As president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, Alex Fischer leads a collective of the area’s brightest institutional and business leaders working together to shape the city’s economic development and tackle the issues of the day.
Since joining the organization in 2009, Fischer has overseen an increase in membership, a diversification of the faces around the Partnership table, and a solidifying of the group’s mission as it addresses issues such as education reform and job creation.
Today, the Partnership is comprised of 50 of the titans of Central Ohio’s wide range of industries, including Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Director Emeritus Jack Hanna, restaurant mogul Cameron Mitchell and Les Wexner, founder, CEO and chairman of Limited Brands.
Fischer began his career in the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, where he helped meet record-setting economic initiatives, including $40 billion in new capital investments, before being appointed deputy governor and chief of staff to Gov. Don Sundquist. Fischer left his home state to join Battelle, moving to Columbus to oversee government relations and technology commercialization as senior vice president for business and economic development.
In addition to leading the Partnership, Fischer serves as chairman of Columbus 2020, the city’s private-public business development arm. He serves as chairman of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital and has been appointed by Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman to the board of the newly created Columbus Education Commission.
In an exclusive interview with Columbus CEO, Fischer discusses the rewards and challenges of his job, how Les Wexner helped him achieve a work-life balance and the innovative thinking required to usher in an economic renaissance in Columbus.
Q: What is the Columbus Partnership’s mission and history?
A: We’re a CEO group that is first and foremost interested in the civic vitality of Columbus with a focus on the economic vitality of the community.
Q: The Partnership is a nonprofit organization. What are its sources of funding?
A: Our exclusive sources of funding are our private sector members.
Q: How does current membership compare with when the Columbus Partnership was first founded?
A: When the organization was first founded, it was a small group of less than 10 CEOs in the community who were first, at the urging of Governor Voinovich, organizing and meeting informally over breakfast and lunch. Then they brought some formalities to the organization, with roughly an initial 10 members and then, over the time period, has expanded.
One of the things I’ve tried to do under my leadership is to expand the group to make sure that we have a broad set of perspectives at the table, from different industry segments and different CEO leadership in the community.
Q: Do you think these CEOs would ever be in the same room were it not for the Partnership?
A: One of the things I often say is that we as a community are big enough to have scale—we’re big enough to have the size of companies that are operating all over the world located in Columbus—but then we’re still small enough as a community to get those same CEOs together on a regular basis. I think that’s very unique about Columbus, and very unique about our organization. That we’re able to get CEOs on a regular basis to leave their individual interests at the door and come together around our table thinking about the community.
Q: What are your members’ responsibilities within the Partnership?
A: They’re expected to be engaged and to first and foremost care. Engagement and caring and involvement come in many different forms. It’s not just simply showing up for meetings. Some of the best engagements I get out of our membership, oftentimes, is one-on-one around specific issues. It’s not always around our quarterly board meetings—oftentimes, it’s in small group settings over breakfasts and lunches, around a particular topic. The engagement really manifests itself in many different ways and oftentimes is very CEO- and company-specific.
Q: What’s your process for reaching out to CEOs and recruiting them?
A: We have a nominating committee self-governed by the membership itself, a nominating committee and an executive committee. I often tell people that it’s not my job to hire CEOs in companies in town, nor is it my job to issue the invitation. That’s our membership that does that.
Q: What’s your role as president and CEO?
A: It’s to lead the organization and to help corral the many ideas and personalities around a community agenda. We focus that agenda very consciously around the economic vitality of the community and the many aspects that impact that economic vitality. So mine is to harness consensus. In the time that I’ve been here, we haven’t had votes at a Partnership [meeting]. Mine is to understand the will of the group through both group conversation and individual conversation, formulate strategy and policies from those, and then to turn those into action in the community.
Q: What was on your agenda in 2012 and where did you end up?
A: The biggest thing that was on our agenda there, that’s still on our agenda, is going to be on the agenda for a long time, is our economic development aspirations. Several years ago we, along with many community partners, were instrumental in studying and thinking about how our community does economic development. It was the formation of the Columbus 2020 plan that is still a big part of our organization. So, the staff of Columbus 2020 are actually staff of the Partnership. I chair its board of directors, all of our companies are very active in … private fundraising for Columbus 2020.
We ended 2012 two years into the plan and well ahead of our aspirational goals. A few years ago we said we wanted to do four things and we stay focused on those four things. We wanted to create 150,000 net new jobs; we wanted to create $8 billion in capital investment; we wanted to raise personal incomes; and we wanted to be named a top community in economic development. While there are hundreds of things that get done, we come back to those four measures.
We’re thrilled that, at two years into it at the end of 2012, we’re ahead of all four of those 10-year goals. Which, I would add, that many people said were nearly impossible to attain because they were so ambitious. So it’s really gratifying to see our economic development team delivering on the plan.
Q: What’s your response when someone tells you ‘it can’t be done?’
A: You know, I remember when we were talking about [it], the 150,000 net new jobs goal over the next decade would be a doubling of job creation in a 10-year, historic period of time. I’m a big believer that, as a leader, you have to set aspirational goals. Not just any goal, but goals that can really motivate people into action. I think that’s something that leaders do.
I don’t think anybody’s going to complain if we create 140,000 net new jobs over the next decade. But perhaps if we raise the bar and set ourselves in motion to a place that we’ve never been before, we can go further than we might otherwise go. I think, just as a leader and an organization, that aspect of goal setting is very, very important.
Q: Along the way to those goals, do things come up that sideline your organization? You’re involved in the education commission, for instance.A: There are really three aspects of the Partnership. First and foremost, we’re a CEO group, where CEOs come to the table, learn about the community, learn about each other, learn about and share our own leadership styles with one another. It’s a place where, if you’re a new CEO in town with one of our companies … it’d probably take many years to get to know all the members. This is a place that at one table, a lot of deep relationships get built in the community. So, first and foremost we’re a CEO group.
Second most, I’ve talked about our focus on economic development as being the main thing. We have a saying from our chairman Les Wexner that, ‘The main thing is the main thing is the main thing.’ You sort of have to repeat it back three times to understand that it’s all about focus. And our focus is the economic vitality of Columbus.
But then, when you convene a group like ours, your phone rings a lot, asking for help on any number of important issues. We have to be opportunistic around the issues of the day. That’s included our strong involvement in things like the Columbus Blue Jackets arena deal, and the issues around the casino or the work we’ve done with the Columbus Foundation on the sustainability of arts organizations and the report that we did in setting forth our thoughts on the path related to that issue.
It’s hard to predict what tomorrow’s issues will be. Our job is to be a community and partner with other organizations and with our elected officials whether it be at the state or local level. We’re very active at the federal level as well around the topics that are important at any moment in time.
Now, with that, we have to prioritize. As the leader, the lens that I try to apply to the prioritization is the focus of the organization: economic vitality. You can choose to do anything and everything. We have to be selective around those things that have the biggest impact on economic vitality. When the mayor reached out to us in the summer of last year, concerned about the topic of education, we were happy to be his and other community leaders’ partner in thinking about that topic, because there may be no other issue that’s more important than the issue that’s facing public education and its ancillary impacts and very direct impacts on economic development.
Q: What are some of the concerns you’re hearing from CEOs on public education?
A: First and foremost, I guess the common thing that I hear is a really shared aspiration with the mayor that every kid in Columbus, no matter where they live or what their backgrounds are, what their family circumstances might be, should have the right and ability to get the best possible education of anybody in the country. I think we are concerned that the numbers and the various rankings in performance would suggest that there’s a lot of improvement that’s got to be made. We’re at the bottom of the pile as opposed to being on the top. I think our commitment is to do our part to support the community and the mayor in an aspiration that says, ‘Let’s have one of the best school districts in America for every kid of Columbus.’
Q: Has the Partnership made financial contributions to the Columbus Education Commission?
A: We have. We have, as we often do around important community issues like economic development, passed the hat among members of the Partnership for contributions.
Q: In 10 years, what will the Partnership’s ideal Columbus look like?
A: Columbus is continuing on this tradition that we’ve seen over the last several years. If you just think about [it], we’ve defied much of the economic times with the notoriety from the New York Times and Time magazine. We were just named a top-10 community in economic development by a key publication in the world of economic development, and a lot around the country are pointing to Columbus as the place where the new Midwest begins, and the renaissance of the national economy.
So 10 years from now, I hope that we have both the economic vitality that we’re enjoying today plus a whole lot more, combined with a better recognition. I mean, one of the challenges that we still have in Columbus is our reputation, in the success that we’re having is not as well-known nationally as many of us would like to see. I hope a decade from now we’ve got that continued economic vitality, that we’re a place where people are wanting to study how we did it in terms of economic development, how we did it in terms of the best education for every kid in Columbus, combined with a dramatically improved household name of Columbus.
Q: You have compared the renaissance in Columbus to what you saw happening when you were in Tennessee. What are the similarities?
A: I’m 45 years old, and in my lifetime—which increasingly feels short—I witnessed my hometown of Nashville, Tenn., but then the communities of Atlanta and Charlotte, in four short decades burst onto the international stage. The context for their doing that was a great social and economic transition in the South. It was evidence to me what really can happen in just a short period of 30 or 40 years in which three cities of very different natures that, in my lifetime, started out as almost farming communities and now are recognized in their own right as three international economic hubs of activity in the South.
I think in a similar way, the Midwest is in a very significant economic transition. I just think that a place like Columbus starts from a very different foundation. We already have this great economic vitality, so it’s a reminder of how quickly things can change in a short time period.
Q: How do you think Central Ohio is doing in comparison to other cities with the high-tech business boom and with startups?
A: We’ve got a good foundation of technology assets. We’ve got great organizations like TechColumbus, and we’ve seen some good traction. But candidly, we’ve got a long way to go. I don’t think we’ve really tapped into and effectively mined the capabilities and the assets of first, the Ohio State University, certainly my alma mater of Battelle, organizations like OCLC, Chemical Abstracts. I’m the chair of Nationwide Children’s Hospital, so I’m a bit biased from the research that’s coming out of there and the health-care community of Central Ohio.
I think we’ve really only scratched at the surface. Access to capital and venture capital has long been a talked-about challenge that we are committed to doing something about. In fact, on my [white]board behind me, one of the things that I often like to write up are the things that we need to be focused on, and I think this is a year that we can make some great strides in access to capital for new startups.
With that said, we’ve had a bunch of success stories, and we’ve got a real vibrant technology community in Columbus. But I think we all need to make sure that we’re paying attention to it and holding all of our organizations to a higher level of standard. That’s in part what we try to do with the Ohio State University, and we’re seeing progress there as they rethink their own commercialization activities and plans.
Q: Did the Partnership help Ohio State develop the Technology Commercialization Office in the South Campus Gateway?
A: We’ve been very active in their thought processes around commercialization and encouraging it to be a priority of the board of trustees and the administration and the new team that they’ve brought in.
Q: Don’t they almost have to be if they’re going to keep up—not just in academia, but with the research and commercialization taking place in places like our local hospitals?
A: At Nationwide Children’s, we’ve become very focused. From the Children’s Hospital perspective, I think it’s important to be pursuing commercialization that then allows us to recruit the talented doctors, staff, researchers to the institution that we have. It’s about bringing new knowledge to the table that goes into that research, that goes to that medical care.
People far too quickly want to jump to the financial returns, and I think the financial returns are actually secondary. I believe commercialization brings and builds the strength of research enterprise. That’s certainly how we thought about it from the Battelle perspective when I was there.
Q: What other concerns do you hear CEOs expressing over 2013. What individual goals are you hearing from within your organization?
A: Individually, they run the gamut. A common theme is where each of our individual companies are going from a growth standpoint. The focus on growing internationally is really big around the table. Women in leadership is a consistent theme that is occurring at the table. The recruitment of talent into our companies and how we make sure that we’re conscious collectively about the recruitment of key executives into companies is another theme that’s alive and well. The world of politics, whether it’s the governor’s budget or the president’s health-care programs, are always top of mind in an organization like ours.
Q: What challenges are CEOs expecting to face as a group?
A: The key challenge I think that all of our companies face, especially as it relates to government interfaces at all levels, is consistency and predictability. Companies know how to plan for and strategize against the playing field, if they know what the playing field is. Now, if we’re also very agile, obviously, in being able to move quickly with a changing playing field.
What I often tell our government leaders is: The most important thing at the federal, state and local level that our government leaders can do to spur economic growth—and I consistently hear it at our company levels at the Partnership table—is this issue of making sure that we have a consistent and predictable, understandable trajectory as it relates to regulations and taxes and the issues that face business.
If there’s a frustration, that frustration is that lack of predictability and consistency.
Q: How does your experience in the governor’s office in Tennessee help you navigate challenges in this organization?
A: This organization is all about parallel processing against multiple issues that get thrown your way. From a leadership standpoint, the issue that I probably learned as a young guy in politics in Tennessee was the velocity at which a variety of issues come your way. I had responsibility at some level for 22 agencies of state government. That requires you to be very agile against all the issues that you’re facing. That was a great baptism by fire in terms of learning how to deal with multiple agendas, multiple issues coming very quickly at you and how to prioritize. At the end of the day, you have to prioritize around the things you think can have the biggest impact.
Q: Did the structure of government slow you down any in your goals?
A: Whether it’s the structure of government or the structure of big organizations, size sometimes is a great enabler and other times size of companies and government can be an inhibitor. I think it’s a little unfair to simply say that government’s the only bureaucracy. I find lots of bureaucracies in other institutions and organizations beyond government. They have the good and the bad that come with it.
What I found in state government was that we could mobilize very quickly around a common vision with extraordinary resource. But you had to lead people to the common vision that allowed them to self-motivate. I find it very similar in the work that we do, even with private-sector companies.
Q: What’s it like leading an organization of leaders?
A: It’s a bit daunting. It’s also exhilarating. I learned some time ago that making a living was the easy part, but doing it in a place where you’re surrounded by issues and people that motivate you is really the exciting piece that makes you want to get up.
At some level, I think that this is the best job in the world because of the people I get to work with every day. Whether they’re the government leaders of our community or the private-sector leaders or our own team at the Partnership or other community partners, there’s no shortage of motivation around thought leadership. Getting to learn and interact with some of the best minds in the world in business is really, really unique.
Q: To what degree do you interact with the state government that’s based in Columbus?
A: We do a lot. I’ve learned to recognize that on more than a few occasions, the phone rings and the person on the other line says, “This is John,” and, you know, it’s the governor. I think we, being in the state capital, have a special responsibility and relationship with our state government counterparts. It’s been a great relationship, in fact. [It’s been] a great relationship with this governor and with previous governors as well.
I would note that the progress that JobsOhio is making on the economic development front is really significant from the vantage point at which I sit. The ability for a governor to help set the tone and the agenda of a state’s economic development program is something that I was heavily involved in in my prior lifetime in Tennessee. I’m watching Gov. Kasich do it as well as anybody I’ve ever seen—and I’ve watched it closely around lots of administrations in lots of states. It’s really special what the governor’s doing on the economic front.
Q: The governor’s getting some blowback over the private-public financing of JobsOhio. How would you deal with that?
A: Oftentimes, you have some pieces that are political and you have to deal with that. Other times, you have real issues of people understanding the roles and responsibilities of organizations. So, when you have a new organization like JobsOhio, it’s pretty legitimate for people to want to understand how that organization is going to operate.
They’re learning themselves, and they’ve gone through a few bumps along the road, as we all do. I think that’s part of the process. At some level, it’s a startup company, and that startup company is running hard, it’s having lots of success, but at the same time it’s feeling its way. And it is in this interesting space of the public-private nature of the work that they do.
Q: Do you think there are any misconceptions among the general public about the business community?
A: I do, actually. The unique thing that I get to see every day is the unselfish manner in which our corporate community comes to the table simply wanting to help—wanting to lend their expertise, wanting to lend their ideas, wanting to invest their resources on things that can make our community better. I think oftentimes that’s misconstrued as wanting to control things, or wanting to drive things only to a limited end.
From my own vantage point in the work that I’ve been fortunate to do here, I see everybody as extraordinarily collaborative. It’s interesting how our opinions actually change over time and are shaped by one another and shaped by the community and our political leadership.
I often worry … that people think that our work is preordained, that it’s not collaborative in nature. Because if you’re in my shoes, working our issues day-in and day-out, it’s just the opposite.
Q: What value do Partnership members place on philanthropy and community service?
A: This is a special community. There’s a saying on my board from a longtime mentor of mine, Jim Haslam in Tennessee, who was a founder of Pilot Oil. As a young guy just getting started in Tennessee, he once asked me what I was doing to ‘pay the community rent.’ That was [his version] of Woody Hayes’ ‘What are you doing to pay forward?’ What I find in this corporate community and in this community at large is the most incredible commitment to philanthropy, whether it’s at Children’s Hospital or the Ohio State University or the largest United Way giving campaign or one of the largest community foundations. You just see that philanthropy and giving back or paying forward, or paying the community rent, however one chooses to articulate it, is really phenomenal in this community.
Q: How do you strike a work-life balance?
A: It’s something you have to be very cautious about. In fact, it might be surprising to most, but one of the people that I’ve learned from on that front is my chairman Les Wexner, who a few years ago got a blank calendar out and put it in front of me and said ‘You should fill the calendar in for the year around your family first,’ and think about what vacations you’re going to take, what time off that you need to stay energized, how you’re going to think about your personal health and literally think about it from a calendaring standpoint.
It works differently for everybody. Some people like long weekends and some people like to take a couple of weeks off. I don’t think there’s necessarily a magical answer. I’ve tried to be way more conscious—I’m not perfect at it by a long stretch. One of the things I do a whole lot better today than I have in years past is putting down my electronic device and not trying to answer every single email on Saturday or Sunday … and be more conscious about being willing to put some things off for a day or two, to do my best to be in the moment.
Q: Is that hard when you’re passionate about your work?
A: It’s tough, absolutely. … It’s hard to know day from night—when you’re working and when you’re not—because it certainly, in this job, bleeds together.
[My wife] Lori and I got a place, a weekend place, at Buckeye Lake last year. We often joke that we love it because it’s a place where no one knows our name, as opposed to where everybody knows your name. That gives us a respite to get away and just get out on the lake or just hang out by the fire in the wintertime, to slow down with the kids and friends away from everything that’s going on in Columbus.
At the same time, it’s sort of hard to ever totally escape. I have an old saying, ‘day jobs and night jobs,’ and certainly with the chairmanship of Children’s Hospital, which I consider to be the most cherished institution in our community, that bleeds together. I’ve got a very supportive family. Lori enjoys being a part of my work in the community. That’s another big piece of it, when you’ve got a partner who enjoys that aspect of it. The kids (Ethan, 15, and Anna, 13) always keep us very, very humble along the way.
Q: Have they been to Columbus Commons yet?
A: Oh yeah, to the Commons and the Scioto Mile and the bike paths of Columbus.
Q: What was the last play or concert or art exhibit you attended?
A: The last concert was Rascal Flatts. The Annie Leibovitz exhibit was probably the last … although the last exhibit I was personally in was last week walking to lunch through the Urban Arts Center, which I often walk through when bouncing around Downtown.
Q: What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received or would give?
A: The turtle doesn’t get on the fencepost by himself. Whether you’re knocked off the fencepost, which I’ve been knocked off before, or you’re trying to get on the fencepost, the realization that you’ve got to do it with a team, you’ve got to do it with mentors, you’ve got to surround yourself with others that can help you be successful. Probably the most foundational piece of advice I would have.
Q: On the flipside, what’s a really bad move you could make in the business community or when you’re heading out to accomplish a goal?
A: Don’t drink your own bathwater. Be really careful to keep yourself in check—when things are going really, really well—that it’s not all about you.
It’s usually when things are going really, really well that you can lose sight of or start thinking that the success is your success. Often and always, you’re a part of it.
I think it’s about trying to do everything that you can to stay humble, but with an edge. Humility doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to be hard-driving with the highest of expectations and very hard-charging. We all lose that sometimes, and sometimes it’s more painful than other times to get back into balance. But I think that’s one of the easiest things to lose in an executive post like this.
Q: Do you think the Partnership helps CEOs resist that urge?
A: I do. I think that our community work is driven by the value that comes with putting multiple perspectives around an issue. I think we do that well as a Partnership. I get insight into our executive committees, and I think the best companies in Columbus value differences of opinion, they invite debate. The leaders listen and participate in that debate and help set direction based on it. I actually think that’s one of the key things that we do really well as an organization.
Q: Who’s your sounding board? When a challenge arises, who do you go to?
A: There are about a dozen key leaders in the community, and then CEOs and political figures. I would probably put it into three categories of peers in the community: [those] that are running other organizations, a handful of CEOs who are very generous with their advice and time, and I find the communities of political leadership very engaging.
Q: How do you define success, personally and professionally?
A: I think success comes in advancing—whether it’s your professional life, personal life, whether it’s your organization or your family—to an aspirational and visionary place. It’s not simply about the numbers, whether it’s the numbers on a scorecard or the numbers on a financial balance sheet. I think it’s about that ability to constantly be moving yourself, your entity, your organization, whether it’s personal or professional, toward outcomes that are of a visionary nature.
Katherine McConnell is a reporter for Columbus CEO.
Portions of this article are reprinted from the May 2013 issue of Columbus CEO. Copyright © Columbus CEO.