Les Wexner and the Columbus Partnership transform the region

 

Thirty years ago, Columbus was a different town. Leslie H. Wexner, founder, chairman and CEO of L Brands, philanthropist and civic leader, remembers the community being critical of growth, comfortable behind higher-profile cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati, and proud of its Mayberry-like atmosphere.

When Ford wanted to build a plant in Columbus in the 1970s, the city wanted no part of it. An airline wanted to put a hub at the airport, and response was, “If they want to make us a hub, then they should pay.”

The world, however, was changing. Central Ohio needed to open up, or it would shrink.

“We were looking at ourselves and saying, ‘Well, what do we become when we grow up? How do we take part in the present and the future?’ This is 20, 25 years ago, and nobody knew,” says Wexner, who spoke about curiosity, goals and aspirations at the seventh annual Economic Development 411 event in December.

Pushed to act

Community leaders began recognizing the need for a bolder ambition for Central Ohio, but the tipping point proved to be George Voinovich.

Voinovich became governor in 1991, after serving as the mayor of Cleveland. He told Wexner and Columbus Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe about the strong public-private partnership, Cleveland Tomorrow.

Voinovich would say: “This is the least organized part of the state. You’re well intended. You’ve got all kinds of resources. You’ve got state government residing in the middle of the state. You’ve got this great university and the other universities clustered around Central Ohio. Just, get off your dead a** and do something,” Wexner says.

It took several years, and some continued prodding by Voinovich, before the two men helped launch the Columbus Partnership in 2002 with six other business leaders.

“That series of things, provoked by the governor, provoked Central Ohio (and) got the partnership idea going,” Wexner says. “That really changed things because we could begin then to think collectively — community leaders and government leaders — about, what is our ambition? Do we want to keep the best of the past and the best of the future? Can we put this together into something that would be healthy for our community?”

Stop studying, start working

The partnership took time to find its footing.

Wexner says the group was careful and, looking back, it didn’t want to grow too fast, “because we were building a culture, building an organization, and we didn’t know what it would be,” he says.

The partnership began with a list of 50 things important to the community and grouped them into clusters. Even though they wanted to invent something tailor-made for Central Ohio, Wexner says they were curious about the national experience.

They found organizations could improve a region’s economic condition by encouraging more jobs and better jobs.

“By focusing on increasing the numbers of jobs, and qualities of jobs, we could lift up the community, and then everybody benefits,” Wexner says.

Wexner, who has the Albert Einstein quote, “Curiosity is more important than knowledge” on his office wall, knows the significance of learning from others. It’s a huge benefit for Columbus even today.

“If you’re the second mover, you have the advantage of learning from all the others,” he says. “The cities that were pace-setting economic development 10 years ago, we could see what they did right, what they did wrong, and build a better model.”

Over the years, members of the Columbus Partnership have visited Austin, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Silicon Valley and more.

But it was another governor, this time North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, who helped push the partnership into launching Columbus 2020 when the group visited that state’s Research Triangle in 2010.

“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.”

Columbus must continue to stretch and look for best-in-class examples.

“The challenge will be, could we grow robustly and actually improve quality of life?” Wexner says. “I think there are lessons around the world where communities have done that.”

Wexner also wants to see more collaboration — in a community known for collaboration — to better leverage relationships. Outside institutions such as Harvard University do case studies on Columbus; rather than exporting that knowledge, people should be coming to Columbus to learn about economic development, public-private partnership, etc.

Battelle and Ohio State should be more connected to each other and the community, at large like Harvard and MIT, he says. Local colleges and universities also should know more about smart technology than anyone else, as the city deploys Smart Columbus initiatives.

“We’re playing on that national stage, but we’re playing without the full support of our universities,” Wexner says.

But even with the challenges, now that the community has some foundational elements and experiences, he believes it’s time to accelerate and ascend to new heights.

“You can be one of the great cities of the world, and still have that Mayberry character of cooperation, of citizenship, of collaboration, of civility,” Wexner says. “We can do all that.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Don’t fall in love with the problem.
  • Set ambitious, measurable and focused goals.
  • Stay curious; avoid complacency.

 

Living right

When Les Wexner was in his late mid-30s, he got a call from his banker, John G. McCoy, who led City National Bank and Trust. McCoy asked him to come to his office. It was a tough year, and Wexner thought his loan was being pulled.

Instead, McCoy wanted Wexner to start thinking about how he would contribute to the community. McCoy shared advice from his father: Think of it in terms of tithing — give 10 percent of your time, 10 percent of your resources.

“That was one of the most important conversations that I’ve had in my life. I processed it over a period of years, maybe even a decade,” Wexner says.

When you look into the mirror, do you see someone you want to meet?

“When I asked myself that question the first time, I said no. This guy’s boring. He’s just a workaholic,” he says.

You want to meet people who have more balance in their lives and who think more broadly about responsibility.

“When I hear people saying, ‘When I retire, I’m going to do all these things for society.’ It’s like, well, if you’re lucky,” Wexner says. “But why do you postpone that good thing about yourself for a year or 10 or 20 or 30? Start doing it now, in whatever means you can.”

 

What’s next?

As Columbus 2020 builds its plan for the next decade, President and Chief Economic Officer Kenny McDonald shared some emerging trends.

Disruption is here. The region has unrealized innovation capacity. Connectivity, which includes community engagement with all groups of people, needs to increase. Momentum needs to be sustained. However, growth is still the goal.

“We’re still ambitious. It isn’t just job and investment growth. It might also be foreign direct investment growth. It might mean minority business growth,” he says.

The region needs to attract more impact investment, such as venture capital.

“We want to measure innovation, and we’re going to get very tactical about that. We’re not going to hope for innovation,” McDonald says.

Other goals will relate to maximizing individual opportunity and helping communities succeed and prepare for growth.

“While everybody is focused on the next 10 minutes, we’re going to be focused on the next 10 years. What we’ve learned time and time again is every time we think long term, we get better short-term results. It’s true in business and it’s also true in communities,” he says.