Business Outlook 2011: The Chamber After Ty

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

The news was sudden and unexpected: Ty Marsh, president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber for the last 6.5 years, would be stepping down by the end of July. Marsh's resignation, announced in late June, heralded a time of flux for the chamber, which is in the midst of reworking its economic development efforts even as it seeks a new leader.

Marsh's replacement will lead a chamber whose revamped mission emphasizes working with businesses already established in Central Ohio, rather than recruiting new employers. Under Columbus2020, a regional economic development strategy, the chamber hands over business recruitment to the Columbus Partnership.

The power-packed Partnership (whose 35 members include 15 Fortune 1000 CEOs) is headed by President and CEO Alex Fischer, who will also lead Columbus2020. Scuttlebutt was that Marsh wasn't thrilled about playing biz-retention Robin to Fischer's biz-recruitment Batman, but Fischer says that's "ridiculous, with no basis-and you can quote me."

So what's the real deal? "The Partnership, we're exercising leadership in the community," Fischer says. "There's been a void, and we're filling the void." Translation: the chamber wasn't getting the job done. The Partnership will.

Fischer says speculation about why Marsh quit misses the point. "Individuals make decisions to do what they want-this isn't about individuals," he says. "This is about the long-term economic strategy and viability for our community. And I don't think anybody can argue with the new collaborative spirit with which everybody is moving forward on it. There are always those who want to look for the bogeymen in the closet, and there's not much I can do about it."

Marsh, of course, could chase the bogeymen from the closet with a sentence or two, but he declined to discuss his resignation with Columbus C.E.O. Currently, Marsh is serving as volunteer chairman of the leadership team implementing plans for Columbus's 2012 bicentennial, a task he says is time-consuming, but "exciting and kind of fun."

Jack Partridge, chairman of the chamber's board of directors, president of Columbia Gas of Ohio and a member of the Columbus Partnership, says the chamber won't have a diminished role under Columbus2020. "I've been convinced-and I think it's been documented to date-that the chamber's going to be bigger and better than ever," Partridge says. "The chamber's going to have more resources, because of the importance of existing businesses in Columbus2020."

"Ty did a wonderful job," Partridge adds. "He was a wonderful leader, but he was at it for seven years, and he saw it as a point where he could maybe move to some other things, and he obviously continues to be viable in the community."

Partridge says he initially expected to find a replacement for Marsh by year's end. No longer. "It's awfully difficult to replace someone like Ty Marsh, and given the changes going forward, this may take longer than we had originally thought," he says. "We have got to find the right person to lead the chamber into bigger and better things, but we've also got to redefine the organization so it provides the most effective role as part of the 2020 effort."

Before writing a job description for its new leader, Partridge says, the chamber needs to figure out "what kind of organization the person we're going to seek is going to head up. ... The chamber is morphing, the chamber is adapting, changing, and it is going to have a bigger, more responsible role in the economic development aspects of this community."

For now, chamber operations are headed by a quartet of senior staffers: Mike Goldbeck, vice president of finance and administration; Susan Merryman, vice president of marketing and communication; Steve Tugend, vice president of government relations; and Joe Sciulli, director of member services. Merryman and Goldbeck, both of whom are "very involved" in the implementation of Columbus2020, are sharing most of Marsh's duties, says Partridge.

That arrangement "has really exceeded my expectations," Partridge says, adding that none of the four senior staffers has indicated interest in taking Marsh's place permanently. The chamber will look for a new leader both locally and beyond Central Ohio, aided by an executive-search firm. Meanwhile, the chamber will push on with its effort to reinvent itself.

Columbus has "got some momentum, thanks to Alex and his leadership," Partridge says. "And we at the chamber realized we can't sit and wait for a CEO; we've got to keep moving here, and really put the meat on the bones in terms of our focus, which is going to be on retaining and expanding existing businesses."

Reprinted from the December 2010 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.