A behind-the-scenes force in Rochester business, philanthropy

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Striking out in bids to score a human resources position with area manufacturing firms, Sandra Parker instead went to work for the Industrial Management Council.

Parker, who succumbed June 5 at 75, less than a month after being diagnosed with metastatic cancer, went on to become the IMC’s vice president and then president. Later, she helped ease the manufacturers association’s merger with its onetime parent, the Greater Metro Rochester Chamber of Commerce Inc., healing a breach that had dated to mid-1940s and over time had devolved into an at-times uneasy truce as both groups courted businesses as members.  

After the IMC and Chamber rejoined, Parker went on to head the merged organization, which for a time rebranded itself as the Rochester Business Alliance before reverting to the Rochester Chamber designation. The position cemented Parker’s role as one of the region’s most influential business leaders and a quiet, behind-the-scenes force in local philanthropic and higher education circles.

Never a seeker of personal glory, Parker, along with her husband, the entrepreneur John “Dutch” Summers, played outsized behind-the-scenes role in the local philanthropic and educational communities, says Daan Braveman, a longtime personal friend and professional associate of the couple.

President emeritus of Nazareth College, Braveman is senior higher education counsel with Harter, Secrest & Emery LLP. He first became acquainted with Parker through the RBA, when he served a term as the organization’s board chair and later had dealings with her in her role as a Nazareth College trustee.

Parker not only was a member of the Nazareth College’s board but also served on the boards of Rochester Institute of Technology, and the University of Rochester.

She and Summers on occasion had quietly provided financial aid to worthy students. Once they encountered a Nazareth student whose academic career Braveman had months earlier praised in a glowing report to the college’s board. The student, who was working as waitress, chanced to be the couple’s server. On learning that she was a Nazareth student, the couple pressed her for details, and on learning her identity surprised her with a detailed discussion of her educational career.

“They remembered everything about her after all that time,” Braveman marvels.

Sandra Parker with Susan Holliday, left (2012 photo).

As a behind-the-scenes actor locally and in Albany, Parker excelled at bringing disparate players from the business, nonprofit, educational and health care communities to the table and forging bonds among them, recalls Susan Holliday, who for three decades was owner and publisher of the Rochester Business Journal.

Holliday, Summers and Parker were members of the Rump Group, an informally organized collection of prominent, civic-minded Rochesterians who shared concerns ranging from the fragile state of the Rochester City School District to the stability of the region’s health care infrastructure to the health of its social safety net.

When Parker assumed the top position at the RBA, Holliday recalls, she convinced Summers, the Rump Group’s founder, to bring the organization under official RBA sponsorship, ensuring that the business organization would encourage its members to practice good corporate citizenship.

Parker herself was involved as a board member in the stewardship of organizations across a gamut of the local business and nonprofit communities that included not only area institutions of higher learning but also the Ithaca-based banking group Tompkins Financial Corp. and the Humane Society of Greater Rochester, which runs the Lollypop Farm animal shelter, Holliday recalls.

Health care was one of Parker’s top concerns. As RBA chief, she oversaw compilation of a data-rich annual survey detailing the state of local employers’ health coverage and highlighting concerns in the health care arena.

Parker also was a key player in setting up the Rochester Health Information Organization. Known by its acronym, the RHIO maintains a portal through which area hospitals and medical groups can communicate, sharing digital images of scans and other health data. Similar organizations began to be established around the country with the digitization of health care information in the 1990s. Rochester’s was one of the first to be formed in the state and remains among the better-functioning ones.

Though Parker was not as expert as some in every complexity of the labyrinthine U.S. health care system, she excelled as a convenor, says former Excellus Inc. CEO David Klein, who served as an RBA board member and counted Parker among board members of Excellus, the state’s second-largest health insurer and its largest nonprofit writer of health care policies.

“She was brilliant, but she never came off as the smartest person in the room,” Klein says. “Payers, providers, employers—she could sit them all down together.”  

Klein also worked with Parker in Unshackle Upstate, a lobbying consortium focused on raising Upstate New York concerns in Albany. While downstate lawmakers hold disproportionate sway in the state capital, Unshackle Upstate managed the formidable task of bringing some upstate concerns to the fore, Klein says.

Exercising her not-inconsiderable skills as a facilitator and convenor, says Klein, Parker played a significant role in the group’s successes such as seeing improved workers’ compensation regulations favored by Unshackle Upstate enacted.

Ubiquitously known by her nickname, Sandy, Parker grew up in Webster. She graduated from the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1968 and soon after began a job in RIT’s human resources department.

After rising to associate director of human resources in just over a decade, Parker began to see the corporate sector as more likely to fulfill her career ambitions. She started putting out feelers to Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and Bausch & Lomb Inc., where she had worked a summer job as a college student. The firms at the time were manufacturing powerhouses and the area’s top employers; all three politely turned her down, telling Parker that she lacked private-sector business experience.

“I couldn’t get a job in manufacturing, which is where I really wanted to be, so I took a job at the IMC,” Parker told me when I interviewed her for a Rochester Business Journal profile in 2000, noting that she saw the organization as one that would provide networking opportunities that might facilitate a move to the corporate sector.

Parker figured correctly. In 1985, she landed a human resources job with Schlegel Corp., then a prominent locally based manufacturing firm. But five years later, Schlegel was acquired by British Tire and Rubber PLC, which shut down the firm’s local headquarters, throwing her out of work. Her old boss at the IMC, the organization’s then-president Jack Hostetler, hired Parker back as IMC’s vice president.

Under Hostetler’s successor, Arthur Aspengren and the Chamber’s president, Tom Mooney, a simmering rivalry between the two local business groups had heated up. After Aspengren retired in 1998, Parker was named IMC president. The job as the head of an organization was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, she told me at the time. She set to work turning the heat down on the Chamber/IMC rivalry, beginning a cooperative effort between the organizations that aimed to lure businesses to the region.

When the Chamber and the IMC decided to merge a few years later, neither organization was financially sound.

When Parker took over, “it was a turnaround situation,” recalls Klein, who was on the post-merger RBA’s board. Parker had much to do with putting the organization on sound financial footing, he says.    

“I am leaving RBA on solid financial ground,” Parker said in a summary of her years at the organization’s helm when she retired in 2014. “Membership is strong, and our products and services are being used by more and more of our members. Before the CEO can focus on external activities and issues, the internal house has to be in order. It is.”

Bob Duffy, who succeeded Parker as Rochester Chamber president and CEO, said in a statement that Parker “had a profound impact on me personally and professionally, often offering invaluable advice and guidance throughout each stage of my career.”

He also said that “Sandy was an unsung hero in the Greater Rochester community for decades (who) quietly seeded goodness throughout the Rochester community for decades, sitting on dozens of boards and councils, never seeking attention or recognition.”

Mayor Lovely Warren also praised Parker in a statement: “Sandy Parker was a warrior and champion for employers in Greater Rochester, helping lead the region through challenging times. She was ever vigilant in ensuring that Rochester’s business community was heard by local leaders and that they responded to the needs of our local economy.”

Married in the 1970s, Parker and her husband divorced in the late 1990s in a split Parker described as amicable. She and Summers, a widower, married in 2012. In addition to Summers, Parker is survived by a son by her first marriage, two grandchildren and two sisters.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. He interviewed Parker on several occasions as a former reporter for the Rochester Business Journal.

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