Bob Smith Featured

5:45am EDT June 28, 2002
Few people understand the unique relationship between big business and small business, something Robert C. Smith discovered during eight years of active board leadership and volunteer roles with the Council Of Smaller Enterprises and the Greater Cleveland Growth Association.

Smith is president and CEO of Spero-Smith Investment Advisors Inc., which specializes in investment counseling for individuals and small business owners. His firm has about $250 million under management.

He served as the 2000-2001 chairman of COSE. Now he has a new role -- chairman of the Growth Association. He is the first person to make the move from the top spot at COSE to the top spot at the Growth Association.

"I have had an opportunity to provide leadership on a number of initiatives -- from our work to help ensure business's voice in the deregulation of electricity in Ohio to the formation of the COSE/Growth PAC -- that were important to large and small businesses," Smith says. "It was that experience that helped the Growth Board leadership have an appreciation of how a COSE leader can take on a leadership role on behalf of the entire Growth Association."

During his time with COSE and Growth, Smith has had input into the naming of former U.S. Rep. Dennis Eckart as the Growth Association's president and CEO and the hiring of Steve Millard as COSE's executive director.

As COSE chairman, Smith initiated and led efforts to better connect COSE and the Growth Association. And, under his leadership, COSE established the Innovation and Competitiveness Fund, which will assist small businesses in those areas.

SBN sat down with Smith to talk about the differences -- and similarities -- between big and small business, and his new role at Growth. You can read the interview at

You are the first person to come from COSE to the Growth Association. How can that experience help you in your role at Growth?

I have the advantage of first-hand knowledge of the programs, products and services that are core to the association's largest constituency -- small business. COSE's long history as a membership-driven organization has truly made it the largest and most successful small business organization in the country. Further, the experience I've had in leadership at the Growth Association beyond COSE, especially the finance committee of the Growth Association, has helped me have a deep understanding of the financial drivers of the organization.

Additionally, as a six-year member of the Growth Association Board, I have had an opportunity to provide leadership on a number of initiatives -- from our work to help ensure business's voice in the deregulation of electricity in Ohio to the formation of the COSE/Growth PAC -- that were important to large and small businesses. It was that experience that helped the Growth board leadership have an appreciation of how a COSE leader can take on a leadership role on behalf of the entire Growth Association.

What attributes do you have that will complement what Dennis Eckart is doing?

Dennis and I have a shared vision of the interdependency of COSE, the largest local small business organization in the country, and the Growth Association as the largest chamber of commerce in the country. Having said that, my experience as a small business owner, COSE volunteer, COSE board leader, as well as a Growth board leader, all go to complement Dennis Eckart's skill as our president and CEO.

It takes a strong board/staff partnership for a mission-based organization such as the Growth Association to be effective. I think Dennis and I bring a good combination of stewardship and expertise to our roles.

What is the Growth Association's role in fostering a stronger business community in Northeast Ohio?

A recently completed strategic plan includes three major initiatives, all geared around our three core competencies: membership, advocacy and economic development. Our Membership Services, which we are significantly enhancing, are geared toward making it easier for small business owners to have access to key information that is important to better understand our programs.

We are also focusing on improving the way we relate to and engage our region's larger companies. Our advocacy initiatives are geared around improving the legislative and regulatory climate to make it easier for our businesses to grow and expand in Northeastern Ohio.

And our economic development initiatives, which are going through a major analysis, must be designed in a way that businesses can easily access the resources in the public sector as well as the nonprofit sector.

It's been said there is a dearth of new leaders in Northeast Ohio to replace the Joe Gormans of the world. What's your view on up-and-comers in the region? Are there any unheralded leaders we should know about?

I think this discussion in our region has taken on too much focus on the individuals and not enough on the work our organizations must do on behalf of the community or their constituency. I'm reminded of a book, "Built to Last," by James Collins, which destroys the myth that the truly outstanding businesses in our country are built by outstanding leaders with strong charisma.

The truly outstanding businesses are built by people who put in place legacies and systems that serve the business well to many generations beyond a current leader's duration. There is a model being utilized more and more in our region on major initiatives that outline a role for a champion and a sponsor, a champion being a key civic leader, oftentimes a board leader of a civic group, and a sponsor who would be a chief staff officer or a staff leader of an appropriate civic organization.

Clevelanders constantly look for the next great thing to take the economy to the next level. Realistically, what do you believe are the key components to revitalizing the region's economy?

We are having a major re-evaluation of our economic development initiatives inside the Growth Association and the region as a whole, and have engaged the McKinsey Co. in a joint project with Cleveland Tomorrow, funded by the Cleveland Foundation. Some of the findings from their studies indicate one, although we treat our businesses as appropriate leaders in the public/private partnership and as significant vendors on major initiatives, we do not typically treat them as clients in terms of economic development and generators of job growth.

Two, our economic initiatives tend to be responsive and not targeted toward companies of specific size or companies with higher growth potential. Three, we must begin taking steps more rapidly to improve the business climate in our region -- for example, the state inventory tax, which is a significant burden to our manufacturers and distributors, creates major disincentives for these companies to grow and expand here in Northeast Ohio.

And four, as a region, we don't reward risk. I've observed on many levels the apprehension around risk that leads us to a continuation of the status quo, despite studies and analysis that would help us accept risk and take steps to truly impact the region in a much more significant way.

Perfect world scenario: What is the snapshot of the Growth Association two years from now, at the end of your term?

My focus is an engaged board that provides appropriate board leadership and a resolve to allow the staff to have adequate and appropriate staff, money and time to execute on the major initiatives in our strategic plan. I would also like to see an organization that is much more focused and project-driven.

Currently, we have more than 70 initiatives going on or about to be undertaken at the Growth Association. Most of these tend to look more as ongoing programs, as opposed to projects.

Our plan calls out that we will be much more project-driven, which means we'll have the staff and financial resources devoted toward specific objectives, measurable outcomes and conclusions so that as we take on new projects or initiatives, that will be in conjunction with a planned elimination of other programs. We cannot afford to dilute ourselves with too many undefined initiatives the way we have traditionally.

I would also hope that we could provide leadership regionally. Despite much discussion about regionalism, there are a lot of very sound legal and political reasons why the Balkanization of our region has occurred.

The board and staff leaders are very committed now toward exploring our opportunities to work toward more regional solutions and help in identifying a matrix that will allow for high levels of performance in a local area, as well as making decisions consistent with the good of the region and the people who live and work in our communities. How to reach: Spero-Smith Investment Advisors Inc., (216) 464-6266