The Interview: Managing Change With Mary Huss

By Janet Reilly

Publishing dynamo and Bay Area Council chair Mary Huss on adaptability, change management and the future of our region in uncertain times. (Spencer Brown)

Mary Huss has been making (business) news in the Bay Area for nearly three decades. The infectiously charismatic Huss has served as publisher of the San Francisco Business Times since 1991. In 2018, she added the Silicon Valley Business Journal — another American City Business Journal publication— to her portfolio as well. While newspapers nationwide have folded, Huss’ titles have thrived under her entrepreneurial leadership, thanks to new media products and annual events like 100 Most Influential Women in Business and Best Places to Work in the Bay Area.

Last year, Huss added a different kind of title to her name: chair of the Bay Area Council. The 75-year-old, CEO-led public policy group tackles some of the region’s toughest challenges, like housing, homelessness and transportation. It is a challenge she relishes — even in these tough economic times.

I caught up with Huss via Zoom at her Sausalito home. Even with technology as a buffer between us, Huss’ energy, magnetism and intelligence shone bright. Our discussion ran the gamut from economic forecasts to women in publishing to choosing career over marriage. Meet Mary Huss …

It has been about a year since you became chair of the Bay Area Council. I’m thinking it’s not a year that you had anticipated. No.

What was your vision when you took on this role and how has that vision changed given the current environment? It began with sadness. I was encouraged by Bernard Tyson [the prior chair] to take the role, and I was terrified of stepping into those shoes. You know Bernard Tyson; he was this great leader and convener of our region. He inspired me to step into the role and I felt like we had real momentum, especially
on the issues of homelessness and transportation.

But the shock of losing Bernard — literally the week that the gavel was to be passed — was the beginning of a lot of shock and change. And one thing that was already creeping in was a sense of disillusionment with our business climate. It was anecdotal, but it was beginning to track in surveys that there was a sense of exodus, people were leaving, and that was very much related to the high cost of housing and the high cost of doing business.

And that wasn’t just San Francisco, you’re talking Bay Area-wide. Yes, and it was making it harder to attract a workforce. Whereas 15 years ago, 10 years ago, young talent came in droves. Now they’re actually choosing not to live in the Bay Area. That was certainly a concern of mine.

So, the priorities are largely unchanged: housing, homelessness, transportation … Well, another area of focus that has really emerged is the issue of our business climate. What’s going to keep businesses here and stop people from leaving? I’m going to blend into my role with the Business Times here, but what I was experiencing anecdotally in stories our reporters would write about “the exodus” is now starting to show up in polls. It breaks my heart because I love California, I love the Bay Area, and I love San Francisco. But it’s a reality.

It’s a challenge and you obviously like challenges and are not afraid of them. I mean, this is where real leadership is necessary. Well, I don’t know. Maybe I’m crazy.

Is there anything about the pandemic response of the Bay Area business community — the large corporations — that has surprised you in any way? This has been an accelerator on so many levels. Take the health care industry [with telemedicine]. We’ve seen changes that would have taken 18 months or two years to fully implement happen in two or three weeks. The same thing has happened in the banking industry.

Do you think it has fundamentally changed the way people work? Is it lasting? Yes, I think so. The utilization of technology is so much better now; we’ve all gotten rapid-fire better at all of this stuff. Look at the businesses of the dot-com era that failed because the consuming audience wasn’t ready for them. We just weren’t advanced enough yet.

As the publisher of a major media entity, you had to pivot and adapt long before the pandemic. Do you think that made you particularly adept at making changes? You’re right. We’ve had to pivot and adapt and pivot and adapt.

It’s a different world than it was when you started, for sure. Yes. At the time of the Great Recession, people were moving to digital, classifieds were tanking, ad revenue was declining, and the financial crisis just accelerated that. So, we’ve had to adapt. We have so many different revenue streams that we didn’t have then.

You had to invent those revenue streams. Whether it be with your events or targeting different audiences, you were very adaptable. I like change. And this is not to set aside the sadness and the tragedy and the loss, because it’s deep. But here’s what I don’t think — and call me wrong in five years, all right? — I don’t think people are going to stop. Office culture won’t end. How do you really build a culture if you can’t be together? It’s going to be different, but there’s going to be a time of recovery and people will gather again to work. I can’t imagine they won’t.

The type of thing that really has my attention is what Pinterest did when it canceled its lease. They canceled and they’re doing great. It’s not like they’re going, ‘Hey, we’ve got to save some money here.’ And then you’ve got Stripe, which actually chose to leave the City, and they are giving employees $20,000 cash if they move. [Twitter CEO] Jack Dorsey has publicly said, “No one wants to move to San Francisco anymore. No one can afford to live in San Francisco anymore.” That has my attention.

What’s it like to cover the business community when so much business has shut down? Well, I think it’s harder for reporters. It’s harder for newer reporters that are fresh on the scene to build relationships. Your more senior reporters, they do just fine. There are all kinds of ways to listen and to be plugged in, but it is harder.

Do you feel that the pandemic has changed the way people consume media? Oh yeah. I think so. We’ve seen double-digit growth in our audience. I myself am devouring media constantly. I think people are hungry for information.

You’ve had such a long, successful career in media, yet it’s still really a male-dominated field. What challenges have you faced as a woman coming through the ranks, and what advice might you give to young women who would like to go into the media and publishing business? I started on the news side. I have a journalism degree, but I ended up gravitating to the business side and I was very goal driven. I feel lucky to have been in an entrepreneurial organization. Now, if I go back and I think of some of the things back then, there was all kinds of sexism going on that I just kind of [blocked out with] tunnel vision.

I got opportunities and I was never afraid to take them. It has always surprised me that sometimes people will not want to take an opportunity that presents itself. My advice is: Don’t be afraid and don’t think you can’t do something. I can’t tell you how many things I had no idea how to do. You can’t let your fear of failure or the feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing get in the way. I think entrepreneurial organizations give you a chance to find your way more often.

What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic? I haven’t gone and gotten a haircut, and I hate myself for it. Seriously though, I have learned thatI really don’t want to go out and risk it. I’m willing to take a lot of risks in my life, but I’m pretty conservative about where I’ll go and who I’ll interact with. In a way though, that might be costing me.

Have you learned any new skills or picked up anything? I installed my own modem. I installed my own printer. No, really!

Why do you think the Bay Area business community will prevail? I believe in our spirit of innovation. I believe that we are entrepreneurs, that we bootstrap ourselves, that we always invent our way out of it. Now, this is going to be a lot harder and it’s going to take everybody pulling together. When I first came to California, the Oakland fires had just happened and the [Loma Prieta] earthquake shortly before that. We were in a recession. The U-Hauls were leaving town then, too. People were predicting the demise of many, many things. But we just boomed four or five years after that. It’s a lot worse now than it was then because of the pandemic and climate change, but I believe we will bounce back.

Lighting Round 

The biggest risk I’ve taken … Taking on something that I don’t know how to do, from the first time I left the most comfortable job at a daily to join a startup.

My biggest regret is … Well, look, I’ve never gotten married. We could go deep into the psychology of it, but I think I’ve missed something by not having a real partner in life. But I don’t think it’s accidental.

I’m happiest when … Traveling to an exotic, new place. I just enjoy getting deep into the culture. I love it.

If I had a magic wand, I would … Restore civility and humanity to our country.

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