Some 16 years ago, a chain of unplanned career detours landed Lucy Dunn as the head of the Orange County Business Council, a nonprofit that champions area businesses while working to enhance quality of life for the county’s 3.2 million residents.
A month into the job, Dunn was hosting President George W. Bush to discuss immigration issues. A few years in, she was helping to guide the local business community through the Great Recession and the lengthy recovery period that followed, when she became a leading voice on issues such as affordable housing and infrastructure. And last year, Dunn took on her greatest challenge yet, helping her organization’s 200-plus member businesses navigate the worst pandemic the nation has seen in a century.
On Wednesday, Dunn, 68, announced that at year’s end she’ll step down as president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council.
“It took a long time to think about this, to make sure we’re coming out of the pandemic,” Dunn said. While she acknowledged the county still faces many challenges in that area and in addressing issues such as affordable housing, she said she doesn’t think the Orange County Business Council has ever been on firmer footing. So she thinks it’s time to pass the torch.
The Coto de Caza resident said she also wants to spend more time with her sons and grandkids, to continue volunteering with other area nonprofits, and to indulge her love for travel while she’s healthy.
“The world is big,” she said. “And I love learning new things.”
That openness to adventure is what set Dunn on the path to piloting the OCBC decades earlier.
She was born in New Jersey and came to Orange County when she was in kindergarten, as her father chased defense contracts across the country while working for North American Rockwell. When her dad announced they were moving yet again, while she was a junior at Mission Viejo High, she announced she’d move in with friends and finish out her school years here. And she never really left.
While Dunn was attending classes at Cal State Fullerton, the 19-year-old took a secretary job in a two-man law firm. That morphed into paralegal work and then into Dunn getting a law degree from Western State University College of Law.
After several years running a private practice, where Dunn worked mostly on family law and probate cases, a friend asked if she’d like to serve as assistant general counsel for homebuilding company Signal Landmark. There, she helped settle 10-year litigation that protected the Bolsa Chica wetlands.
Dunn also became the first woman on that company’s board of directors. Later, she became the first female president of the Building Industry Association of Southern California and served as the governor-appointed director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
“I never really wanted to be the ‘woman president,’” Dunn said. “I told everyone I wanted to be the best president.”
Female leaders from both sides of the political aisle say Dunn’s pioneering work has inspired their own.
“Lucy has truly paved the way for many women to step up in business and politics,” said Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, a Republican who represents the Fifth District in south county. “For me, Lucy is a mentor, a thoughtful business leader and voice of reason on virtually any subject matter, a constituent and, most importantly, a friend.”
Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, a Democrat from Laguna Beach, said Dunn has been a strong voice for data-driven and fact-based policymaking. She said Dunn also is a trusted advisor and “one of the first people I turn to when navigating policy that impacts Orange County businesses.”
And many in the community Dunn has championed — businesses — said she’s going to be missed.
“I know the void she will leave as an advocate for Orange County,” said Emile Haddad, president and CEO of FivePoint, developer of the Orange County Great Park and a longtime corporate member of the business council.
“Her legacy as a leader who has commanded the respect of everyone regardless of their political affiliation will always be an inspiration.”
When she took on her role at the Business Council, in 2006, she expected to stay on only for a few years.
“But I got in and I just loved it. Every day I’m learning something new,” she said.
“And Orange County is just such an amazing place… It’s a joy to get to be its cheerleader.”
Dunn’s outlook has always been that in order for Orange County to lure top businesses and ensure they thrive, it needs affordable housing, good schools to educate future workers, and solid quality of life factors such as reliable transportation and strong arts. She’s an advocate of public-private partnerships and has pushed those who want to do business here to play an active role in advancing those goals.
“She’s been an unbelievable asset,” said Larry Webb, executive chairman of the New Home Co., an Irvine-based homebuilder. “She’s always had the best interests of the clients and of Orange County. … I think she will be irreplaceable.”
Dunn was an early proponent of building more homes as a way to keep home prices in check, arguing as director of the state’s housing department that California needed to build 200,000 units a year to keep up with population growth.
But, on average, home building in California has run closer to 100,000 units a year, or less. So, under Dunn’s leadership, the Business Council started a Workforce Housing Scorecard program, in 2008, advocating for the need to provide housing affordable that would keep middle-income workers, such as nurses, teachers and police, near the communities they serve.
Dunn also is proud of helping to facilitate a settlement to a long and contentious battle between a transportation agency that wanted to extend the 241 toll road and a group of environmentalists who joined forces to block those efforts. Rather than advocate for a specific solution, Dunn said she drew on her experience as an attorney to create a safe space for both parties until they reached an agreement last year.
“On many occasions, she single-handedly brought together diverse and competing interests for the greater good of this community,” O.C. Business Council Chair Jena Jensen said of Dunn. “She is a true connector.”
That work has helped Dunn rack up a series of awards, including being named the California State Legislature’s “Woman of the Year” and one of The Orange County Register’s “100 Most Influential” people for 2014.
Even while tackling some of the most contentious issues of the day, Dunn has largely steered clear of the political fray. She’s registered as no party preference and earned appointments from both GOP and Democratic leaders.
Over the past year, Dunn hasn’t shied away from an issue that could have been politically fraught — coronavirus. She’s encouraged COVID-19 safety measures, such as wearing masks and getting vaccinated, and she’s worked to give businesses a simple way to confirm vaccination status. She also helped the Business Council land its first government contract to administer the county’s SafeDineOC program, which distributed $10 million in federal grants to reimburse more than 2,100 local restaurants for health-related expenses incurred during the pandemic.
Dunn will stay at her job through the end of this year. The nonprofit is forming a search committee to select her replacement.
The biggest challenge Dunn sees for her successor is complicated, and not limited to business.
“It’s not the economy, it’s not Covid, it’s not China,” Dunn said. “The single most important issue right now is rebuilding trust among people.”
Dunn plans to help ensure a smooth transition for whoever steps into her shoes. She’s also anxious to stay active with many of the other community organizations she now serves, including the Pacific Symphony.
Because even though she’s retiring, Dunn said, “I really suck at golf.”
Staff writer Jeff Collins contributed to this report.
Source: Orange County Register