A new crop of business leaders finds a place at the Columbus Partnership's table.
While the death of Dispatch Publisher John F. Wolfe two years ago left a hole in the city's power structure, civic leaders say the impact wasn't as great as it could have been just a decade ago. A deeper bench of community leaders has helped fill the void, a transition made easier thanks in large part to the Columbus Partnership, the organization Wolfe co-founded with his good friend and fellow civic power broker Les Wexner in 2002.
Through the Partnership, Wolfe and Wexner helped establish a culture of unselfish collaboration and community spirit, dubbed the Columbus Way and celebrated in a Harvard Business School case study. That defining philosophy has spread to other leaders who continue to have an impact in the city. “We definitely miss John,” says Alex Shumate, the managing partner for the Columbus office of Squire Patton Boggs and a member of the Partnership's executive committee. “But, quite frankly, what I see is that others have stepped up a little more aggressively.”
“I think leadership equates to culture,” says Alex Fischer, the president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership. “And I think we have a very unique culture in Columbus. It is hard to measure, but you can touch it and feel it and describe it in different ways.”
Wexner has always said he envisioned the Partnership as an inclusive forum where the city's top business and community leaders could work together to address the most pressing challenges. He wanted a broad range of people and interests at the table, rather than the small, insular group that dominated when Wexner first emerged as a civic power player in the 1980s. Since starting with just a handful of folks from the region's largest businesses and organizations, the Partnership's membership has swelled to about 70, including leaders from emerging tech companies, smaller businesses and nonprofits.
That growth, at first, was to make sure the Partnership heard from the right voices as it focused its mission around economic development starting in 2009. Then the expansion became a leadership development strategy. Since 2016—the year Wolfe died—the Partnership has welcomed 18 new members (not including institutional turnover replacements), and more are on the way. Shumate says Wolfe's death provided a “healthy nudge” toward this youthful injection. “We're trying to bring on the next team of leadership in the community,” says New Albany Co. co-founder and Chairman Jack Kessler, one of the original Partnership members. “We're trying to identify them and recruit them … so what we started will continue, because some of us are getting a little older.”
In the past year, two new members—digital marketing guru Nancy Kramer and venture capitalist Mark Kvamme—have joined the Partnership's executive committee, the organization's top brain trust. Meanwhile, other executive committee members appear to be taking on greater leadership roles, such as AEP's Nick Akins, a leader in the Smart Columbus initiative, and Huntington Bank's Steve Steinour, a major supporter of Pelotonia and a member of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Board.
Kvamme, a Silicon Valley transplant who now runs a $550 million venture capital firm in Columbus, says the Partnership has always welcomed his outsider perspective. “They truly thrive on that,” he says. He describes the Partnership as a “no-idea-is-a-bad-idea kind of place,” with an infectious culture that's hard to resist. He says he didn't expect he'd become as involved as he has, but the unselfish ethos established by Wolfe and Wexner attracted him, along with the personal involvement and dedication of so many CEOs. “It seems almost not believable, but there really is no personal agenda,” says Kramer,“and everyone is focused on what is in the best interest of our community, not what's in the best interest for them or their company.”
As the organization prepares for the future, Partnership leaders must make sure they engage CEOs from smaller companies, Akins says. “Having Les Wexner leading [the Partnership] along with John Wolfe was instrumental in terms of the beginning of the organization,” Akins says. “In the future, there's not going to be many more Les Wexners, but hopefully we can have a lot of CEOs add up to a Les Wexner and continue to advance the city.”
To strengthen that pipeline, the Partnership has built ties with organizations such as YPO (formerly the Young Presidents' Organization) and the Entrepreneurs' Organization and has supported leadership training for young executives (sending 10 people to Harvard's Young American Leaders Program each summer for the past four years). These relationships appear to be showing results. Chad Delligatti, the CEO of the growing Dublin staffing and outsourcing company InnoSource, joined the Partnership in 2016 after learning about it through YPO, while others such as Pelotonia's Doug Ulman and developer Brett Kaufman became Partnership members after graduating from the Harvard leadership program.
“It could be a little intimidating, but it's not,” says Kaufman. “You would think it would be, and at first, when you sit down next to people like Les Wexner and all the success that's in the room, as a young person you kind of pinch yourself. And yet you learn that they're just like everybody else, and their hearts are really big and good.”
Sandy Doyle-Ahern, the president of Columbus surveying and civil engineering firm EMH&T, joined the Partnership this year. She also praises the warm welcome she's received and the collaborative spirit she's witnessed during her first few months with the organization. Doyle-Ahern adds gender diversity to an organization dominated by men. “I appreciate being at the table,” she says. “I have certainly heard them talk about wanting to increase that diversity and inclusion. I'm not sure it always is going to mean that everybody plays the same role. It could be a lot of different things. It could be committees. It could be advocate groups for different issues that the Partnership is involved in, but my sense is absolutely they recognize that it's important.”
CoverMyMeds co-founder and CEO Matt Scantland first saw the Partnership up close when he participated in its 2015 Silicon Valley field trip. The experience surprised Scantland, who found the group to be “bigger-thinking” and more open to new ideas than he expected, and he eagerly accepted the offer to join the Partnership in 2017. “It gives us all a purpose that is bigger than ourselves and bigger than our companies,” he says.
Dave Ghose is the editor.