executive who won high marks for revamping the region’s tourism marketing programs, is about to become the highest-profile advocate for the Buffalo Niagara business community.
Gallagher-Cohen will become the new president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the area’s regional business advocacy group – a role that will make her one of the most prominent women in the area’s male-dominated business world.
Gallagher-Cohen, president and chief executive officer of Visit Buffalo Niagara for the past three years, will replace the retiring Andrew J. Rudnick in early June as the leader of the Partnership, which in recent years has taken a more active role in pushing for government reforms and an increased focus from Albany in ways that would benefit the Buffalo Niagara region and upstate New York.
“Dottie brings a lot of energy to an organization,” said Gary D. Praetzel, the dean of Niagara University’s College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, who also was interim chairman of the former Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau when Gallagher-Cohen was hired.
“Let me put it this way: She’s a can-do kind of person,” he said.
Gallagher-Cohen said Tuesday that it’s a dream job.
“I’m very excited about it,” she said after the Partnership board of directors approved her hiring. “For 20 years, I’ve looked at that position, and Andrew, and said, ‘That’s a job I’d love to do.’ ”
The hiring marks a major change for the region’s business community. For more than 20 years, Rudnick regularly used his post as a bully pulpit to push for changes in Albany and Washington that would make it easier for upstate companies to do business, through changes in the law and also by working with legislators to help coordinate the region’s wish list for projects that require state and federal funding.
While the role could be frustrating because of the difficulty in pushing change through Albany, Rudnick was a consistent voice in developing – and promoting – the region’s economic agenda.
Gallagher-Cohen said she expects to continue those efforts, with a greater focus on communicating the Partnership’s positions and its services to both its members and the community.
“You’ve got really good staff doing really good work,” she said. “It’s really about how do we ramp up the work that’s being done now.”
Tim Loftis, a local lawyer and chairman of the Partnership, said Gallagher-Cohen was one of five finalists from among more than 200 candidates reviewed by national search firm Korn Ferry. She was the unanimous choice of both the Partnership’s 24-person executive committee and its overall membership.
“She’s got great presence,” Loftis said. “She can walk into a room and command attention. She can be very persuasive.”
Rudnick agreed. “I think she brings some extraordinary skills and passion to this job,” he said. “She has great communication skills. She loves the area, and she has a strong acumen for marketing.”
“She gets things done, and she gets things done in collaboration with other people,” said Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president and chief executive officer of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. “The fact that she’s a woman is a bonus.”
Gallagher-Cohen took over as the top executive at Visit Buffalo Niagara in January 2010, seven months after former Erie County Executive Chris Collins pushed former long-time local tourism chief Richard Geiger to resign.
Under Gallagher-Cohen, the tourism agency, whose $3.9 million budget is much smaller than the budgets of similar groups in many comparably sized cities, made a major shift in its focus, turning away from broad-based marketing to a more focused initiative that concentrated on cultural tourism, the region’s arts, architecture and industrial history, and amateur sports.
“What she did with the CVB was nothing short of transformational,” Praetzel said.
The group’s new slogan, adopted two years ago, “Buffalo, for Real,” was an attempt to market and embrace Buffalo for what it is – a gritty industrial city with architecture, arts and history that can’t be found in a modern Sun Belt boom town.
She also pushed for a more concerted local effort to help the steady stream of Canadian shoppers who visit the region’s malls become aware of other things to do while they’re here.
“She really transformed the CVB. She took an organization that was getting some criticism and completely turned it around,” Praetzel said. “The people in the organization were pretty much beaten down. She brought pride back to the CVB.”
“She just did a phenomenal job in a short amount of time under some formidable constraints,” said Warren T. Colville, publisher of The Buffalo News, who recommended Gallagher-Cohen for the Partnership job and worked closely with her during the 13 years she was the newspaper’s senior vice president of marketing.
“She has an amazing network of people – relationships that she’s built over the last 25 years,” Colville said. “She’s going to do a great job for business in Buffalo.”
Rudnick said tapping into those relationships will be essential for Gallagher-Cohen in her new role.
“I think utilizing key relationships is going to be critical,” he said. “You need to know to whom to go and have enough of a relationship with him or her to get action.”
Political advocacy – a big part of the Partnership’s role – will be a relatively new focus for Gallagher-Cohen, but Colville said she has shown that she is a quick study. She earned her master’s degree in business administration while at The News, where she oversaw the paper’s push into the field of digital media.
“When she went to Visit Buffalo Niagara, she didn’t have tourism experience, either,” Colville said. “I don’t think there’s anyone I respect more in the Buffalo Niagara market.”
Before joining The News, she was executive director of the Kelly for Kids Foundation, marketing manager at Buffalo Place and director of public relations at Erie Community College.
As Rudnick’s successor, Gallagher-Cohen will be just the second person to head the Partnership, which was formed in 1992 through the merger of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce and the Rudnick-led Greater Buffalo Development Foundation.