NAW Mourns the Passing of Former CEO Dirk Van Dongen

Dirk Van Dongen
Dirk Van Dongen

With profound sadness, we join in mourning the passing of Dirk Van Dongen, the esteemed former CEO of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW). Dirk’s legacy is marked by his unwavering dedication to pro-business policies and his transformative leadership that built NAW into the influential trade association it is today.

“I often told Dirk Van Dongen that he was a living legend. Throughout his four-decade tenure, he transformed NAW into a powerhouse in Washington. Dirk mentored generations of trade association leaders, including myself,” said Eric Hoplin, CEO of NAW. “He played a pivotal role in electing hundreds of members of Congress, all while advising them on the importance of free enterprise. His office walls told the story of his influence, adorned with photos of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and countless leaders of the House and Senate. When he passed the baton of NAW leadership to me, his graciousness and generosity were unparalleled. Dirk was not just a mentor but a friend to me and many others. While he will be deeply missed, the impact he made will resonate for generations.”

Dirk’s journey with NAW began modestly in 1968 when he transitioned from AT&T’s marketing department to direct the association’s membership drive through phone solicitations. This innovative strategy boosted NAW’s membership and set the stage for his remarkable career.

A staunch advocate for free enterprise and a robust American economy, Dirk amplified the voices of countless American businesses. He had an unparalleled understanding of the impact of regulation and taxation on businesses and was masterful in advocating for government policies that fostered economic growth. Dirk was a formidable presence in American politics, starting from the Reagan administration. In addition to his work electing pro-business leaders to Congress, he served as co-chairman of several finance committees for the election of GOP Presidential candidates. He was instrumental in assembling coalitions of business interests that were pivotal in passing landmark legislation, including the 1986 tax reform bill and the 2001 tax cuts under President George W. Bush.

Dirk was also a cherished friend and mentor to many, and we send our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Maryann, and his daughters Rachel and Marisa. His legacy of relentless advocacy, transformative leadership, and genuine friendship will be sorely missed.

Back in 2006, DC Velocity magazine referred to Van Dongen as “the most influential man you have never heard of”, who focused his effort as the head of NAW on political issues that helped his member companies. He also helped shape Republican politics since the 1980’s, having advised multiple presidents and helping to pass tax reforms in both 1986 and 2001. Van Dongen is also credited with raising money toward helping Republicans re-take control of the House of Representatives in 1994.

While critical of the Trump Administration’s Defense Reauthorization Bill, Van Dongen also earned the respect of the administration and was named to the Trump Administration’s task force aimed at reopening the economy at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Others on the task force included Steve Jobs and Steve Forbes, and Condoleezza Rice.

Van Dongen did an interview with tED magazine back in 2014 where he pushed back against the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, referring to them as the Taliban minority. “What I mean is these guys are purists, and if you are not 100% pure, you’re a bad guy. Their rebellion disarms the Republican majority (in the House).  Tactically, they don’t want to play the game, and it doesn’t make sense at all. If you are only going to get 80% of what you want, take it.”

Van Dongen announced his retirement as CEO at NAW in March of 2020, and stayed in the position until the association’s fiscal year ended in November of that year. He’s statement when announcing his retirement was, ““What a great industry! America’s wholesaler-distributors have given the United States the world’s absolute best distribution system. They are why what you need is always there. Representing them has been a totally fulfilling experience as well as a genuine privilege,” said Van Dongen.

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