Long before Richard Cheney and Paul O’Neill joined the Bush team as vice president and treasury secretary, they were members of America’s unofficial cabinet: The Business Council. Member CEOs of this corporate clique founded in the Depression are among the most influential, and have historically swelled the ranks of government at the request of Presidents.
A typical council gathering unfolds like the recent meeting at the Greenbrier in the small foothill town of White Sulphur Springs, WV. Outside, reporters from CNBC, Bloomberg, and CNN stalked the event, anticipating the release of the council’s bellwether economic report. Inside, the likes of Michael Eisner, Scott McNealy, Ralph Larsen and their wives mingled in a cocktail party atmosphere.
“They are truly peers,” says James Fisher, publicist for the event. “When they talk to each other there are no trappings of power. It’s a forum where they can get a pulse on other industries.”
Membership is limited to 125 and is by invitation only. New members are nominated by current members. “The key is the personal prestige of the individual,” says Phil Cassidy, executive director of the organization. “It doesn’t matter whether the company is public or private, new-line or old-line. Individual politics don’t matter.”
It’s not a good idea for aspiring members to seem too eager. “It’s like [the golf course] Augusta,” Cassidy says. “Bill Gates has made it very clear he wants to be a member. And that’s why he’s never going to get invited.” Gates could not be reached for comment.