Tennessee banker goes to bat for business's biggest lobby

John E. Sloan Jr. is a tall, thin former banker from Tennessee, whose job has changed from making money in Nashville to making waves in Washington. As the newly appointed president of the National Federation of Independent Business, Mr. Sloan is trying to revitalize the largest US business lobby by boosting its public profile, fattening its membership rolls, and designing new services.

The goal is to increase the financial muscle and political clout the organization can bring to bear for business interests, both in state capitals and in Washington.

Unlike other business lobbying groups, such as the United States Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Manufacturers, the NFIB is not headquartered in Washington. The organization was founded in San Mateo, Calif., in 1943 and is still based there, although it has a Washington staff of 30.

But unlike his predecessors, who tended to stay away from Capitol Hill, Mr. Sloan plans to spend about 25 percent of his time here as point man for the federation's lobbying operation.

''I (am) inclined to be more on top of and more involved with our effort'' in Washington, than previous NFIB presidents, Mr. Sloan said at a recent lunch with a small group of reporters. ''In spite of all you hear about the 'New Federalism ,' key legislation is still going to emanate from here.''

The legislation the NFIB would most like to see concerns the federal budget deficit. ''My No. 1 (legislative) wish is that the Congress begin to take steps toward getting the deficit under control,'' he says. ''I don't have a lot of confidence my first wish will occur,'' he adds.

The organization's other key legislative priority is to develop ''a real concern in the majority of Congress over the problem of payroll taxes,'' Sloan says.

Payroll tax increases are especially unpopular with small companies because they must be paid even if the operation is not profitable. The taxes include those for social security, workers' compensation, and unemployment insurance. At the moment the NFIB admits it does not have a plan for replacing the money raised by payroll taxes.

Sloan, a Vanderbilt University graduate, clearly enjoys the political process. He has run for elective office three times, winning twice, and is the former mayor of Brentwood, Tenn. He was also active in all the Senate campaigns of Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee.

Senator Baker played a key role in Sloan's appointment in 1981 as chairman of the National Advisory Council of the Small Business Administration. He continued as president of the First Tennessee Bank in Nashville while serving on the panel.

The NFIB Sloan inherited already brings considerable resources to the political fray. It represents some 560,000 small, largely conservative business owners and came through the recession in better shape than the smaller, but more visible, US Chamber of Commerce.

The NFIB's membership continued to climb during the recession while the chamber's membership rolls dipped 13 percent to 210,000, according to chamber vice-president Jeffrey Joseph. The chamber represents many small companies, but unlike the NFIB also includes corporate giants and trade associations.

Mr. Sloan wants to boost the NFIB's clout by almost doubling membership to 1 million companies within the next three to five years. ''Small business is by its nature a very fragmented group of folks,'' Sloan notes.

But federal tax data indicate that there are more than 15 million businesses in the United States, only 500,000 of which employ more than 500 people. ''When you wash out those businesses that are run off a kitchen table,'' between 5 and 6 million potential NFIB members remain, Mr. Sloan calculates.

One way to lure additional members is with new services. At the moment, state and federal level lobbying is the main thing NFIB members are buying with their dues, which range from $50 to $500. But Mr. Sloan says he would like to broaden the services the organization provides, perhaps by offering seminars.

New services will also help differentiate the NFIB from the chamber, with which it shares many legislative positions. While he admires the chamber, ''It is a constant question of small-business people competing for policy positions with the big,'' Mr. Sloan says.

The chamber represents all sizes of companies ''by design,'' responds chamber vice-president Joseph. And the organization has recently doubled the size of its small-business activities.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.