Name: Michele Siekerka
Title: President, New Jersey Business & Industry Association
Why she matters: Siekerka, 51, leads an organization that represents more than 20,000 New Jersey companies spanning a range of industries, including contactors, manufacturers, and retail and wholesale businesses. Her more than 100-year-old Trenton-based organization also has a big presence in the State House, where NJBIA lobbyists frequently weigh in on important legislation and policies that impact the state budget and taxes. The association also releases surveys and economic research that influence policymaking in Trenton.
Background: Siekerka, a Robbinsville resident who is married and has two children, has a diverse resume that includes experience in both the private and public sectors.
Before being named president of NJBIA in September 2014, Siekerka worked for more than four years for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, including a stint as the agency’s deputy commissioner.
She served from 2004 to 2010 as the president of the Mercer County Chamber of Commerce, and before that worked from 2000 to 2004 for the motorist advocacy organization AAA, including serving as senior legal counsel for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Siekerka is a graduate of Rutgers University, with degrees in both political science and German. She also has a law degree from Temple University.
Current role: Siekerka said leading the NJBIA is a “culmination of all my skills coming into one place.”
“My first passion in the world is being an advocate for a good cause,” she said.
And though she took over NJBIA during a busy period in Trenton, with lawmakers fighting with Gov. Chris Christie over everything from income and corporate tax rates to public-employee pension funding, Siekerka said she would have it no other way.
“I was ready to hit the ground running,” Siekerka said.
She works alongside a staff of 50, helping to set and execute NJBIA’s strategic plan while also making sure the organization operates well and that its many members are satisfied. She has also been using social media and YouTube to pitch policy positions, and NJBIA recently brought on well-regarded New Jersey economist Joel Naroff to provide regular analysis of economic developments.
Big issues: Though she’s an advocate for easing regulations and the overall tax burden on businesses, one of Siekerka’s mantras on behalf of the business community is simple predictability.
“Constantly, our policymakers are looking for new mandates on businesses,” she explained.
While their hearts may be in the right place on many issues, she said lawmakers often use a “one-size-fits-all” approach that can be difficult for businesses to adapt to. What’s good for the small pizza shop, she explained, may not work out well for the 1,000-employee call center or the major utility company.
Ongoing efforts to expand paid sick leave in New Jersey can serve as a good example,
“How do you by any means force the same policy on these extremely different types of companies?” she asked. “They have to do it in a way that works for their situation.”
Also on the association’s agenda are efforts to change New Jersey’s estate and inheritance taxes, Siekerka said.
New Jersey is one of only two states in the entire country that levies both taxes, and its rates are some of the most aggressive in the country. The estate tax is levied on someone’s estate after they die, while someone accepting an inheritance has to pay the inheritance tax depending on their relation to the deceased. Taken together, the taxes can be an important factor for family owned businesses.
Another key issue is tax relief for small businesses, she said. New Jersey is in the final year of a phased-in, $2.3 billion business tax-cut initiative, and what happens next will be important, particularly for the state’s small businesses.
“We have to continue to find ways to mitigate against the tax burden,” she said.
Although Siekerka is a veteran of the Christie administration, she made the case earlier this summer for extension of the federal Export-Import Bank.
The 81-year-old federal institution backs loans to foreign customers of U.S. businesses – including many in New Jersey — that sell goods and services overseas. Christie, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, has opposed congressional renewal of the bank’s charter.
The three Ps: Siekerka said she follows an approach that is centered on “the three Ps:” Patience, perseverance and passion.
Patience is an important skill because “you take a step forward and often times you take one or two steps back,” but all the while you’re gaining momentum, she said. With perseverance, she advises a “don’t give up” attitude because there’s a lot of important work that is necessary to get done. And when it comes to passion, Siekerka recommends that you “always have a passion for what you do.”