June 8, 2018
Lifetime Achievement Awards 2018

'Maverick' Hopgood no stranger to confronting boardroom politics

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever

Suzanne Hopgood

CEO, The Hopgood Group LLC;
Chair, Capital Region Development Authority

Size of organization: Sole proprietorship

Highest Education: University of New Hampshire, Bachelor's degree in business administration

Previous job: CEO and board chair, Furr's Restaurant Group

When it comes to boardroom politics and good old boys, Suzanne Hopgood knows the score — and she's not averse to sharing the gory details.

During her service as CEO and chair of Furr's Restaurant Group, whose board became increasingly dysfunctional, she set up an interview for outside counsel with an international law firm. The senior law firm partner walked into a conference room and gave Hopgood his coffee order.

"I gladly fetched [it] for him, knowing how much shorter the interview would be as soon as I took my seat at the head of the table," Hopgood wrote in an essay on serving as a woman on a corporate board. "It was a moment I thoroughly enjoyed. I suspect he did not."

The incident reflects Hopgood's career of confronting and overcoming bias and flourishing in traditionally male-dominated roles.

Currently, Hopgood chairs the Capital Regional Development Authority, an economic development agency created by the state legislature in 2010. The agency's purview includes housing development as well as operations and oversight for the Connecticut Convention Center and XL Center in Hartford and Rentschler Field in East Hartford. She has also run her own consulting firm since 1985 — The Hopgood Group — and serves as a board member for Newport Harbor Corp., a hospitality company in Newport R.I.

The Hopgood Group developed a niche serving companies in legal and financial trouble. In some cases Hopgood served as a consultant and in others she came in as a board member.

For example, New York-based Del Global Technologies was under investigation for fraud by the U.S. Defense Department. Hopgood came in as board chair, entered a guilty plea and sold a division to pay a fine.

As an antidote for the good old boys, Hopgood, 69, has also helped develop several "Girls Groups." They meet regularly for lunch, dinner and various social gatherings.

Hartford members include Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College and a CRDA board member.

"It's really an opportunity for some of the prominent and up-and-coming women leaders to get together and stay informed," Berger-Sweeney said. "We have each other's backs. This has also broadened my perspective on the Hartford community."

After being appointed chair of the CRDA by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2010, Hopgood found she had become very popular with certain business interests.

"Every developer in town wanted to meet with me," Hopgood said. "I told them to meet with staff. I don't want to meet with someone who's looking for favoritism."

CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth said Hopgood's approach has been refreshing and proper. Freimuth credits Hopgood with fighting hard to establish standards and structuring partnerships to improve the likelihood of returns on investments.

Together they toured run-down Hartford structures, which have since been transformed into new residential housing, including about 1,200 apartments. They both recall the stench of mold from the former Sonesta Hotel, since cleared and renovated into the Spectra on the Plaza apartments.

The old version of the building was "one of the largest pigeon houses in Connecticut," Freimuth said.

A major unresolved issue is what to do with the XL Center, the aging sports arena-exhibition hall that anchors downtown. The CRDA had proposed a $250 million makeover for the XL Center, but is still awaiting legislative approval.

Hopgood is a major proponent of renovating and preserving the arena.

Early days

Hopgood started working at age 11 at a family owned hotel in New Hampshire, busing dishes.

She began her college studies at the business school at Northeastern University, but found that milieu less than encouraging.

"A number of professors made it clear we [female students] were there to find a husband," she said.

Northeastern, renowned for its co-op work program, offered to place her as a cosmetics clerk at the Jordan Marsh department store. She passed that up to manage her family's hotel and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of New Hampshire.

She became a vice president and senior loan officer at a bank in Lowell, Mass., then went on to Aetna.

There she ran a billion-dollar investment portfolio in the San Francisco Bay area, including Silicon Valley. She worked with the second-largest developer in the country, Lincoln Property Co., which was Aetna's joint-venture partner.

Hopgood was responsible for new development. In one bold move, Aetna and Lincoln developed an office building south of Market Street in San Francisco, which at the time was not considered a conventional commercial area but rather more akin to the former "Combat Zone" in Boston.

As a young CEO in the restaurant industry, she recalls being criticized for having an open-door policy.

"I want the bad news. I can't fix it if I don't know about it," she said.

Malloy was effusive in his praise for Hopgood, her work downtown and her direct approach.

"She's a pistol and a maverick," Malloy said. "She's ahead of her time. She's poked enough white guys in the eye to make them sit up and pay attention. We're kindred spirits."

On the job

Guiding business principle: Your word is all you have.

Best way to keep your competitive edge: Living in the city, a multi-etnic, multi-cultural learning experience.

Proudest accomplishment: Taking good care of my 97-year-old WWII veteran Dad. Becoming chair and CEO of a NYSE company — Furr's Restaurant Group — at age 48.

Goal yet to be achieved: Having a lasting impact.

Favorite part of the job: Mentoring

Least favorite part of the job: People who treat women disrespectfully.

Personal touch in your office: Gold Star paperweight my secretary gave me in 1984.

Judgment calls

Best business decision: Creating The Hopgood Group LLC in 1985.

Worst business decision: Owning an apartment complex.

Biggest missed opportunity: None

Best way to spot trends: Have a wide group of friends/associates/acquaintances. Watch and listen to their lifestyles. Live in the city.

Next big move: Simplifying our lives.

Your pet peeve: People who never step up to help and only sit at the back of the room throwing darts and complaining. Serial complainers.

Personal side

City of residence: Hartford

Favorite way to relax: Bicycling in Asia.

Hobbies: Biking, swimming

Last vacation: Five weeks in Thailand, two of which were bicycling.

Favorite movie: "Wonder Woman" and "Black Panther"

The car you drive: 2012 Honda Accord

Currently reading: "The Fire This Time," by Jesmyn Ward

Favorite cause: Working to have more women on corporate boards of directors and shelters for abused women.

Second choice career: I've done exactly what I wanted to do in my life.

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