Columbus Partnership's new CEO Kenny McDonald challenges community to dream bigger
Kenny McDonald is challenging Columbus to be more ambitious than ever.
Intel’s $20 billion investment in Licking County is the biggest economic development project in state history—much less for Greater Columbus. If all goes well, the two factories the Silicon Valley-based semiconductor company will build on land to be annexed into New Albany could one day expand to a total of eight facilities and a $100 billion investment by Intel, making it one of the largest semiconductor sites on Earth. Beyond the 3,000 high-paying jobs that will be created by the first two factories, the project figures to include tens of thousands of additional jobs.
Even with all of that, new Columbus Partnership President and CEO and longtime Columbus economic development executive Kenny McDonald is wondering whether the region is underestimating the project’s potential.
“Probably the biggest thing we took out of the Intel project is these moments in time when we and the company would both probably say we aren’t thinking big enough,” McDonald says. “It’s a global project. It’s a global solution. We happen to be a location that is serving as a solution for that. Man, we have to think really big. It’s not just the scale of the numbers, the jobs and the land. It’s all those things plus what you’re trying to achieve and why you’re trying to achieve it.”
McDonald, 52, took over the top job on Jan. 1, replacing Alex Fischer, the Partnership’s longtime leader. The Partnership, made up of 82 CEOs, is the region’s most powerful civic and business organization.
The Partnership dates to 2002, formed by retail giant Les Wexner and Dispatch Publisher John F. Wolfe. The two created what has turned out to be a powerful group of CEOs with a focus on improving the economy and creating better-paying jobs.
Fischer joined the Partnership in 2009 as its CEO and became one of the city’s top power brokers—in the middle of nearly every single major issue involving the city and serving on multiple public and private boards.
He recruited McDonald to come to Columbus from Charlotte, North Carolina, to run One Columbus, then called Columbus 2020, in 2010. The two worked side by side for 11 years, with McDonald running One Columbus, the region’s economic development arm, before taking over Fischer’s old office. Columbus 2020 was created in the fallout of the Great Recession, the steepest downturn since the Great Depression, with a focus on a regional approach to economic development and diversifying the economy.
Greater Columbus has experienced sharp growth since then, adding more than 150,000 jobs, $8 billion in capital investment and a 30 percent increase in income per person, according to One Columbus.
But the Intel project has taken the region to another level.
“To see it manifest itself in something like this is awesome,” McDonald says. “The way we talk about it, though, it’s not that we pulled it off, but we’re pulling it off. We are executing it. It’s a rolling adventure.”
Given McDonald’s history with Fischer and the knowledge of the region, the transition in leadership hasn’t been as significant as to when it is happening and how fast the economy and jobs are changing.
There’s Intel for starters. The Partnership and One Columbus will be counted on to help Intel with training, recruiting talent, building infrastructure and integrating the company into the corporate and local community.
Ongoing challenges face business: supply chain frustrations, coronavirus
Then there’s the coronavirus and workers starting to return to the office, the war in Ukraine and its effect on the ongoing supply chain problems companies already are dealing with, and rapid technological changes that pose major challenges for companies in multiples sectors of the economy, McDonald says.
Changes that normally would take place over years are happening faster, sometimes in months. “People’s lives are changing. Their companies’ trajectories are changing for good and great in some cases or are being really challenged,” he says.
McDonald does have the advantage of once working closely with Fischer. He also has a network of economic development experts around the country who have been helpful over the years and are going through similar situations.
But he’ll have to lead the Partnership without the old hands that Fischer depended on. Wexner stepped away as the top executive of the former L Brands that owned Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret. Wolfe lost a two-year battle with cancer in 2016.
“The organizations, institutions, our leadership has to be ready to do things differently,” McDonald says. “I tell the team changes that we had planned to make over a period of time are going to have to be compounded into months.”
For now, One Columbus won’t fill McDonald’s old job, and he is counting on the veteran staff to run it. “I’ll still remain involved in all of the economic development efforts day to day,” he says. “One Columbus is a really important organization for us to continue to operate at a high level. It’s one of the best in the country mostly because we have a team that’s been there for the entire 11 years.”
Connecting the public and private sectors
McDonald says he is finding that the economic development efforts of One Columbus have become more intertwined with the activities of the Partnership, which are more focused on policy and civic issues involving the major issues facing Columbus such as housing, education and transportation.
Other cities are dealing with similar situations. “All are being accelerated and all are being asked to do more in the middle of this as the bridge builder between the public sector and the private sector,” he says.
Being able to see through all of this and into the future worries McDonald. “Our ability to think beyond the immediate urgency of the next crisis to think long term is such an incredible competitive advantage, to have the capacity, the leadership to think beyond — where is this going 20, 30 50 years from now? What do we want those headlines to be?”
McDonald’s selection to lead the Partnership was the only choice that made sense, says Joe Nardone, CEO of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority that operates John Glenn Columbus International Airport and Rickenbacker International Airport. He’s also a Partnership member.
“One of the things about Kenny is that he is authentic. He says what he means and means what he says. That’s why he can close the deal. He’s reliable,” Nardone says. “He’s really good at assessing strengths and weaknesses, and things we have to attack to be better.”
Nardone praises McDonald for being able to bring the 82 members of the Partnership together. “The fact of the matter is that it’s been a seamless transition,” he says. “He’s far ahead of anyone else.”
Steve Steinour, Huntington Bancshares chairman, president and CEO, says McDonald is tireless. “He’s doing two very full-time jobs. He’ll grow into the role.”
The advantage that the Partnership has is its relationships with leaders and businesses in Greater Columbus, Steinour says.
“This highly engaged network of partners and advocates will work closely with Kenny to set him up for success and ensure he has the support he needs to help the region seize opportunities for substantial economic growth,” he says.
Steinour, who co-chairs the Partnership with AEP’s Nick Akins, says Fischer and McDonald made a great one-two punch, and that he thinks McDonald needs a partner.
“We’re now bigger,” he says. “Intel alone is a substantial job.
“Kenny is currently adding to the team with a ground-up approach, including additional opportunities for existing associates, and we will be sure to reassess capacity,” which may result in bringing on select senior managers to round out the team eventually.”
When Columbus 2020 rebranded itself in 2019 as One Columbus, it set new economic development goals of creating 60,000 jobs with an annual payroll of $3.3 billion and investment of $10 billion.
All are ambitious aims, bigger than the ones set for the prior decade.
But it was another goal that was the most eye-catching: turning Greater Columbus into the most prosperous region in the U.S.
Greater prosperity means improving the standard of living for more people and addressing health and wealth inequalities along with having economic growth. “No metropolitan area did that ... at least in the last decade and I would argue they haven’t done that in the last 50 years. Points in time, maybe they’ve had small successes here and there,” McDonald says.
It means the Partnership will address issues in housing, education, labor force and transportation, among others. “The last 50 years have been an historic economic story. We should not be in the place we are right now when we’re talking about health inequities, wealth inequities and that’s where we are. We have to be sober about that.”
Airport leader Nardone says it’s been great to see CEOs, often accused of being focused just on profits, embrace the effort. “We have CEOs that don’t just care about bottom line,” he says. “They care about raising people up. They care about diversity. They care about raising salaries. Making Columbus the most prosperous is about making sure everybody is on the bus.’’
Steinour says the Intel project may become to Columbus something akin to Ford’s value to Detroit. “It’s a very unique moment,” he says. “Different leaders stepping in and stepping up can make a huge difference to those who are marginalized.”
Today’s middle school and high school students who obtain the right credentials, for example, could be among the early hires at Intel, ultimately earning salaries approaching $100,000. Intel has said the average wage for the 3,000 workers at the plant will be $135,000.
What concerns McDonald is that change is happening so rapidly that making the necessary adjustments to address inequities will be harder. “Maybe I worry about this the most: Are we really going to do it differently than the leaders before us have done it so that we don’t end up in the same situation where we have growth, we have positive balance sheets in our communities and our inequities either stay the same or get worse,’’ he says.
“Where are we going to spend our time? How are we going to do even honestly very small changes, make these thousand small changes that need to happen across our systems and within our communities and companies to make the changes necessary so that the playing field is even whatever the goal line date is.’’
Building a labor force
The unemployment rate for Greater Columbus has been near an all-time low in recent months. The 2.8 percent rate in December was the lowest this century. The rate was at 3.3 percent in March, the most recent month available.
Employers routinely complain about how difficult it is to find workers, but at the same time the state has about 140,000 fewer jobs and workers than before the pandemic started. Then there are other groups of people who, for one reason or another, aren’t in the labor force or haven’t been able to get a better job.
McDonald believes that removing obstacles on where workers come from, their background and credentials, along with those with disabilities can address at least some of the inequities. “I’m very confident we’re going to eliminate these barriers, get people either back in or into [the workforce] for the first time,” he says.
Already, change is happening. Some companies, for example, are dropping requirements that workers have four-year degrees for some jobs. “You’re seeing a big shift in that,” he says. “That’s opening up the possibilities for millions of Americans at least. If anyone in the world can solve the problem, it’s the most diverse country in the world, which is us.”
McDonald’s first taste of economic development came while he was a student at Georgia Southern University and he landed an internship at the Savannah Economic Development Authority.
He learned quickly that those in economic development are involved in some of the biggest issues facing a community, and that the work of an economic developer is a bridge between business and the public sector.
Over the years, McDonald says he has learned the value of finding community leaders who are driven to make their local communities better. “I’m passionate about helping communities achieve their potential. Even when we were representing clients, it wasn’t a cutthroat game of you’re eliminated, this community wins and this one loses.”
McDonald says it’s important for communities to know why their effort comes up short. “What did that community learn by losing? We would circle back with and talk with them about what is [it] going to take next time.”
An example of that was the failed bid to win Amazon’s second headquarters in 2018. Columbus was one of 20 finalists for the project out of 238 regions of the country that sought the project. “HQ2 was a tipping point when it came to the pursuit of that, how they approach it and what we had to do to compete,” McDonald says. “It really sharpens your thinking about everything else.”
Leaders in all communities want the same things, McDonald says. “How do we move forward? How do we move the economy forward? How do we move our civics forward? There’s people who care. ... Your job is get the potential out of those leaders and the assets you’re given.”
“That’s the thing that resonated with me,” he says. “We’re all trying to get to the same place.”
President & CEO, Columbus Partnership
Previous: President & CEO of One Columbus, formerly called Columbus 2020
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Dickinson State University in North Dakota; graduate degree at Georgia Southern University, the Economic Development Institute at the University of Oklahoma and Harvard’s Young American Leaders program.
Resides: New Albany
Family: McDonald and his wife, Jennifer, have three children: Emma, a student at Ohio State University; John, a student at the University of Toronto; and Jayne, a student at New Albany High School.