Alex Fischer to depart as head of Columbus Partnership

Katy Smith
The Columbus Dispatch
Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer is stepping down at the end of the year. One Columbus CEO Kenny McDonald will succeed him.

The leader of Columbus’ most powerful civic and business organization will step down at the end of the year, saying he’s ready to explore what’s next in his career and life.

Alex Fischer, who joined the Columbus Partnership as CEO in 2009 to rally the city’s business leaders to work collaboratively for the good of the region, will continue in his role until Jan. 1. He’ll be succeeded by a leader who’s worked by his side the past 11 years: Kenny McDonald, the CEO of sister organization One Columbus and a nationally recognized economic development expert.

“Kenny and I have been partners in everything we've done around here for the last 11 years,” Fischer said. “Since the day he arrived, Kenny took what I thought was a pretty high aspiration for economic development and just blew it out of the water. And there's nothing I'm more proud of (than) creating the environment for job creation and in the vibrancy of Columbus and how we literally have changed Columbus through economic development.”

Kenny McDonald, CEO of One Columbus, will become CEO of the Columbus Partnership in January.

Fischer, who came to Columbus from his native Tennessee, has no specific plans regarding his future, except to  stay in Columbus and continue to contribute to the community.

“I won’t rule anything in or out,” he said, including serving as a CEO in another organization. “I love the intersection of business, politics, policy, community and having an impact, doing my part to make my little piece of this world a bit better. And so I think there's lots of ways that can manifest.”

He does, however, say he probably won’t run for political office.

Fischer’s involvement in Columbus runs several boards deep. He has chaired the board of trustees for Nationwide Children’s Hospital for eight years; serves as an Ohio State University trustee; and recently joined the board of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp.

In the for-profit sector, Fischer is on the boards of Hilliard-based Advanced Drainage Systems, Children’s Hospital gene therapy spinoff Andelyn Biosciences, and is a member of the advisory board for Westerville-based White Oak Partners, a multifamily investment firm.

He previously held positions as senior vice president for business and economic development at Battelle; as deputy governor and chief of staff to Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist; and as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. He also co-founded a behavioral health company in Tennessee.

The Columbus area has transformed in the time Fischer has served as the Partnership’s CEO, growing by more than 200,000 jobs by 2020 from the days of the financial crisis of 2008-10. Large swaths of the region have been physically remade, including massive development in Downtown Columbus and surrounding neighborhoods, in Dublin with Bridge Park and elsewhere. Among the initiatives Fischer championed were the creation of One Columbus (formerly called Columbus 2020), the Save the Crew movement and Columbus’ Smart City win in 2016.

The Partnership itself also has transformed, growing from a dozen or so CEOs to the 75 who are members today. During that time, the city has earned a reputation in economic development circles for a collaborative nature, drawing several major data center projects and more recently, biotech wins such as the announcement that Thousand Oaks, California-based Amgen will bring a $365 million plant and 400 jobs to New Albany.

Fischer, 54, teared up when he talked about sharing his plans to leave with Partnership chairman Les Wexner, who founded the Partnership with Jack Kessler of the New Albany Co. and former Columbus Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe.

“We’ve been in conversation for 13 years. We are extraordinarily close,” Fischer said of Wexner. “I admire him. I know he admires me — we play off each other. … It's hard to change roles when you're that close with people. You don't want to let people down.

“At the same time, he knows that I know that it's the right thing to do. And he respects that. He's actually helped me through that process.”

“The Partnership began as a few CEOs informally getting together because we cared about Columbus. Now, the table is larger and the business leadership in Columbus is more collaborative and engaged than I have ever seen,” Wexner said in a statement. “Alex has demonstrated outstanding leadership.”  

McDonald, 51, said the Partnership and its high level of corporate engagement is one of the city’s points of pride, and that’s thanks in part to Fischer, who recruited him from Charlotte, North Carolina, to run the newly created Columbus 2020 more than a decade ago.

“We’re one of the most dynamic economic regions in the country, one of the leading markets for job creation and investment, for civic innovation and corporate leadership, and that’s a testament to the leaders of the Partnership including Alex,” McDonald said.

The remainder of the year will be spent appraising Partnership and One Columbus operations — they are financially intertwined and operate in the same offices at 150 S. Front St. — and “adding capacity,” McDonald said. He and Fischer, who was paid a $940,000 salary in 2019, did not rule out the possibility that McDonald could serve as CEO of a streamlined entity.

McDonald's 2018 salary was $395,000 in 2018, according to the nonprofit organization's most recent publicly available tax returns.

Fischer said he was ready to depart the Partnership before the pandemic erupted in March 2020, but stayed to help steer the organization through an extraordinary 16 months, during which it has seen the highest member engagement in its history.

Now that a new governance structure is in place, with co-vice chairs Nick Akins of AEP, Nancy Kramer of IBM iX and Steve Steinour of Huntington leading initiatives around economic competitiveness and diversity, equity and inclusion, and with the global pandemic receding, Fischer said the time was right to depart.

“There's another chapter to be written," he said. "I don't have any idea what it is. … I'm really excited about the conversations that are going to come, to ask people what they think a guy like me might do to continue to have a big impact during this next chapter of life.”