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The mayor's man Featured

9:14am EDT December 20, 2002
Tim Mueller has a nice office in City Hall. His warmly decorated office has family photos and personal items that reflect his time as a successful businessman and CEO of Vantage One.

Unfortunately, he's not in the office often enough to enjoy them.

Mueller gained national, as well as local attention in 1997 as Ernst & Young's regional Entrepreneur Of The Year in Communications. And after selling his business to FutureNext Consulting, Mueller expected a well-deserved rest and time with his newborn. What he got was an enticing proposition from the newly elected Mayor of Cleveland, Jane Campbell.

Mueller says it wasn't so much the challenge of heading up the Department of Development that interested him, it was the meeting with Campbell and the meeting of minds that pulled him out of retirement. Even now, he talks about how, by the end of his initial meeting with Campbell, they were finishing each other's sentences.

But Mueller knew it would be tough. Vantage One was based in Cleveland, so he was familiar with the red tape of City Hall. What he didn't know was how deeply entrenched the bureaucracy was and how difficult changing attitudes would be.

Mueller sat down with SBN Magazine to talk about his first year in office and what Cleveland can expect from his soon-to-be-released strategic plan.

Are you a displaced businessperson at City Hall, or is being development officer what you expected?

Some days yes and some days no. It's been extremely gratifying to come in and do something for the community. Someone recently said to me, "You spent the first 20 of your years in business being successful, now you're doing something that's significant."

I think that person was right. As much as I feel proud of creating new jobs as an entrepreneur and being on the edge of technology, there is some great significance to this job. I get reminded of that every time I see a new business open up.

We just did the ribbon cutting at Market 25. It's a brand new retailer across from the West Side Market. It's extremely gratifying knowing that some of the monies you had to dole out were done responsibly.

I say no for the days that are just truly frustrating by the speed at which things move oftentimes. In the mid-sized business I had, as well as a couple of other companies I started, you make a decision in the morning, and by afternoon, it's already in gear.

Here, there are just so many different stakeholders that you have to get buy-in from to get things moving. It's tough.

Did the mayor approach you, or vice versa?

I got a call from the mayor saying we had mutual friends who knew I was interested in public service. After I sold the business, I was going to take a couple years off and just exhale.

I came away from 10 very fast-paced years of running six and seven days a week, sometimes 16-hour days. I was just exhausted.

About nine months into it, I'm loving life, enjoying our first child, and I get a call from the mayor's office. I went to talk to her on New Year's Eve. By the end of the meeting, I knew I'd be coming out of retirement.

I had no political aspirations, now, even more so. I see how difficult elected public officials jobs and lives are. But being in the background and trying to get things done has been really gratifying.

How would you rate your first year in office?

I compare this year to making an acquisition in business -- you have to do due diligence before you can set down your master plan. And a good chunk of this year's been due diligence, understanding the current state before we say what the future state's going to be.

And I feel proud that, as we were doing this due diligence, we still were able to go after a Cisco and get ISG off the ground. We set the tone that this mayor is very friendly to technology companies, whether biotech or information technology.

This first year was also about instilling a sense of urgency within City Hall, changing some of the attitudes and perceptions of those who work here. I passed out clocks to all of my directors and commissioners. One even sits on the mayor's desk. These clocks show how many days are left in the term.

Sometimes people get caught up in a job they've been at for 15 to 20 years and lose a little bit of the urgency. When I first joined the administration, a lot of folks said, "You're here for a cup of coffee. I've been here for 10 years before you and I'll be here for 10 years after you. It doesn't matter what happens."

But it does. We know we only have a certain number of days left in this term to make any kind of difference. And thus far we've seen some really great results. Our citizens, corporate community and small business owners are our customers, and we're seeing our people becoming more customer focused.

How do you plan on making an entire administration customer focused?

It was my belief that people who walked into City Hall were not treated like customers. We did some ghost shopping, you know how retailers bring people in to shop to evaluate service? We did the same thing and we found people weren't respected like they should be -- they weren't treated like customers

When someone walks into City Hall for a building and housing permit or a certificate of occupancy permit or a low-interest loan, the process can take a while. We want to be able to hand these customers a road map that shows how their request goes through the City Hall bureaucracy. When you explain the process, the roadmap, there's a lot less frustration.

We've done several other things to move to a more service-oriented attitude, one of which is, we started a book club. Our directors are exchanging ideas from good business books like Built to Last by Jim Collins and the Sam Walton story about how to really bring customer service to the highest degree.

Also, we brought in Hal Becker, who wrote The One-Minute Manager, to do some motivational speeches with our building and housing staff. These people are on the front line with all of our customers, from the homeowners to the business owners.

Hal not only does inspirational speaking, he also talks about strategic ways of building better customer service and creating meaning to your job -- a significance and contribution to go after.

There are very smart, qualified people working in City Hall, and they're not doing it for the money. They're doing it because they really believe in public service.

But trickling down the line, not every one is customer-centric. That was the one thing I felt most critical about. I do see us shifting, but this is a multiyear project.

Is it possible to incorporate entrepreneurial business ideas into a public service position?

Mayor Campbell is entrepreneurial. There's a difference in being an entrepreneur, a business start-up person, and entrepreneurial.

Being entrepreneurial is taking new ideas and incorporating them into whatever you do. My job has been to propagate a lot of her ideas and mix them in with someone who's been an entrepreneur. It's a good collaborative effort.

When she hired me, she said my loose title would be entrepreneur in residence. She also said that along the way, I should always be the advocate for the businesses.

Is the idea of an integrated development officer new?

The idea of a development cluster is new. It's taking the existing economic development department and adding the community development department, as well as building and housing.

The cluster also incorporates city planning, which is how the land is used, as well as a vision for what the city could be. Then add in work force investment and the office of equal opportunity. And last, but not least, is the office of innovation and technology. Ironically enough, this was the position I first started talking to the mayor about taking on.

If you really look at it pragmatically, you'll understand that each is interdependent for each other's success. You'll never bring in companies and jobs unless you have the work force. You can never be able to bring people back into the city if you don't have good housing. You'll never be able to lure and recruit people back in unless there are jobs and housing.

Do you have a mentor in this new role?

There are people I looked to for best practices. During the first two weeks in office, I flew to Baltimore and met with my counterpart in Baltimore, Laurie Schwartz. She offered some ideas we hadn't tried.

We had a large group of public servants here from Philadelphia recently. They shared their best practices, and we took them around Cleveland to show them some of our successes.

Mayor Campbell and I have been to Chicago three times this year, meeting with Mayor Daley, talking about what we've done right and what they've done right. Mayor Guiliani has been in here twice to talk with us about homeland security and some of the things that he has done to clean up some of the boroughs of New York.

The mayor and I also are members of CEOs for Cities, a powerful group of representatives from 12 cities that meet regularly to discuss best practices and issues on subjects from technology to housing. It's an exciting thing to be part of.

What's your highest priority project?

I think holistically, the most important project is working on the strategic vision -- who we want to be as a city, and ultimately, as a region.

What can we expect in your strategic plan?

We've focused on four priorities -- jobs, safety, education and housing. The mayor stressed them during her campaign and going into the administration. But when you talk to the mayor of any major American city, whether it's Guiliani in New York, Daley in Chicago or O'Malley in Baltimore, they will all say jobs, education, safety and housing.

So how do we differentiate ourselves? That's the thing I think is one of the most important parts -- for us to show our vision.

It took the better part of this year to get our arms around City Hall, from the finances through the development projects and just the inner workings of how the system works. Coming out of this first year, we feel pretty confident in what our direction's going to be.

One goal that came out of an off-site strategic planning session in the development cluster was to be building 1,000 homes a year in the City of Cleveland by 2006. In 1999, we built 427 homes, and that was the largest number built in the city in almost 40 years.

To do that, we have to re-establish our relationships with the homebuilders and the banks that are going to finance the building. Look around the Clinic at the townhouses and homes built in the Huff and Fairfax area. The land is there.

So while our coffers may be money poor, we're land rich. And one of our single biggest goals is to achieve those 1,000 homes a year.

In 1950, we had close to 900,000 residents. Today, we have 470,000. When you have a city that can hold almost a million residents and it's down to about a half million, there's a lot of land to work with.

Our biggest challenge is how we respectfully and methodically get that land into the developer's hands. That's where we've had our biggest challenge. It's really important for us to repopulate the city.

So what comes first -- the residents, the jobs or the housing?

First you start with job force training. Within the development, we've got Workforce Investment Act money. We get about $17 million a year from the state of Ohio to invest in retraining our citizens for the jobs of the future.

So whether it's working with robotics or some kind of computer-based manufacturing or in the life sciences doing biotech training, we've got the money to go after and retrain people to where the jobs are. Once people are trained, it's like a balancing act -- you're out courting companies to come in and use Cleveland as a home.

There are a couple of things I think we've done extremely well. One was, we made a bet on ISG to take over the LTV steel-making plant. There are people all over the country that dismissed that as a very poor investment on our part. But we, as a stakeholder for the city of Cleveland, sunk millions of dollars into their renaissance or reinvention, and now they're turning a profit.

ISG got almost 900 people back to work, many of whom are Cleveland residents, and now they're looking to make acquisitions. They may buy Bethlehem Steel if the numbers work out, and there's a steel servicing company that may relocate next to them and that'll be another 100 jobs.

So systemically, we think that was a good bet for us, that things will move off of that and create more jobs for transportation, for accounting, for legal, and whoever else has some touch point with the steel side.

The second one we're really proud of Cisco Food Services. For all too long we've been reading headlines that say 500 to 600 jobs are leaving the city. Cisco is bringing in 600 jobs to the city. That's a $30 million payroll coming into Cleveland -- that's the largest in 35 years.

During the next 16 months, Cisco will be building their new facility, and we could probably double the number of jobs to come in because of their trading partners that normally locate people next a Cisco facility.

Do you have specific plans for the downtown area, the heart of Cleveland?

We're putting together a tax incremental financing packing for lower Euclid, a TIF. It would take many of the taxes generated with the retail into this area and plow it back into incentives for builders to come in. We see Euclid as our main street, and a city is not complete unless its main street is healthy and alive.

Particularly, East 4th and Euclid has seen its share of blight. The Cleveland that we knew growing up, where you'd walk from Higbee's to Halle's and May Co. and all the shops in between, there's no remnant of that left.

What the White administration did that was brilliant was consolidate over 30 different building owners between Public Square and Ninth Street into four building owners. You could never get 30 building owners to agree on a vision, but we have four building owners that agree on the same things -- put in retail, restaurants, entertainment along East 4th and Euclid, and have housing above.

We're also considering what other major projects would be good for our downtown area. The answers aren't out there yet. Could it be a convention center? Could it be the lakefront development? Reclaiming our lakefront?

Quality of life is important when you're trying to recruit and retain young minds in the city. People compare us to Austin, Chicago and other major cities. Improving the quality of life can include things like having lakefront access, maybe bike trails that connect various regions to the lake.

What's more important, lakefront development or downtown development?

There's no doubt that downtown development of our main street and improving our vacancy rates is critical to Cleveland's success. We also know that successful cities are the ones that have guarded or reclaimed their lakefront.

Chicago's got 30 contiguous miles of lakefront access, from Gary, Ind., all the way north. That's a prime reason people want to live in Chicago.

We don't have that type of access. We've got Edgewater Beach and Gordon Park and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. That's about it for getting to the lakefront.

I think the answer lies in having a balance of both downtown and the lakefront.

What's the current status of the Mid-town Tech Center?

One of the top priorities of our administration is making funds available for incubator start-up companies for the tech center. We're leveraging Empowerment Zone money for that purpose, as well as creating tax incentives for incoming businesses.

Our focus, though, is growing those companies that are already here, not going outside the region to lure them into going downtown. We've got a standing, loose agreement with the inner ring suburbs of no more poaching.

We've been the one that's been poached more than anybody. But we're saying we'll not actively go after companies in the inner ring suburbs because it's a zero sum gain for the region.

This is a regional push. If a company comes to us and says, 'To be competitive, we need to be in the city of Cleveland,' then we'll talk to them. But we won't go after businesses in the region just to build downtown up.

Middle-market business leaders have often complained of not knowing what help and/or monies are available to them. Do you have a plan to rectify that?

I think that's a fair statement. As a former middle-market company owner, I didn't really see much come toward us, and we never applied for any kind of assistance, aide or abatements because we didn't know about them.

Knowing that our focus is not so much on attracting more Fortune 500 companies to Cleveland but targeting the Inc 500 businesses or the Fortune 1000 companies, we are adjusting some of our tax abatement programs and low-interest rate financing packages to appeal to the middle market.

I think you're going to see a great improvement in this area because the middle market and start-ups are the target market of the Campbell administration.

What type of industries are you trying to attract?

If you're five miles wide and only an inch thick, you're going after everything as opposed to being focused. The drawback there is you have some fairly big bets. The Campbell administration is not fond of making one or two big bets. We want to be able to go out and make several good bets, one of which is IT. Another is life science. The third is advanced materials like polymers and fuel cells. And the fourth, which we think very strongly about, is advanced manufacturing.

At ISG right now, they've got one of the most technologically advanced steel-making processes in the world that's marrying technology with old-line manufacturing.

We do a good job of making things in Cleveland, and when you infuse technology with that, then you have an emerging market in manufacturing. Instruments and controls is another bet we believe very strongly in, and we've got the companies to back it up.

When you look at IT, the 75,000 IT workers in this region create a critical mass. But you can also use IT as a tool for economic development by having a database you cull through in order to find prospective companies to come into Cleveland. We haven't done that. Most of what we do right now is answer the phone. But if you really use analytics and raw data, you can find the strengths of our region and match them with the strengths or needs of emerging companies.

I'm a huge fan of saying, 'When you wake up in the morning, you only have 100 units of energy to spend.' How you spend those 100 units of energy is the difference between success and mediocrity.

So if we go after a company that hasn't been well qualified and you hit a dead end, then you've used too many units of energy on that one lead that really wasn't a good bet.

Are there any other prospects you're courting?

There are prospects in the pipeline, but I can't really talk about them because it would give away our competitive edge on the packages we're going after. Suffice it to say, our economic development department is starting to sound like a sales force, with possibilities in the pipeline, leads, status reports on these different leads and a procedure to start proactively going after the companies.

What happens at the end of this term?

If we do our job, Mayor Campbell won't have much work to do during her campaign. It's really as simple as that because she has the trust of the people in the region. Evidence has shown that elected officials continue to do their job as long as people have that trust that things are getting done.

The first year had some results, and again, that was our due diligence. Over the next three years, we invite people to demand that things get done. We have continually had people moving out of the city, both businesses and residents, and we think we're close to stemming that tide.

Where will we be at the end of four years? When you look at our vision statement and you look at some of the specifics, like 1,000 homes a year, I think you'll see that we've put stretch goals out there that are tough to go after. And I also think you'll see that we're accomplishing those goals.

And I believe at the very end of those four years, you're going to see people with a continuing sense of urgency at City Hall.

Do you have any plans to run for office?

That's not even in the cards. I think I could be a lot more effective in this role than I would holding office because I get to cut through a little bit more of the muck than an elected official. I think people like the mayor need to surround themselves with people that don't have alternative agendas, like promoting themselves for a future office.