Les Wexner and the Columbus Partnership transform the region

“Gov. Hunt gave us a great speech about all the things that they were doing in Carolina, and he said, ‘You guys come here like you’re poor. Do you know how lousy our climate is? In the summer, the mosquitos are as big as vultures. We’ve got swamps and we’ve got poverty. We don’t have your climate. We don’t have your central location,’” Wexner says.

Hunt told them, in his first stint as governor from 1977 to 1985, he led a group of business leaders on a visit to The Ohio State University and Battelle. So it was time to stop admiring the problem, take advantage of the area’s resources and get to work.

It was a pivotal moment — and a very different plane ride home.

“We said, ‘OK, we’ve got to do something. Enough of understanding it; let’s change things. Let’s change our thinking. Let’s change our behavior. And maybe we can change our result,’” Wexner says.

Set measurable goals

At the time, the partnership was down to 30 goals, but even that was too unwieldly. Wexner believes in a few simple goals — no more than four priorities, and three is better than four. Keep a narrow focus and do a few things exceptionally well, which may mean deliberately postponing some tasks.

“You can’t be successful if you are not focused on the ‘main thing’ … that is what is most important,” he says. “At the partnership, our main thing is economic development. We are very intentional about getting that right. It’s a formula that has worked over the last decade. If something is not directly connected to the main thing, we may have to delay action on it or bring other community partners to the table to run point.”

The goals also had to be ambitious enough to motivate and concrete enough to measure.

“Set goals that are measurable, and if you can’t figure out measures, then you’re probably wasting your time. That’s tough medicine that I give myself, my family and my colleagues at work,” Wexner says.

The partnership formed Columbus 2020 around four goals.

  • Add 150,000 net new jobs.
  • Generate $8 billion of capital investment.
  • Raise personal per capita income by 30 percent.
  • Earn recognition as a leader in economic development.

It has met or exceeded three of the four goals and is close to hitting the final one. While the results are impressive, it took time to build trust and figure out how to influence 11 counties.

“Something we have often talked about around the partnership table is ‘go slow to go fast,’ or ‘make haste, slowly.’ There are some economic and community issues that just take time,” Wexner says. “In these instances, we need to move at a slower, more deliberate pace so that we really understand the issue and/or the opportunity to ensure we have a best-possible solution.”

Build upon the foundation

Today, the Columbus Partnership has 75 members. That’s far from the small group that started the organization, but Wexner believes it’s still possible to keep everyone engaged as long they continue to gather in the same room.

“You have to show up. Understand the community. Find your passion and find ways to contribute. For me, my passion is economic development. I focus my energy around ways I can directly impact economic growth,” he says.

Wexner’s wife, Abigail, focuses on education, so she and the partnership helped start the KIPP school.

“Building relationships among the CEOs is critical. With stronger relationships comes greater connectivity. By working together, we develop understanding and trust. With more trust, we can better leverage our diversity of perspective,” Wexner says.

Community-oriented leadership is critical, not only within the partnership but throughout our community as a whole, he says.

“If the foundation is sound, grounded in working together and guided by shared values and principles, the thoughtful work leaders do today to better Columbus will continue for generations. Each member has to share the work … really do their part,” Wexner says.

While other parts of Ohio have fallen behind Central Ohio’s economic development, Wexner warns against complacency.

“The community must have bold ambition. You can’t succeed if you don’t have the ambition,” he says. “What are the things that help you achieve your ambition? Curiosity, knowledge and focus.”