Q&A: Jack Kessler on the growth of New Albany

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From the September 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

The stuff of legends often begins as a minor happening. In the late 1980s, developer Jack Kessler’s bachelor friend Les Wexner began talking about building a country home. Three decades later, the city of New Albany is arguably the hottest executive residential district in the Columbus region.

“We drove all over Columbus” to find the build site, says Kessler. “We focused on the northeast because of its location. It’s near the outerbelt, close to Downtown, close to the airport, so it’s a very convenient site.”

The pastoral landscape and quaintness of what was then the village of New Albany played a role in the site selection as well, says Kessler. Kessler and his family were among New Albany’s first new transplants; he and his wife, Charlotte, live there, as do their three daughters, their spouses and the Kesslers’ grandchildren.

Kessler’s office in New Albany’s Village Center overlooks the town library, named in Charlotte’s honor. The pair are active philanthropists; both hold multiple board positions.

Kessler welcomed Columbus CEO into his office for a conversation about New Albany’s development and his influential board involvement with some of Columbus’ best known institutions.

Q: In the late 1980s,there was much speculation that New Albany would be a model of mixed-use economic and community development. Have those predictions come to pass?

A: When we started it, it was not that complicated. We picked it out to be a nice residential area. We had a long discussion about what the architecture should be--not only for our houses, but for all the houses that we built here.

We engaged some world-class planners and architects to help us: Robert Stern, who is now the dean of the Yale School of Architecture; Gerald McCue, who’s the retired dean of Harvard’s graduate school of design; Jaquelin Robertson, who is retired dean of Virginia’s school of architecture; Laurie Olin, who is a world-renowned land planner; and Jack Nicklaus (designed the) golf course.

We put this world-class team together and we talked, particularly with Stern. We took trips with him, not only in the United States but also in England and in Northern France to see what architecture and what communities were lasting and had some history—what worked and what didn’t work. So that inspired us to use the Georgian architecture. We thought, not only does it look good when it’s new, but it ages quite beautifully.

Q: To that point in your career, had you ever worked with a Dream Team like that?

A: No, no! But Les is quite a planner, and this was never started out to be as big as it is now. Originally, it was residential. Then we decided we needed a golf course. The New Albany Country Club is the heart of the residential community.

We wanted it to be world class, something we could both be proud of. It’s interesting that both of us live here. A lot of times, developers build something but they live somewhere else. We were the first two people to move down here (during the development) and lived here and have been here ever since.

Q: What strategies have you used to attract corporate headquarters to locate in New Albany?

A: The New Albany Company has always had a very close working relationship with the city of New Albany. When we first came out it was the village of New Albany, but it’s grown; it’s now the city of New Albany. The city manager, the mayor and city council are very pro-development.

It’s been a real partnership. We’ve planned together, we’ve worked together. Having a partner like that, it’s unusual. Usually the developer and the community aren’t that close together. They’ve been very helpful in enabling us to grow the business park.

Q: You were on the board of Bank One Corp. during the JPMorgan Chase merger—did you help maintain the company’s presence in Columbus?

A: I had been on the Bank One (formerly Banc One) board for a long time. I was on the search committee that hired Jamie Dimon to be Bank One’s CEO after John (B.) McCoy retired. Then when JPMorgan acquired us, I was lucky to make the cut to go on JPMorgan’s board, which was really a lot of fun and interesting.

Jamie is a great leader, he’s a great banker--there’s nobody better—and a nice person. This used to be Bank One’s headquarters. When we moved to Chicago, we worried about what was going to happen to the workforce. There’s more employees now for JPMorgan than when Bank One was headquartered here--21,000 people. Jamie loves it here because he said the work ethic is so good. He said he’d move everybody here if he could. He loves Columbus. We’ve had an annual meeting here of JPMorgan. He comes back often. Outside of New York, it’s their largest number of bank employees anyplace in the country.

Q: What did you see in Mr. Dimon when you helped select him for the top position?

A: He’s just a fabulous leader. He’s the best banker in the country, there’s no question.

Q: What role have you played in Downtown’s economic development over the past four decades?

A: I was on the Convention Center (board) when we first started that. I think Mayor Coleman and city council have really done a great job promoting Columbus, particularly housing Downtown. I’m on the Downtown Development Corp.

When people haven’t been here in a while and they come back, they say, ‘This is not the Columbus I knew.’ Look at the Short North, German Village and now the Peninsula, with Vets Memorial and what’s going to happen over (there). It’s really pretty exciting, but there’s office buildings, businesses coming back Downtown and a lot of housing. The vibrance of the city is great. The mayor deserves that credit, and the city council.

Q: Tell us about your work as chairman of the OSU Board of Trustees:

A: I went to Ohio State and was fortunate enough to go onto the board as chairman. It’s very rewarding to be on the board of trustees of an institution where you went as an undergraduate. I was chairman of the search committee that hired Gordon Gee to come here. That was a lot of fun. Now he’s one of my dearest friends.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in business and development?

A: I graduated from Ohio State and decided I wanted to go into my own business (though) I didn’t know what business. I’d say the model was (Columbus developer) John Galbreath. I didn’t know him well, I just knew who he was. I thought, ‘That’s a pretty interesting thing he’s doing, I think I’ll try it.’

Q: Of all these people with whom you’ve worked, who has influenced you over the course of your career?

A: I would say my biggest mentor was John G. McCoy. He put me on Bank One’s board when I was a very young man. He was almost like a second father to me. I miss him, he was great. He and my mother were the two who influenced me (most).

Q: What lasting lessons did Mr. McCoy impart?

A: How you conduct yourself in business. Ethics and your reputation. He always gave us talks--he did the same with Les, who was also very close to him—making sure you give back to your community. Be generous.

Q: How do you measure success in your life and work?

A: I think how you conduct your life, not only personally but business-wise, and your reputation. Between good health and a good reputation you can always make a living. Deal with people the way you like to be treated. Hopefully I’ve done that. I try anyway.