Four years ago, Matthew Barzun taught a session called “Hunting vs. Farming” to a group of rookie Barack Obama fundraisers in a Chicago hotel ballroom.
The former executive at CNET Networks Inc. told them that tracking and “bagging” wealthy donors is important in presidential fundraising, while adding new donors -- even small ones -- can yield bigger dividends.
Barzun, 40, now is putting his strategy to the test as he leads the effort to raise as much as $1 billion for the 2012 re-election bid amid a struggling economy and Obama approval ratings at the lows of his presidency.
“Part of farming is, yes, make hay when the sun is shining,” he said in his Chicago campaign headquarters office during his first interview as Obama’s national finance committee chairman. “But there will be rain, and our job is to do well with rain, too, and don’t get all freaked out.”
It’s a message Barzun delivered to fundraisers this week during a training session called “Obama University” that attracted more than 100 money raisers from across the U.S.
Barzun resigned in May as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden so he could accept his new assignment. It’s a post previously held by Penny Pritzker, a Chicago billionaire and businesswoman, who helped raise a record $745 million for Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Jack Daniel’s Dynasty
Like Pritzker, Barzun is no stranger to big money. He and his wife listed family assets, including joint trust accounts and other holdings, valued between $305 million and $475 million on a June 2009 financial disclosure form they filed after Obama named him ambassador.
Much of the money comes from Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, one of the brands manufactured by Louisville-based Brown-Forman Corp. Barzun’s wife, Brooke Brown Barzun, is the daughter of Owsley Brown II, the company’s former chairman.
Five unopened bottles of the whiskey, which Barzun says he prefers to sip straight-up, sat on a shelf during the interview, leftovers from an office party a few nights earlier.
Barzun is also no stranger to raising money. In the 2008 election, he was among Obama’s top fundraisers, collecting more than $500,000, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money.
Democratic and Republican presidents have routinely awarded ambassadorships to their top fundraisers. Besides Barzun, Obama gave posts in England, Spain, France and Japan to some of his 2008 fundraisers.
It’s also not the first time an ambassador has returned to the U.S. to oversee fundraising for a presidential re-election. Mercer Reynolds, then an ambassador in Switzerland, returned home to lead the fundraising drive for former President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign.
Four years ago, Barzun was one of three fundraisers who pitched to Pritzker the idea of an “Obama University” as a way to better train newcomers.
Barzun is repeating the program this year because he realizes that the president’s fundraising time is more limited than four years ago.
“It’s up to us to come up and help raise the resources we need without always relying on his time or the first lady’s time or the vice president’s time,” Barzun said.
With two smart phones placed in front of him, Barzun said technology has grown exponentially since the last presidential election. The campaign is experimenting with high-quality video conferencing as a way to connect donors with senior campaign staff and the president, as was done during his 50th birthday celebration in Chicago in August.
Fundraisers will also be brought to Chicago for briefings and dinners where they will learn how the campaign is preparing for the election. “That’s where all the money is being spent and so hearing about the needs and all that stuff, it’s such an energizing thing for us volunteers because we can go home and talk about all that stuff,” he said.
Pritzker said Barzun, then 36 years old, showed up in her office about a week after she was named to the job four years ago, asking what he could do to help.
“He was very creative in helping us figure out how to really reach out to low-dollar fundraising,” she said, noting a fundraising event in Louisville with an admission price of $25.
“It really kicked off this idea that there was a market out there for doing low-dollar events with a big turnout and that there was enormous benefit to the campaign,” she said. “He brings a very practical approach and he’s innovative.”
In an interview with Bloomberg Markets magazine in 2008, Barzun recounted how he asked Pritzker for permission to hold the event. She agreed, he said, provided he didn’t spend more than 5 percent the gross revenue.
“That made us think: ‘Do we really need chicken?’” he told the magazine. “We served pitchers of water.”
As much of a technology junkie as he is, Barzun said he knows the Internet has its fundraising limits.
“Fundamentally, this is people having one-on-one conversations with other people, asking for their help,” he said.
Raised in Massachusetts, Barzun is the son of a lawyer and social worker. He attended Harvard College and joined CNET as the company’s fourth employee, after graduating magna cum laude in 1993.
He was executive vice president for CNET’s business technology group, responsible for boosting brands such as Download.com, News.com, ZDNet, and Builder.com.
Before he was the Swedish ambassador, Barzun was president of BrickPath LLC, where he advised and invested in Internet media companies, according to his White House biography. His hobbies include cooking, history and listening to music.
Barzun keeps an office in the 50,000-square-foot campaign headquarters inside a high-rise that overlooks the site of Obama’s historic 2008 victory celebration. He leaves his wife and three children most weeks to commute from his Louisville home to Chicago, often flying Southwest Airlines.
On a whiteboard near his desk, he has the U.S. divided into 11 fundraising regions, plus one for “abroad” for citizens living outside the country.
Asked when he first met Obama, Barzun grabs a photo taken in his backyard almost exactly five years ago during a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser.
Obama in Kentucky
Obama, then a U.S. senator contemplating a presidential bid, had called Barzun before the event to get acquainted. Barzun had exceeded expectations for Kentucky when he raised money for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
As part of that fundraising visit five years ago, Barzun said he asked Obama to do a free, public event while he was in town because Louisville doesn’t attract many top Democrats. The resulting gathering drew about 5,000 to a minor league baseball stadium, Barzun said.
“It was amazing,” he said. “It was every ZIP code and it was every age group and it was this wonderful, diverse mixture that is Louisville.”
The next morning, Barzun said he introduced Obama to former boxer Muhammad Ali, a Louisville native.
The first public measure of Barzun’s leadership caught the attention of the president’s rivals. Obama’s re-election effort raised more than $86 million in the quarter that ended June 30, eclipsing the combined haul of the entire 2012 Republican field. The total is a combination of money collected by Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
The campaign lowered its goal to $55 million for the third quarter, which ends Sept. 30, after several fundraisers were canceled because Obama was engaged in the congressional debate over raising the U.S. debt ceiling, Barzun said.
Mike Mays, a friend who runs a coffeehouse chain in Louisville, said Barzun lacks any of the pretentiousness that might be associated with someone of his wealth and connections.
“He’s a pretty charismatic guy,” Mays said. “He’s got the right balance between intellect, sense of humor and attitude.”