Les Wexner to step down as the chair of the Columbus Partnership

Huntington CEO Steve Steinour and AEP CEO Nick Akins will replace the longtime chair of the powerful civic organization.

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
Les Wexner is stepping down from his position as chair of the Columbus Partnership.

In a long-expected move, Leslie H. Wexner will relinquish his position as the chair of the Columbus Partnership in January, stepping aside to allow two other longtime corporate leaders to guide the powerful civic organization.

Wexner announced the change during the Partnership’s October meeting. Succeeding him as co-chairs of the organization’s governing committee are Huntington Bank CEO Steve Steinour and AEP CEO Nick Akins, both of whom have been members of the Partnership for more than a decade. The decision continues the leadership transition occurring at the organization, which will also welcome a new CEO in January: Kenny McDonald, who is replacing Alex Fischer, who’s served as the Partnership’s chief executive for 12 years.

The organization's leaders didn’t announce the latest leadership shift, but Partnership spokeswoman Irene Alvarez confirmed the change on Wednesday. Alvarez says Wexner will remain a member of the governing board and an adviser to the organization’s top leaders.

“Columbus has changed and grown, and so has the Partnership’s ability to serve it,” Alvarez said in an email. “What you’re seeing today, in terms of both CEO and board leadership transitions, is the result of succession planning that Alex, Les, and governing board members have been defining over the past couple of years. Les often comments on the importance of making room for new leaders in the community, and now, that belief is being put into practice. Having Nick and Steve take the helm as co-chairs, while Les remains at the table giving advice and counsel, is a condition that is both fortunate and strategic for the Partnership.”

In 2002, Wexner co-founded the Partnership with the late Columbus Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe and New Albany Co. chairman Jack Kessler, who remains a member of the partnership and its governing committee, which oversees the organization and its members and hires its chief executive. Since its founding, the Partnership has grown from just a handful of CEOs representing the city’s largest companies to more than 70 leaders, including executives from emerging tech companies, nonprofits and smaller businesses.

Through it all, Wexner, 84, has been the undisputed guiding force for the organization, which he created to serve as a vehicle for the city’s top business and community leaders to work together to address its most serious challenges. While both Steinour and Akins have become respected community leaders during their tenures with their companies, neither has the standing of Wexner, whose imprint can be seen all over Columbus, from the arts, to the riverfront to Ohio State University.

But Wexner has endured some difficult times in recent years. In 2020, Wexner resigned as CEO of L Brands after nearly six decades at the company. He struggled to turn around the business amid cultural shifts that tainted its then signature brand, Victoria’s Secret, and revelations about his close connections to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. As a result, he has played a less visible role in community affairs in recent years, civic leaders say. And with Wexner having left his corporate role and having turned 84 in September, many have been expecting this leadership transition at the Partnership for some time.

For more on the city's shifting power dynamics, check out the January issue of Columbus Monthly, which will bring you profiles on the players who will lead the region in the coming years. 

dghose@columbusmonthly.com

@monthlyeditor