Q&A: Les Wexner and John F. Wolfe on early days of Columbus Partnership

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Les Wexner and John F. Wolfe each credit the other for creating and nurturing the Columbus Partnership-a highly successful CEO leadership group that is never far from business developments in central Ohio and is at the center of many.

The two are in complete harmony, though, on key elements of the Partnership's success. Those elements are powerful in their simplicity: a singular focus on economic development, a shared commitment to community betterment and being open to possibilities that can grow from close relationships.

Just getting busy executives in a room together is magic, enhanced by a culture that tends toward collaboration, Wolfe and Wexner reveal in a joint interview with Columbus CEO regarding their involvement with the Partnership over the past 15 years.

Credit for the impetus to create the Columbus Partnership goes to former Gov. George Voinovich, the two agree. Early guidance on how to go about it came from the late Richard Shatten, who helped create a similar Cleveland body Voinovich cited as a good model for Columbus.

In the following transcript, Wexner and Wolfe describe the early days and their views of the Columbus Partnership's accomplishments.

WasthePartnership intended to be synonymous withcorporatecollaboration?

LW – In the very beginning, Gov. (George) Voinovich was bugging me and also bugging John that we should form something like the Cleveland partnership. He'd seen its success in Cleveland. He'd call me and send me brochures about Cleveland Tomorrow, and he'd send John the same thing. And John would call me and say why don't you get it organized, and I'd say I would. And nothing happened, and then John would keep bugging me about it, and Voinovich would bug me about it, and then one summer, it must have been maybe 17 years ago. It had to be, I think the partnership is about 15 years old.

JW – Right around 2000.

LW – So I called the Cleveland partnership to talk to somebody (about) 'how did you do this?' And whoever answered the phone said the guy you really want to talk to is Richard Shatten, and it turned out they thought he was teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard, so I called them in the middle of the summer and they said he wasn't there. The phone calls went back and forth; (I) finally found out that he'd left the Kennedy school and was back in Cleveland teaching at Case Western Reserve. So I finally found him and told him that John and I were thinking about this and Gov. Voinovich was bugging us and he said, 'Well, I'll come down. I'm interested in these kinds of groups and if you're serious about it, I'll come down and spend a day.' So it began with that.

Shatten said two things. These groups, as he's studied them across the country, some had been successful, some had never been successful; some had been successful and then fallen into disrepair, but the clear pattern of success was getting people in the room. He was very emphatic about it-just get people in the room, you've got to keep keeping them in the room, so they're getting used to each other, because they're all busy guys, they're running organizations.

The common success factor in his observation was economic development. So John met him. I met him. We had several meetings and began pretty modestly. I think it was John's suggestion let's invite four or five other people. And just shouldn't we be together because there's just so much going on, everyone's busy and shouldn't we be communicating?

I don't think he had, I know I didn't, have a specific goal other than you think that the four or five or seven larger businesses, the CEOs would know each other. And I won't even call it collaboration. Just be aware of what's going on in the community; common issues, common good, whatever.

I think the first meeting that was outside of us, when it got to be five or seven people, two or three of them I'd never met. And then when you went around the room, you found out that almost-(to Wolfe) you might have known everybody-but in that group, they didn't know each other. So that notion of just getting in the room so people could know each other, and everybody at the beginning was just interested in contributing to the city, and how we would work together was kind of vague. So I don't think it began as purposed collaboration but as shared interest in the community and (being) kind of curious about knowing each other.

JW – My sense is that Columbus has always been very collegial and the CEOs are not competitive with each other in civic affairs. One of the things I remember from when my dad was still alive, you'd have people go from one to the other and by the time a story got told the fourth or fifth time, you'd have different takes on the same thing. So getting everyone in the same room at the same time, they all heard the same story; they all got to know each other. And they all had input, input with each other as opposed to different stories. It's a great credit to the city that you have such a collaborative and collegial group of CEOs. You know, you put 50 CEOs in a room, you think you're going to have 55 different opinions on what's going on, and it's amazing how really cooperative and collegial and supportive they are.

This is really a caring community, and it comes through in that. Any time there's an issue, people really step up to the plate and are willing to contribute both their financial resources but maybe more importantly their time and talent. It's hard to get people involved. They're busy people, but any time there's an issue, I don't care whether it's economic development, whether it's like the schools. And the other part of it, this city's had really fine public sector leadership. We've had a great mayor for 15 years. City council has been very supportive. We've had a county commission that has really been supportive. And the public-private partnership you can't replace. You have to have both, in my opinion, both elements, and that doesn't happen in a lot of cities. It plain doesn't. Either the private sector doesn't get along, or the public sector doesn't get along, or they have private agendas. And this city is unique. I think if you look back over the last, I don't know, 20 years, at the growth and the development. There are not many cities that show that, whether it's downtown development, whether it's working out a problem like the schools, whether it's economic development. The public and private sectors really work well together, and that doesn't happen. They work well among themselves and they work well together.

I think if you look at the development of the city in the last 15 to 20 years, it's remarkable. Other cities are trying to stay out of bankruptcy, like Detroit, or actually in bankruptcy, or they're trying to not go in to bankruptcy. When it came time to increase the city income tax, the mayor asked for the Partnership's support, which he got, and he went out and campaigned and they passed it. It's hard to know what would have happened without it. It's been a really caring and giving community, and that's been the success. It's pretty obvious.

So collaborative culture was there but maybe the opportunity to collaborate wasn't? Isthe Partnership as large as it is (over 50 members)because it's important to have people in the room and all at the table?

LW– The notion that John and I think this would be a good idea: you invite four or five others and say let's have dinner and talk about can we work together in a more effective way and great collaboration, people quite willing to do it. But I remember early on, (others were thinking) 'I wonder what they want in bringing us together. There must be something.' Well, it's really about the greater good.

I look back in my mind at the first few years. Big discussion: what should we do? Should we worry about roads and bridges? Should we worry about tourism? Should we worry about cultural institutions? Should we worry about the city's budget? Should we worry about economic development? Should we worry about education? About health? Fundraising? Columbus Foundation, United Way? And what about the poor? What about food?

We must have had a list of like 50 different community issues, and it just took a while for everybody to get comfortable that we couldn't do everything. First John and I and then the founding group, which is about seven or eight people; that group didn't have an agenda either. And I think it just takes a while of people being in a room for people to believe that you can really have trust develop. We'd go through all these things-what about the convention center? What about the freeways? (Shatten) said, 'What are the issues that are facing the city?' What about air service? What about transportation?

You might have a list of 60 things, and they were all important. What about Ohio State? What about Battelle? What about minority communities? What about K through 12? What about Ohio State? What about Columbus State? It just goes on and on; and all the issues were important, and I think what the group came to was if there's one thing we as business people could probably influence (it) was business, and the other stuff we're interested in.

And somewhere along the road, I know I had a concern. Everybody has political beliefs or favorites. Everybody has their favorite charity or their favorite cause. Is this kind of like a lobbying group where everybody can lobby the other members, whether there were 15 or 20 or 30, about their favorite cause? And (Shatten) said, 'OK, well, I don't think that would be a good idea. This isn't a clearinghouse for everybody's interests, and let's just kind of focus on economic development, because I think we could do better.'

And I think that was, it might have taken a couple or three years just to build the consensus around we can't do everything but let's do what we could do. And again, I think it was influenced by Shatten, that you're business people. This is something you know about. You might have views about politics and schools and health and other things, but let's focus on this.

And then it took us a while to understand what we could do, and understand the strengths and weaknesses in our community; who was doing economic development, were we really getting results? How did we compare with other cities? I think one of the watersheds for us was when we visited other communities that were really doing economic development. Oh, this is what it looks like. That was a big 'ah ha.' I think by that time the Partnership had grown to 20 members, and we were doing it, but wow, were really bad at it.

And then Columbus 2020 grew out of that?

LW – It was if this is what we're going to do, are we staffed for it? Columbus 2020 eventually came out of that, but it went from, from my view, wouldn't the community, if you got CEOs together, from publics, not-for-profits, whether it's businesses, the Ohio State University, Children's Hospital, Riverside, Mount Carmel, if people have broad span and broad leadership responsibilities, not necessarily all for-profit businesses, couldn't we do better in just understanding things? It took a while to get to that, and then to say if we all worked on economic development, wouldn't that be good for the community? Because we really should do it really well, because everybody benefits when the community does better economically-everyone. Every individual and every enterprise should benefit. And then you get to, if that's what you're going to do, how do you do it? We couldn't have invented it. So the idea was let's go see other communities that have reputations for really being excellent at economic development. What do they do? What does it look like?

JW–I think what's unique in this city. You never had people come together to lobby for their own project, their own business, their own personal agenda. Everyone has been supportive of the common agenda and it's always been; there's been great collegiality. Iif everybody shows up and says, I want this deal, and if I don't get that, no one else is going to get theirs. There's never been that. It's always been, and I think it's reflective of the city in general and the people, and that's a lot of turnover in corporations and heads of corporations, that culture just exists in this city. And I think the growth we have today and the issues the city has faced are reflective of that. Not many cities have had the growth. You know you look at pictures they had at the Columbus Foundation and the Columbus number ones, whether it's the zoo or this or that-not many cities, especially cities of this size, have anything like that. And it comes from a culture that this city has created. People buy into it and are supportive of it.

How how does the Partnershipdecidewhere to focus attention?

LW – Economic development is the priority, and we're sympathetic to everybody's interests and if we can help in any way, I think members individually and maybe sub groups might get together in their causes. What John is saying is that the rules of engagement are we're going to work together. And I think there is a reservoir of goodwill in the community that's unique. So it might be we're willing to row together and rowing together are two different things.

With the Partnership, and John's been immensely influential, it's like everybody can have their own selfish interests. Those are probably natural. Individuals and organizations do. What we have in common is the greater good. Economic development for the community, and that's just how we behave. So I think over the years reasonably purposed, it was like we're going to work collaboratively. We're going to work on something that we can all do to prove a result, and again, it is economic development.

And every so often, I think people have a spur about something that they specifically want, and I think it gets aired out, but it's like I'm happy that you really care about whatever you care about, but this is the main thing. This is what we're doing. And let's just keep doing that, and we're all glad to hear and we're aware of these other issues, but we can't boil the ocean. Let's put our energy here. Let's just keep working it.

Now, economic development, obviously you have to coordinate with county and city, to some degree with federal government. There are all kinds of issues that support economic development, but making it the priority, that's the primary measure of our success, and not going down other paths.

So it's like one could make a legitimate argument that the whole subject of philanthropy is important because you have civic leaders coming together. And you say, well, we're supportive of that collectively and individually. That's really in the domain of the Columbus Foundation, and we trust that they're doing it. Maybe we could support that a bit. If it's arts and culture, different people might feel differently about the arts center at Ohio State, about children's theater, about the Columbus museum, and that's important, but that's not what we're doing.

I think the clarity of the mission, if you would, the North Star, it's all about economic development. If we can create jobs, better-paying jobs, and do it better than any city in the country, hopefully in the Midwest, that's a pretty significant achievement, and that's where our expertise is. The other issues, if that's what we do, then I think people come to the organization and understand that that's what we're doing. Well, couldn't we think about roads and bridges? Yeah, well, we could, but that's not what we do.

But out of this, the Partnership, came the support for the downtown development commission.

Again, it's different subgroups of leaders (who) say I really think that's important, and I think that was really probably coalesced around Mike Morris. (to Wolfe) Maybe it was you and Mike? Not me, who said that's really important, let's get some people together on this.

What about the benchmarking reports the Partnership has commissioned in various community strengths and challenges. Do theyinformthe Partnership's work or are they done more as a community resource?

LW–I think that's accurate. Again, if you've got 50 community leaders from private sector/public sector organizations and they're looking at all those different metrics, they probably resonate in terms of interest differently. So if you're an educator, if you're the president of Ohio State or the president of Columbus State, or CCAD and you're looking at education, it might have a different meaning to you. If you're looking at the issues related to healthcare and you're from Ohio State, Mount Carmel or Riverside or Children's, it might resonate different with you because that's more of where your wheelhouse is. But I think for the partners, it's saying this is how we're really doing on a broad base so we're not looking at a single metric and saying we're doing great at economic development and everything else went to hell. We should have a broader scan. But again we're not trying to work at every deficiency to make it better.

JW – A couple of observations: the Partnership wouldn't be what it is without Les's leadership, and he's the one who pulled it all together. And then with Alex (Fischer, Partnership president and CEO) we have two great people. We've seen a lot people who have been in the role that Alex has been in, and he's absolutely superb. And the fact that the people are together is indicative of the leadership. Someone had to be in charge and get people focused in the same direction, and the partnership has done that and more importantly the people have gotten to know each other. I look at the relationship between Ohio State and Columbus State. They now have programs that you go to Columbus State and then you can go to Ohio State. And the question is, would those people have ever met each other if it hadn't been for some collective forum for them to meet and get to know each other and get ideas?

The second thing is a lot of the people around the state think Columbus has had great fortune because it is the state capital and the home of the Ohio State University. And there's no question that those are fabulous assets, but the question is, do you take advantage of those assets? And this city really has. It's engaged them. We've had good management, good leadership. We've taken advantage of the assets we have.

I remember when I was growing up everybody talked about, well Columbus will never be anything because it doesn't have heavy industry and all the automobile, steel, whatever, and we've built a fabulous quality of life around what's a modern city today and it's important to note that the culture that built that gets handed down from generation to generation, even in companies that have been here a long time. I've been around long enough to see multiple heads of various institutions but the culture remains. And the CEOs that run them maintain that continuity. It's a great place to live and raise a family and work. You hear that a lot of places but it's really true. I think Columbus is starting to get national recognition a lot of ways. It's kind of been off the radar screen to some extent but you know it's being seen for what it is. These last economic times while other cities have had so much trouble, we came through as well as any city.

You started out the Partnership by visiting some other cities. Are you at the point now where other cities are visiting here and asking howyou did it?

LW – Yes, way too many (laughs). And some of the cities that we visited that we thought were some of the best in the country are now coming here to see what we're doing. We went to see the A-Team, and now we're competing, so the C and B teams are visiting and the A-teams are visiting and saying, you must have seen something in us, because it seems you're doing what you observed from us even better.

I have to correct John (on) giving me credit on the founding. The role I play in the Partnership, the way I would view it is the Partnership had parents, and both were important. I've thought about this a lot, and the partnership wouldn't be successful without John, and may or may not have been successful without me. But I know it takes John. I appreciate the partnership we have, whether the community can appreciate it or understand it.

I'm sure people are always skeptical about what people are doing in a room they're not in. John isn't selfish. I don't think I am, and we can talk to each other frequently about what's the right thing to do and how do we go about improving things, that there's really a thoughtful partnership.

But John's history in the community, and his family's history. He knows and they know. The ink on my money isn't quite dry yet, so I don't have decades and decades or a century of history in the community, and John does. And John's much more thoughtful and a better observer of politics-whether it's the city, state, county level, and how we need to behave collectively to do things. That's just not my skill. I haven't thought about it; I wasn't raised in a culture that looked at the community broadly. We're partners with different experiences, but that partnership-it doesn't duplicate skills. There's a collaboration that isn't selfish for us.

And it's really important. I think specifically in the partnership, if there's a meeting of 20 people or 50 people, I don't think any, and I'm looking at Alex (Fischer), and people say I wonder what Les is thinking or I wonder what John's thinking, because John and I talk about it, our values in our thinking about community issues are almost always in sync. And I find myself, and I know Abigail frequently talks to John and says this is what we're thinking. Do we have it right?

I can trust his judgement, and I think that's very important, and I'm looking at Alex , I think the community feels that; that you know there's solid thought and quality thought, judgments that have real values and not that we're perfect, but it's not half-assed.

What about next generationCEOs? How does the partnership relate toyounger leaders?

JW – I think in any successful organization you've got to have succession little by little, and I think we're engaging the next generations. There's not one generation, there's multiple generations and hopefully (we are) able to engage them to be as community-minded as the current generation. But I think that's clearly a focus of making sure that as the baton gets passed from generation to generation there are people to carry on.

LW – If you were looking, let's say if you looked at the Partnership five years ago, and Mike Morris was running AEP. He retired. Jerry Jurgensen was running Nationwide and he retired. And Tom Hoaglin was running the Huntington, and he retired. I think we have probably a turnover of about 20 percent of the CEOs, either their companies are moving or they're moving out of town into different jobs, so one thing is how do we onboard the replacements, if you would, and getting them to think about the community.

George Barrett as an example at Cardinal is as engaged in the community as if he was born here, but five years ago he wasn't here, and "Columbus where?" might have been what he was thinking. So that's one issue that we're looking at-How do you maintain and advance and onboard, if you would, the group?-because it has a natural turnover.

And second is, where do you find the young leaders? And how do we engage them, whether it's going to Harvard, whether it's at a number of forums where younger leaders, YPO presidents are meeting with individual leaders in the community and members of the Partnership and just talking about how they got started, how they think about community, as a way of engaging them. That group probably is an average age of 35-ish.

Looking at different organizations, public organizations that have young leaders, how do we tap into them and influence a larger group? I think what we're beginning to; one of the things John and I talked about as we were forming the idea of the Partnership, or maybe the first few meetings, is that you could have unintended and unanticipated consequences, so whatever we do, we don't want to do any harm.

And you could imagine, (chuckling) well, we said we're just going to get a bunch of business leaders that run large businesses together, and they'd say, well they'll probably cook up some mischief. So how do you build trust among them and then trust in the community? We're not really mischief-makers; we care about the greater good.

Then, say 15 years later, how do you then propagate the group? Is there a halo effect that comes from this group in the community, which is broadly leadership, whether it is propagating the leadership of the Partnership or just making community leadership that's a value in the community. Your leadership might be focused on Riverside Hospital or it might be focused on parochial education or whatever your interest or your neighborhood. In our community, it's just a lot of people that give a damn and they knew we can do some things collectively.

So I think there's kind of a halo effect that comes from the partnership and I think part of it is that it's been successful and trusted and there are 50 members 15 years later that say, OK, what will the Partnership be 15 years from now? What is in our wake? We talk a lot about it, because what we don't want to do is lose the trust of the community and the trust we have amongst ourselves. It could be really easy for the group to start fighting each other, or (for one to) think we should go right and half the group thinks left and pretty soon you don't have a group at all. I view our role as kind of the gentle organizers, (laugh) but the emphasis is on gentle.

JW – I think one thing in the community when you have business leaders get together there's kind of a natural suspicion-you know-what are they going to do? I mean is this about them and what they can get out of it personally? And it's taken a while for the community to say, no, there really isn't any evidence of that. They do work for the common good, and that shows up in the results of things that the partnership has worked on.

Plus it also gives the community one voice when it's going to the legislature for issues; one voice that represents theoretically the private sector leadership, and then in conjunction with the public sector leadership, it's a very influential group as far as getting governmental support and also helping with issues, so I think we've kind of become more of, or have less suspicion from people; I really do. But that's something you earn over a long period of time. We can't just wave a wand and have it happen.

The thing you never know is what would the city have been like if you didn't have it. So you're comparing yourself to an unknown. Bottom line-this is a very good city and it's had very good leadership. And the results kind of speak for themselves. I think it's been fortunate to have a mayor for 15 years; a really good mayor for that long. And he's done a great job; he's been very collaborative, and the county commission is the same way; city council. It's that combination you don't find many places. I don't know exactly what we would compare ourselves to, but I think it's, I won't say unique, but it's certainly scarce.

LW – And then there's the concrete things; the redevelopment of City Center, the redevelopment of Downtown wouldn't have happened but for the Partnership. But for the Partnership, NetJets would be headquartered in, where is it-Charlotte? They were out the door, which wouldn't have been a good thing. But for the Partnership, the IBM big data center wouldn't be in Columbus. And those are specific things.

When the issues come up about attracting and retaining of business, it's not hard to get eight or 10 CEOs together and say, we'd like to talk to them; a show of force: We want you here, we want you to stay here. We do great things as enormous benefits to the community.

If NetJets had moved out of town, we would have, I don't know if it would have been disaster, but it sure as hell wouldn't have been good in a whole lot of ways. But if NetJets had moved out of town, there would be no Pelotonia, which raises $20 million for cancer research, let alone the jobs and the other industries that support it. So just being a place where people want to grow their businesses and they want to know what the community is like. Whether it's political leaders, obviously the Partnership, the economic development work, it's not hard to put eight or 10 senior people together with the mayor, with the governor and say, 'Hey, we've got a great city.' A real sales force of leaders-this is what we really do. Maybe it's the president of the university, depending on the interest of the business, but you can get everybody together and say, we stack hands, we're in this together.

It would be interesting; I hadn't thought of this, and looking at Alex, (to know) all the things that would not have, but for the partnership, wouldn't have happened. It would be good for the Partnership just to say some are little and some are small.

When you look at what the Partnership stands for-economic development and also instilling and nurturing that value of community; would you put those on equal pedestals?

JW – They go hand in hand. You're not going to have one without the other. You talk about economic development. The big issue in this country today is jobs for people, and as Les has pointed out, whether it's NetJets, IBM, creating jobs is really the crux of economic development. We have 5 percent unemployment, lowest in the state and one of the lowest in the country. That's really what economic development is all about-providing job opportunities for people in the community. It's been successful infrastructure rebuilding.

When the mayor said that he was going to have 10,000 people live Downtown a few years ago, I thought, that's interesting, but he's getting awfully close to it. You hear these stretch goals and you think, be interesting to watch that develop, but the combination has produced really incredible results in one of the most difficult economic times in memory.

LW-What we do is economic development, which is important, and getting better at it and teaching other people how to do it; successors, if you would, and then you've got the cultural part-how do leaders behave? And leadership is about vision, but leadership is also a lot about leverage, and the leverage of getting 50 or 60 CEOs that set an example about caring for the community is really an important thing.

It's hard to imagine how different the community was or would be if the Partnership wasn't here. If you just had 50 people but all kind of pulling their own way and never pulling together, not even against each other. And that's that cultural thing.

The last maybe five years for me, and I think John, is we'd say, Wow, this is better, this is really good because (of) the collective force, the leverage that comes from 50 or 60 people who think differently but (are) thinking about the same thing in the community. If this is a prosperous community, everybody wins.

And how much money has the Partnership raised? Largely from the Partnership for economic development, and what doesn't show up; the staff and the work and the air travel. All the things to go into it and done at the level isn't for free. So you say tens of millions of dollars raised largely from the members of the Partnership to support this, which doesn't directly benefit any of us and indirectly benefits everybody in central Ohio. And the thinking that goes with it. How do we do it? Who does it? People come to town; who tells them about the city? Is it the staff? Is it the CEOs? Who has access to the mayor and the city council members? All of this; it's a whole mechanism. I always say I wish we would have done this 50 years ago.

One last thing which kind of parallels this but which I didn't realize-academics are looking at this-there's increasing belief that the power is in the cities, not in the states, not in the federal governments, and the cities that are progressive are really changing things. Very hard to change things at a national level, less hard at the state level, but in a city, where you have dynamic leadership and a dynamic partnership between public and private sector, you know across the world you see really dramatic changes, whether it's Columbus or London, or Columbus and Shanghai, is that all of these cities, more energy is coming, the catalyst for progressive positive change is coming from cities. They're just more agile and they can do things.

JW – The cities are far more flexible. You have a mayor and a city council, seven people, and you are aligned with the business community. You look at Congress. It's just unwieldy. Cities can adapt. When you can get all the people on the same page, they can confront problems and come up with solutions that are just not possible in a more partisan and bigger environment. Plus you're dealing with one set of circumstances. When Congress deals with something, it's for the whole country, and one size doesn't fit all. In a city, you're dealing with specific problems and it can have its own solution.

LW – I'd speculate but for the Partnership, the progress that Nationwide Children's has made wouldn't have been. It might not have been Nationwide Children's and it might have had the support, but the fact that just people in the room, the fact that children are important, whether it's education or whether it's medicine, I think came out. I know the KIPP School would never have happened but for the Partnership.

JW – You know so many good things have happened in this city, and it's because of the relationships, the contributions. The Partnership provides a forum for people to really understand what are the problems, what are the issues, and to talk about doing this project, that project. They understand it, and once they understand it, they usually buy into it. This is an amazingly charitable community, and an amazingly collegial community. And it's all very quiet. It's not people going around taking bows and patting themselves on the back.