Personalities

Meet the Bay Area’s Most Connected Man

By Heather Wood Rudúlph

Jim Wunderman has perfected the art of dealmaking, and over 28 years working in both the public and private sectors, he’s curated the most comprehensive Rolodex in the region. So who is this guy, and why does everyone seem to love him?

Photo by Margo Moritz.

Take a walk with Jim Wunderman through the corridors of City Hall, or pop into any number of San Francisco’s generations-old restaurants, even duck into a board meeting in Silicon Valley, and you’ll witness a reception that evokes Norm Peterson entering his neighborhood pub on Cheers. “Jim!” they’ll exclaim, offering handshakes, head nods, or a slapon the back. Like the beloved sitcom character who took his corner stool every day, Wunderman is a beloved regular, and the greater Bay Area is his bar. But here, he doesn’t only drink in all the region has to offer; he helped create it.

Wunderman has been president and CEO of the Bay Area Council since 2004, and credited for turning the 60-year-old CEO-led public policy organization from a staid good-government group into a vital part of the region’s economic, political and civic leadership. His signature collaborative approach — giving all nine counties and 101 cities within the region equal participation in big decisions — is the key to his success. But some also credit his engaging personality.

“Jim is really a charming guy. He’s a lot of fun. That’s not to say he’s not fiercely competitive and out to win,” says Mary Huss, president and publisher of the Silicon Valley Business Journal and the San Francisco Business Times. “He’s engaging, authentic, strategic and passionate about whatever mission he is driving. He easily earns the confidence of the heavyweights in the community and the teams he empowers.”

“Jim’s commitment to making a real difference and ability to marshal a range of stakeholders effectively sets him apart as a leader,” says Kausik Rajgopal, managing partner of the West Coast office of McKinsey & Company.

“Within five minutes of meeting Jim you get to see his energy. He is absolutely tireless and the only thing that matches his energy is his love for the Bay Area and its economic success,” says Ken McNeely, president of AT&T California. “His sheer strength of will draws you in, and younwant to be a part of the game because you know it’s going to be a successful game, and more importantly, it will have a real, lasting impact on our community.”

These accolades from some of the area’s top CEOs are not merely lip service. Each of these business leaders joined the Bay Area Council under Wunderman’s watch and have worked with him on issues such as early-childhood literacy, environmental regulations and housing development. The Bay Area Council operates as a watchdog for the most pressing local interests, such as affordable housing, transportation and clean energy, but looks at the greater impact. In other words, how will changes and improvements the council achieves today affect the residents of the Bay Area for generations to come? Consider the public transportation systems that hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents have come to rely upon. BART was a BAC project in the 1950s, and last year the Council led the charge to pass SB 595, which aims to drastically cut down on commuter congestion and expand and improve bus, rail, ferry and auto conditions and commutes.

Wunderman was instrumental in raising support for AB 32, California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, and 2008’s SB 375, which calls for some of the most aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reductions in American history. These are the types of projects that legacies are made of. And in Wunderman’s case, it feels like destiny.

“A lot of people who’ve known me for a long time say I ended up exactly where I was always supposed to be,” says Wunderman from his 10th-floor office with a view of the Embarcadero waterfront. “I never intended to keep this job this long. I used to think people shouldn’t stay in jobs too long, shouldn’t leave their stink in a place. But I’ve come to understand it takes a while to find your footing.”

To understand Jim Wunderman, you have to see San Francisco through his eyes. Growing up in New York City during the 1960s, Wunderman was engaged in local politics via his parents’ activism. They discussed elections at the dinner table, took their children to organizing events, and made it clear that the state of their city was everyone’s problem. Still, Wunderman longed to settle somewhere with less turmoil, and a better climate to boot. After a family vacation to San Francisco in 1970, he knew where he wanted to be.

“I remember being at Hallidie Plaza, and I saw somebody litter, and a number of people descended upon this individual. I thought, everyone is paying attention,” Wunderman says. “I committed in my mind at that point to San Francisco. I became a 49ers fan at the age of 13, and I read and studied anything I could about the city.”

By the time he reached his 20s, a recent graduate of Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, Wunderman moved to San Francisco, crushing his mother’s dreams for him to become an accountant.

“She thought that was the highest-level thing people who went to school could be,” he says.

More than a decade had passed since his first visit, and San Francisco was undergoing tremendous change. Congressman Phillip Burton had just died, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein was facing a recall election, and the city was still reeling from the White Night riots, not to mention the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk. 

Photo by Margo Moritz.

“It was a really turbulent time, and I showed up in 1980 knowing it,” Wunderman says, hinting at his lifelong conviction to stare down a challenge and decimate it completely. “It’s why I wanted to study political science and get involved in campaigns.”

Wunderman landed his first job as he was still finishing his degree at San Francisco State, working on Feinstein’s reelection campaign shortly after she beat the recall.

“I knew absolutely nothing, but I was trained by the organizers who trained Cesar Chavez (Fred Ross and Fred Ross Jr.) who for some reason fingered me as somebody who could maybe really do this.”

Ten years later, Wunderman had ascended to one of the most important posts in city government, chief of staff to then-mayor Frank Jordan. “The chief of staff runs the city,” recounts former political strategist and current Gazette owner Clint Reilly, who gave the young Wunderman that initial organizing gig. “What a distinguished career he’s had, and continues to have. I consider Jim to be the most powerful business leader in Northern California. But he’d never admit to that.”

Humility is a consistent Wunderman trait, but so, too, is tenacity — starting with that first job working for Feinstein, a role Wunderman basically invented and had the gumption to ask for while still a senior in college.

“I was a college student, I had opinions, and I took things very literally. I knew there was a way to build loyalty, which was very hard,” says Wunderman, who was tasked with sustaining the campaign’s volunteer corps year-round, rather than just during an election year. “You had to put a lot of pressure on volunteers to show up. It was social engineering in a way, and sometimes I got a little too aggressive, and it could have been costly.”

Wunderman recalls the story of an event early on in the re-election campaign where he hosted a handful of constituents at a supporter’s house. Once he finished his pitch, one of the attendees went out to her car and returned with Mary Kay merchandise to sell. “She was hijacking my meeting,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I said, you can’t do that. This is my meeting! And, well, she got really upset.”

That woman turned out to be the daughter of a longtime Board of Equalization member. She called the campaign office and the mayor’s office to complain about Wunderman. But instead of getting fired, he got promoted. “The deputy mayor calls me up probably with the intention to yell at me a little and then go back to this woman to tell her they let that guy go,” he says. “But I convinced them not to do that.”

Wunderman has a history of persuading powerful leaders to side with him. Through out his career at City Hall (leading successful campaigns for Feinstein, Board of Supervisors member Willie B. Kennedy and underdog Mayor Frank Jordan), and in the public and private sectors (serving as vice president and general manager of the former Norcal Waste Systems and as senior vice president for external affairs at Providian Financial Corporation), he’s talked political enemies into partnering with him on landmark legislation — such as the San Francisco smoking ban, which led to a statewide law in 2005. He’s healed generations-old infighting within the waste management businesses that are integral to a functioning Bay Area, and as CEO of the Bay Area Council he’s persuaded the leaders of nearly every major local company to trust his judgment and join his crusade to unite the region. When asked why he thinks people listen to him, a big, Cheshire-cat-like grin spreads across Wunderman’s face.

“I think I believed it was my job — as I still believe today — to help everyone succeed,” he says. “Being a friend to these agencies, but putting pressure on them at the same time — that’s really hard. You can’t just be a pit bull, and you can’t be a pushover. One of the things that’s really important to me is I see humor in everything. We take ourselves way too seriously. I think a lot of the time people think I’m weird, but I think most things are pretty funny, and that puts them at ease.”

Wunderman’s career is built on managing relationships — calming tense communications, serving as the go-between to foster negotiations, and otherwise pacifying the stress and frustration that is a constant. The fact that he’s survived a near-30-year career and remains well-regarded as one of the nicest guys in the Bay is either a testament to his brilliant business mind or a secret stress relief technique.

“I’ve definitely lost sleep — and my hair,” says Wunderman, who cites long hikes in Cavallo Point and relaxing weekends with his family at his home in Pleasant Hill as necessary escapes to maintain a work-life balance.

“This career has really been a dream come true for me, even if not always under the best circumstances,” he says. “I like a recovery, a restoration, a startup. It’s the excitement and the challenge. I’ve had many chances to turn lemons into lemonade. That’s really motivating for me.”

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