Q&A with new Long Island Association CEO Matt Cohen
Securing federal money to help Long Island's economy recover from the pandemic and working to make the region more affordable for young people are among the top priorities of the Long Island Association's new president and CEO.
Matthew Cohen, 39, is believed to be the business group's youngest leader in its 95-year history. He joined the LIA in 2011 as vice president of government affairs and communications under then-CEO Kevin Law, who stepped down in April after 10 1/2 years.
The LIA's 77-member board promoted Cohen in May after he participated in two rounds of interviews and was unanimously recommended by the selection committee from a field of business and nonprofit leaders, sources tell Newsday.
"Over the last decade at the LIA, Matt has proven his commitment to growing our region's economy, assisting businesses of all sizes and advocating for the best interests of all Long Islanders," said Lawrence J. Waldman, the group's chairman.
The LIA has seven employees and annual revenue of $2.6 million from membership dues and events. The nonprofit lobbies government leaders on issues of importance to businesses and residents, hosts educational and social events for its members, and works with other groups on major projects such as the Long Island Rail Road's Third Track.
Cohen, who lives in Commack, discussed his plans last week with Newsday. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What's the biggest challenge facing Long Island? How should it be addressed and what role can the LIA play?
Helping our region recover from this pandemic. We have a federal infrastructure bill that looks like it's going to happen, and we have to be doing everything we can to ensure that Long Island gets its fair share of funding. In terms of a long-term challenge, we need to make sure Long Island is affordable. What we at the LIA can do is push for investments in not just our traditional infrastructure, but also child care, and making sure that this is a place that people want to live. We have to make sure there are good-paying jobs that allow these young families to be able to afford a house.
Q: The LIA is often viewed as an organization of big corporations. Are you trying to change that perception?
Going back to COVID, small businesses faced unprecedented challenges. We have to make it our No. 1 priority, both as an organization and as a region, to do what we can to support them, to keep them viable. We want to really provide a suite of resources to small businesses that we hadn't offered before. To give them more guidance in terms of things that they may not have at their own company, like HR, legal and IT. So, we are not just about the big guys.
Q: How much does it cost to join the LIA?
We structure our dues based on the number of employees in the company. Our most affordable annual dues rate is $875 for small businesses.
Q: You've made technology a key focus. Explain how the LIA hopes to help its members use technology to be more successful?
It's really about offering them new resources and tools through technology. The Grow With Google program offers a suite of programs to small businesses. For example, how to use YouTube to market your business. How to optimize Google Search so if someone Googles for a dry cleaning company, your dry cleaner comes up with a map, phone number, hours and other information. I want to have a member-to-member portal. This will allow businesses to communicate directly with each other, to post jobs, to post events and maybe offer deals. I want to have podcasts, where we highlight small businesses.
Q: You worked for Sen. Chuck Schumer earlier in your career. What did you learn from him that will help you as LIA CEO?
Chuck's the kind of person that if he were in an office building for an event and he came back six months later, he would remember the custodian's name, the tenant's name and the landlord's name. He taught me to treat everybody with respect.
Q: What led you to come back to Long Island after attending the University of Pennsylvania?
I have several friends who sometime between graduating college and today moved to places like Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Why did they do that? Not because they didn't love Long Island. It's because they couldn't afford to live here. I came back for two reasons. I love Long Island. There's nowhere else I'd want to raise my family. But the second reason why I came back and the difference between me and some of my friends that had to move is I had a good-paying job immediately after graduating from college. When you're a 22-year-old kid trying to live on Long Island and trying to afford an apartment or save money for a house, you need a good-paying job. That's why it's incumbent upon the LIA, and all of us together, to make sure that we're creating the types of good-paying jobs that will keep young people here.
Q: Where was that job?
[In the] Suffolk County Executive's office. The summer [of 2003] before I went back to my senior year at Penn, I had worked on [Democrat Steve Levy's] campaign for Suffolk County Executive. They were successful in November and they offered me a job as soon as I graduated. I would like to take this opportunity to mention my predecessor [at the LIA], Kevin Law, because when I started at the county executive's office, I was Kevin's right-hand man. He was the chief deputy county executive at the time. When Kevin got to the LIA, he asked me if I'd want to join him. While I'm going to do a couple of things differently, I want to build on all of the great successes that Kevin had.
Q: What do we need to do to keep young people here?
Students in middle school and high school need to be connected to some of our employers and our universities, so that when they graduate from high school and/or college, they're prepared and interested to join the various companies here. We have to make [Long Island] more affordable. That goes back to child care. Child care is not a mom issue, it's not a family issue, it's an economic development issue. We need to make child care more accessible and more affordable. I sit on the Child Care Council of Suffolk board. This issue is very important to me personally. I have a 10-year-old son. And you know, I was paying a lot of money when he was in child care. It's tough when you're in your late 20s, early 30s and you're juggling to pay child care. Paying for child care, paying for a place to live, trying to save money for a house, these are all things that young people are struggling with. We have to invest in our infrastructure and our downtowns. We don't want to recreate New York City, but we want to enhance Long Island. We want to make it a place where people want to be, whether it's downtown revitalization, transit-oriented development, more apartments that people want to live in. We have to be investing in these types of infrastructure issues that make it more appealing and more affordable for people to live here.
Q: How can the LIA help employers meet the challenge of diversity within the workforce and customer base?
There are more women, there are more people of color on [the LIA board] than there's ever been in the 95-year history of the LIA. But we have more ways to go. I want the LIA to be a leader in explaining, showing and demonstrating to business owners why it is good for their business to have a more diverse workforce, to have more diverse C-suite executives and a more diverse clientele. Businesses, employers and C-suite executives should reflect the evolving demographics of Long Island. That's what is important to the long-term viability of our region.
Q: Any final thoughts?
It's personal to me how Long Island goes because I have a 10-year-old son. I want to help foster the type of place that, when Jack graduates from high school and college, he can afford to raise a family here. I don't want my son to have to move away like some of my friends have. And I don't want to be a grandfather that has to go to another state to visit my grandchildren.
Get to know Matt Cohen
Job: President and chief executive officer, Long Island Association
Volunteer posts: Serves on the boards of the tourism promotion agency Discover Long Island, Child Care Council of Suffolk County Inc., Long Island chapter of the New York League of Conservation Voters, Long Island Housing Partnership Inc. and Stony Brook University’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center
Hometown: Commack; grew up in Northport
Family: Wife, Tracie, and 10-year-old son, Jack
Education: Law degree, Hofstra University; bachelor’s degree in history, University of Pennsylvania
Favorite thing on his desk: A copy of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence given by then-Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights) to Cohen when he was a 14-year-old intern for the congressman
Downtime: Manages his son's travel baseball team, enjoys "watching and going to Mets games together and spending time with my family.”
Last book read: "Yells for Ourselves: A Story of New York City and the New York Mets at the Dawn of the Millennium" by Matthew Callan
Previous jobs: LIA's vice president of government affairs and communications; LIPA's executive director of government relations; Long Island director for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
— Compiled by James T. Madore