IBJ: Brad Chambers brings business acumen to GOP bid for governor

By Peter Blanchard
Indianapolis Business Journal

INDIANAPOLIS — Brad Chambers knows what it takes to build something from the ground up.

An accomplished entrepreneur, he turned a fledgling rental property business that he started in college into a billion-dollar company.

But in a race that has five competitive candidates for the Republican nomination for governor, being a recognizable figure can be just as important as financial prowess, and Chambers has some ground to make up in the recognition category.

“If there was a poll on the gubernatorial primary, I would be willing to bet there are still a lot of Republican voters who do not know who he is or have any opinion about him,” said Chad Kinsella, professor of politics at Ball State University. “It will be critical for him to run commercials and get information out about who he is [and] why he is running, and [to] make an appeal to Republican primary voters.”

Chambers has been working hard and spending money to do just that.

The former Indiana commerce secretary and founder, president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Buckingham Cos. Inc. entered the governor’s race in August—after four other major Republicans had already announced their candidacies.

But what Chambers lacked in timing he made up for in financing, giving his campaign $5 million of his own money—the largest personal contribution made by any candidate—and raising more than $2 million in contributions of at least $10,000 in less than six months.

In his first TV ad, Chambers introduced himself to voters as a “political outsider.” Hand-picked by Gov. Eric Holcomb to lead the state’s economic development policy from 2021 to 2023, Chambers defends this narrative by noting that he has never run for political office—he was appointed, and only after initially declining the role.

Chambers’ campaign contributors point to his business acumen, outsider status and emphasis on increasing Hoosier wages as factors that make him an attractive candidate.

“Indiana has a very unusual and unique opportunity to select a leader with the kind of background that he has,” said Doug Rose, president of Indianapolis-based real estate company Irwin R. Rose & Co. and a Chambers donor who encouraged him to run for governor. “I think Hoosiers are likely tiring of professional politicians, and Brad offers a chance to select someone that has not spent any time in politics.”

Chambers entered the race after the June 30 campaign finance reporting deadline. But as of that date, most of his significant GOP opponents had more than $3 million in cash on hand. They are U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, who reported $4.6 million at the deadline and is seen by some political observers as the front-runner; Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, a seasoned politician with more than 30 years of experience in public office and $3.8 million in her campaign account; Eric Doden, a Fort Wayne businessman with an economic development and business resume similar to Chambers’ and $3.7 million cash on hand; and Curtis Hill, the former Indiana attorney general who lost his 2020 reelection bid after accusations surfaced that he drunkenly groped four women at a party in 2018. He also entered the race after the June 30 filing deadline.

A sixth candidate is Jamie Reitenour, a largely unknown candidate running on a religious platform who had less than $5,000 cash on hand as of June 30.

The next campaign finance report filing deadline is Jan. 17.

Whichever candidate wins the May primary will likely face Jennifer McCormick, the former superintendent of education who is expected to secure the Democratic nomination, in November. The winner of the general election will succeed Holcomb, a Republican who cannot seek reelection because of term limits.

Mowing lawns, closing deals

Chambers, 59, grew up in Indianapolis but spent time as a child on his grandfather’s small farm outside of Thorntown—“Life wasn’t easy, but we were family,” his TV commercial says—making money by cutting grass for his neighbors. By the time he was halfway through college at Indiana University, he had raised enough money to start a rental property company.

When he needed his first business loan, he went to Mike Petrie, a fellow alum who also started his own company, Merchants Capital.

“I knew he was going to make it,” recalled Petrie, chair and CEO of Merchants Bank of Indiana and the finance chair for Chambers’ campaign. “He was hard-working, entrepreneurial and honest, and I could tell he had a good sense for business.”

The partnership has paid dividends. Since Buckingham Cos.’ first rental property purchase in 1984, it has grown to a 400-person company with a real estate portfolio exceeding $3 billion.

Not long after winning reelection in 2020, Holcomb offered Chambers the secretary of commerce post. Chambers had some experience in state government, having served on the Indiana State Fair Commission for the duration of Holcomb’s first term in office, but he said he was hesitant to jump into a full-time role in public service while still running his own company. He initially declined the position.

“It had never been on my list,” Chambers told IBJ. “Giving back has been on my list—being a service guy. Being in an elected position had never been on my to-do list.”

After some cajoling, Chambers accepted the job on one condition: He did not want to take a salary, instead choosing to follow in the footsteps of Mickey Mauer, co-owner of IBJ Media, who earned $1 per year when he was commerce secretary from 2006 to 2008 under Gov. Mitch Daniels.

During his two-year tenure as commerce secretary and president of the Indiana Economic Development Corp., Chambers secured more than $33 billion in committed capital expenditures from companies looking to expand or move their operations to Indiana, including a $2.5 billion electric vehicle battery plant in Kokomo, a $3 billion EV battery cell factory in northern Indiana and Eli Lilly and Co.’s $3.7 billion manufacturing campus in Boone County.

When it came time to renew his contract last June, Chambers decided to step down, which fueled speculation that he was considering a run for governor. He confirmed the rumors in August when he filed paperwork to launch his campaign.

On his decision to run, Chambers said he “looked under the hood of the state” and saw “enormous potential” for Indiana that hasn’t been fully realized.

“I think the results that we posted as two years as secretary of commerce underscore that,” Chambers told IBJ. “Thirty-three billion dollars had never been done before. High-wage industries … wages 30% higher than any time in state history. That’s the benefit of having someone not from politics come in to run something that’s in government—with strategy and aspiration for winning. That’s how I got here.”

Tom McGowan, president and chief operating officer at Kite Realty Group Trust, knew Chambers at IU and said he’s “witnessed firsthand his remarkable journey from starting a business from scratch and leading it to become a premier national multi-family enterprise.”

“His blend of passion, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit, along with his dedication to the community through Brad and Carol’s Buckingham Foundation, make him exceptionally well-suited to serve as governor,” McGowan said. “Brad’s unique talents, achievements, and bold vision are a testament to his ability to lead and serve the people of Indiana with integrity and innovation.”

Read the full profile.