At first glance, Les Wexner and John F. Wolfe seem to share little in common. Wexner, the son of immigrants and the product of public education, built from scratch a retail empire based on sex appeal and aspiration. He waited until he was 56 to get married. Wolfe, born into a powerful and wealthy family and the product of private schools, inherited his role as publisher of the Dispatch and later patriarch of the clan. He wed his high school sweetheart.
Yet, Wolfe and Wexner are close friends with shared views on how this city gets run. They agree on so many civic matters that the two essentially have morphed into one entity: the Wolfener. When asked who wins if there’s a disagreement, a mutual friend says, “There are no disagreements.”
Still, one of them is more equal than the other, and we’ll discuss who and why soon enough. But first a review of the rest of the power scene, which has changed dramatically since Columbus Monthly last compiled its list of the city’s top Titans five years ago.
Six of the 10 power players relinquished their seats of authority. Tom Hoaglin of Huntington National Bank and Carl Kohrt of Battelle retired. Jerry Jurgensen was ousted abruptly as CEO of Nationwide in 2009. The Dispatch’s Mike Curtin has semi-retired. Tanny Crane of the Crane Group is still active, but her scope has become too narrow, according to civic insiders, to merit inclusion at the big table again. And then there’s the case of Fred Sanfilippo, former head of the Ohio State University Medical Center. Note the word “former.” After ranking No. 9 on the Columbus Monthly power list in 2005, he tried some hardball maneuvering involving Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which raised considerable ire with the Wexner/Wolfe monolith. Sanfilippo soon was earning his paycheck from Emory University in Atlanta.
The result is a thinner-than-usual bench. After the Wolfe/Wexner coalition, there is a clear second team: AEP honcho Mike Morris, Mayor Mike Coleman, Ohio State president Gordon Gee, who returns to the power list (No. 6 in 1996) after coming back to Columbus for his second stint, and Wexner’s wife, Abigail Wexner.
Then comes a noticeable gap. Normally, the heads of such important Columbus institutions as Nationwide Insurance, Huntington National Bank and Battelle (to a lesser degree) are automatic inclusions in the Power ranking. But the CEOs of each are so new they haven’t had a chance to make their marks.
So, in this eighth ranking by Columbus Monthly of the city’s Titans, it is only the second time there is not a top 10 (the first was in 1989).
Here’s our list of the dominant power players in the city, as well as those who play important supporting roles.
There is a strong case to make for handing the laurel of Most Powerful Person to John F. Wolfe. The Wolfe family has played a dominant role in city affairs for more than 100 years, cultivating its power mainly from the longtime ownership of the Dispatch and various other media concerns.
Wolfe seemingly knows everything about Columbus and appears to be involved in almost every major project. He favors collaboration and rarely uses the paper as a whip to get his way. Except recently when he flexed some serious muscle after voters approved a statewide ballot in the fall that dropped a casino into the Arena District, in which Wolfe Enterprises has a 20 percent stake. The paper, through its editorial page and steady reporting, led the charge to force Penn National Gaming, a major casino operator, to reconsider and shift the gambling joint to the west side.
There are some voices who believe that Les Wexner—the top Titan since 1996—is not as engaged. But they’re in the minority. By many accounts, Wexner is as passionate as ever about continuing to build his legacy in the civic arena (Easton, New Albany, the Wexner Center, the vast array of philanthropy etc.). His biggest concerns today are the Columbus Partnership, the exclusive group consisting of the city’s top CEOs (he’s the chair) that’s focused on economic development, and Ohio State, where he’s working closely with president Gordon Gee as the head of the university’s board of trustees.
And, when it comes to power hierarchy, size does matter. In this case, we’re talking about bank accounts. While Wolfe, although feeling the pain of the advertising downturn afflicting all media, isn’t hurting, Wexner still ranks among the richest people in the United States. And it’s said that Wolfe respects the fact that Wexner is a self-made billionaire.
One source close to Wolfe says the Dispatch publisher is keenly aware of the damage caused by civic strife in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a clash between Wexner (then a brash and opinionated newcomer on the power scene) and Wolfe’s second cousin, J.W. Wolfe (then the city’s most powerful Titan), ground many projects to a halt. A new era of collaboration ensued when John F. took control of the family after J.W.’s death in 1994.
Two other sources say that Wolfe understands the importance of Limited Brands—with all its jobs, philanthropy, prestige and brainpower—to Central Ohio. “Wolfe realizes that this town is better off if the Wexners live here than elsewhere,” says one. “It is a company that can go anywhere.” In short, deferring the top spot to Wexner is good for the city.
The second team
AEP’s Mike Morris: During the last Columbus Monthly power ranking, in 2005, hardly a word was said about the new guy at AEP. He was a mystery man (much the way folks view Huntington’s Steve Steinour these days; see “Rising power” on page 43).
Now, folks can’t say enough good things about Morris, who has played a huge role in several key issues, particularly taking the lead on developing the ambitious Scioto Mile plan that’s transforming the downtown riverfront. Listen to the chorus of praise from civic insiders:
“Most CEOs are politically naïve. He’s not. He’s politically savvy.”
“He’s extremely active at the Statehouse and federal level for AEP, and he brings those resources on behalf of the city.”
“It’s remarkable the respect he commands with the business community.”
“The guy will do anything.”
“He has no agenda. You can disagree with him and not pay a price. Too bad he is retiring.”
And there’s the rub. Morris is slated to step down as the head of AEP in 2011. But until then, it appears he will sit near the head of the power table.
Mayor Mike Coleman: No political honcho has ever ranked higher than No. 5 on the Columbus Monthly power list (Coleman in 2005). It’s the way the town operates. As one power player says, “Political leaders don’t trump the private leadership.”
But Coleman nudges up to No. 4 based on performance and the current power void in the business community. Although some civic types wince at Coleman’s bombast (“He’s very good at taking the credit,” says one), it’s hard to argue with his results. He’s won three straight elections, the last two with no real competition. In 2009, he turned what many viewed as Mission Impossible, the passage of an increase in the income tax to rescue the city’s budget, into Mission Accomplished. In fact, one insider says, “Coleman should be at the top of the list. The income tax saved the city.”
OSU’s Gordon Gee: Since his triumphant return in 2007 to serve as president (again) at Ohio State, Gee seemingly has been everywhere—endorsing the Third Frontier levy on the May 4 ballot and working on the deal to save the Columbus Blue Jackets, for example. And he’s adding more fans to his vast network of admirers, even though he’s pushing for widespread and controversial changes at the university. “He’s hit the scene hard, learned his lessons from his first go-round,” says one source. “There’s not much he’s not involved in.”
The only downside is perhaps the scope of his ambition. “Is OSU doing too much too fast?” asks one civic observer. “The university is still digesting the debt from the big build-out of the athletic complexes [the Schott, Ohio Stadium renovation etc.].”
But that appears to be a minority view. Gee has built strong relationships with important constituencies (Wexner and Wolfe, among many others) and shows no signs of doing anything but going full speed ahead.
Abigail Wexner: In some ways, it’s hard to gauge how Wexner wields her power. After all, who knows exactly what’s said between her and her husband, Les Wexner? But there are plenty of signs that her influence has broadened his interests (more involvement in family and children’s issues) and softened his outlook (he credits her for a more patient leadership style). He also has said she nudged him into joining the OSU board for a second term.
But her power is felt more than just in private conversations. After almost 20 years as the First Lady of Central Ohio, she has built a strong body of work: the Center for Child and Family Advocacy, a byproduct of the group she founded, the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence, and the New Albany Classic, a world-class equestrian event and major fundraiser for the coalition.
Her biggest mark, though, may be her involvement with Nationwide Children’s Hospital; as its board chair, she oversaw the hiring of a new CEO and is shepherding a massive construction project at the near-east-side campus. In addition, she has taken a deep interest in the Columbus version of the nationally acclaimed KIPP charter school and is a founder and chair of the education-focused nonprofit KidsOhio.org. And there’s speculation she might get more involved in Limited Brands—the family business, so to speak—in the next few years.
The former mergers and acquisitions attorney continues to impress civic types. As one heavyweight says about her participation in Columbus Partnership meetings, “Sometimes, she’s the smartest, most insightful voice in the room.”
The CEOs of Nationwide, the insurance behemoth and significant downtown real estate developer, and Huntington, the city’s most significant local bank, typically are firmly entrenched on the power list. And the leader of Battelle, the international research institute, would also be a strong candidate, particularly after the civic course set by CEO Carl Kohrt before he retired at the end of 2008.
But all three major institutions are headed by newcomers. While early reviews suggest that all will become substantial power players, it’s too soon to call them full-fledged Movers and Shakers.
Steve Rasmussen: Nationwide has a long history of its leaders playing important roles in civic matters. Dean Jeffers, John Fisher, Dimon McFerson and Jerry Jurgensen made major imprints on the city. Rasmussen inherited that mantle in early 2009 when Jurgensen was ousted.
The two couldn’t be more different. When Jurgensen hit town in 2000, he made a brash splash in community affairs, including not always agreeing with the Wexner/Wolfe coalition on his way to being ranked No. 3 in the last Columbus Monthly power ranking. Rasmussen, a Nationwide veteran, routinely is described as low key. “He is emerging as someone who can influence very effectively,” says one insider. “He has a terrific relationship with Les and John F. and is in a position to be more influential than Jerry was at this same point because he starts out in a far better place. Steve really knows how to develop relationships. Very collaborative.”
Jeff Wadsworth: More people in Columbus know the name of the third-string center on the Ohio State football team than the head of the notoriously secretive Battelle. That changed somewhat under Kohrt, who plunged deeply into civic affairs, particularly in helping rescue COSI from its financial mess a few years ago.
And it appears his successor, Wadsworth, who oversaw, among other duties, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee after joining Battelle in 2002, is carrying on his legacy. For years, it’s been argued that if OSU and Battelle joined forces, it could produce tremendous economic development results for Central Ohio. Kohrt and former OSU president Karen Holbrook made progress, but things are moving much faster with Wadsworth and Gee in charge. (The two knew each other when Gee was president of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.) Wadsworth joined the OSU Medical Center board as its chairman, and a director was named to oversee a newly created office to coordinate joint operations between OSU and Battelle.
Although he startled some nonprofit types by reorganizing Battelle’s community relations division to focus primarily on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math), he has earned good marks during his early run, overcoming concerns that he wouldn’t follow Kohrt’s lead. “He’s visible,” says one insider. “He understands the nexus of industry, research, education and public policy. He has a great relationship with Gee—that is fortuitous.”
Steve Steinour: The most mysterious Titan in the making is Steinour, who replaced civic heavy-lifter Tom Hoaglin at Huntington in early 2009. An outsider, Steinour, who made his mark in the financial world in New England, quickly disappeared after his arrival inside the Huntington Building, scouring the books and making changes at the struggling bank. Voids are often filled with rumors, and a common one about him focused on whether he was just a hired gun to swoop in to prepare Huntington for a sale. That speculation was fueled in part by the fact he hadn’t bought a home here.
But by this spring, those concerns began to ease: Steinour was buying a house (in New Albany, of course) and Huntington stepped up as a main financial backer for Pelotonia, which had to go begging after NetJets cut back its commitment to the bike race that raises money for cancer research at Ohio State. Steinour committed $2.5 million over five years, as well as recruiting 1,000 riders for the August event. “The early leading indictors are very, very encouraging,” says a power player.
On the bubble
A member of a legendary Columbus family, Bobby Schottenstein runs one of the nation’s largest single-family home building companies, M/I Homes, which was co-founded by his father, the late Irving Schottenstein, and uncle, the late Mel Schottenstein.
A board member at Ohio State, he has powerful allies in Gee and the Wexners, and he gets strong marks for his community work. “He’s a guy who doesn’t have to own the ball, not get the credit,” says one fan. His involvement has been hampered, of course, by the recession’s harsh impact on the real estate industry.
But it’s assumed that Schottenstein is poised to carry the torch of leadership. As one civic heavyweight notes, “He and Abigail [Wexner] are positioned so that . . . when the current leadership is no longer around, it will be up to them. He has a responsibility to be a next leader.”
Two to watch
George Barrett: It should be a no-brainer that the CEO of Cardinal Health assumes a seat at the power table. After all, Cardinal Health is Central Ohio’s largest company (ranked 17 in the country on Fortune’s list). But Bob Walter, founder and longtime CEO, who retired a few years ago, wasn’t fully engaged in community affairs. And his replacement, Kerry Clark, didn’t last that long. The buzz says Barrett, who started late last summer, may be more involved on the civic side than his predecessors.
Steve Fishman: The newest member of the Columbus Partnership is the CEO of Big Lots, which has registered record earnings for the past three years while most other businesses have suffered. Some civic types were surprised Fishman, the leader of a Fortune 500 company, wasn’t a Partnership member sooner. And, according to one source, so was Fishman. He is described as outspoken and intense. “He’s trying to assert himself more, but that has to be tempered by how philanthropic” he intends to be, says one civic type. “Leading by example means opening your checkbook.” It appears the opportunity is there for him to become a big player.
Man in the middle
Jack Kessler holds a special place in the power universe. He’s not the CEO of a corporation or institution, yet he’s among the most influential people in the city.
Information and relationships are his power base. Gracious and charming, he seems to know everything about every issue and everybody. He’s famous for his round of 7:30 am phone calls to check in on the latest happenings. “He’s the consummate networker,” says one admirer.
It doesn’t hurt that his closest friends go by the names of Gee and Wexner. (In fact, Kessler, who built his own fortune through real estate development, and Wexner were partners in creating New Albany until Kessler hit a tough financial patch in the early 1990s; he still serves as the chairman of the New Albany Company.)
The former president of the Ohio State board of trustees and an ex-board member of JPMorgan Chase, he still holds a directorship for Abercrombie & Fitch. He was vital in working with Wexner in recruiting Gee to return to Ohio State as president in 2007. And Kessler isn’t immune from doing a little dirty work: “If somebody is not fundraising as much as they should be or a couple of people not working well together, Jack has the conversation with them,” says one power player.
The choir director
Until he left in late 2009, Bob Milbourne lasted for seven years as the president of the Columbus Partnership. In Columbus Monthly’s 2005 power rankings, his role was described as the gatekeeper, the guy to cozy up to if you wanted to see a Titan.
His replacement, Alex Fischer, is more of a choir director. He isn’t necessarily determining who does and doesn’t get access to the top power players, but tries to align all those egos to sing off the same page. And the song he’s assigned to compose involves putting together a cohesive and effective economic development strategy for Central Ohio, which, according to a certain Titan named Les Wexner, has been woefully lacking. (And he’s also expected to tend to all the other Partnership interests, including downtown issues and working with state government and the feds.)
This is tough stuff, especially since part of Fischer’s job is letting Wexner and Wolfe, the two heavyweights of the group, know when their brilliant ideas aren’t exactly brilliant. But he has an impressive résumé—Battelle executive, deputy governor and commissioner of economic development for the state of Tennessee—and has gotten high marks so far. “He’s savvy, smart, quick on the uptake,” says a civic insider.
But it’s a job fraught with booby traps. So many Titans to keep happy, so many critics looking to undercut you. And it’s the nature of the job that no matter how bright Fischer’s star may be now, it eventually will diminish. At the moment, he’s riding high—that’s in part, as one source says, “Because he realizes he’s the hired help and not the boss.”
These are the trusted advisers to the Titans, the folks who have the ears of the power players and represent them in community affairs. When they speak, you know what their boss is thinking.
Bruce Soll: There have been a lot of golden boys and girls at Limited Brands over the years, but almost all have lost their luster with Les Wexner. One of the exceptions is Soll, who has shown tremendous staying power over the past 18 years.
Perhaps he’s earned Wexner’s approval for so long because he shuns the spotlight, staying in the shadows although he’s involved in practically every big issue important to Wexner and serves on the boards of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation and the Columbus Foundation. Described as strategic and insightful, Soll also is a good bridge builder. “He’s very loyal to Les,” says one source. “He’s survived because they are on some levels good friends.”
Jeff Kaplan: Part of Kaplan’s long title at Ohio State is “special assistant to the president.” In that role, Gee uses him as a kind of utility player fielding big responsibilities, with his hand in the athletic department, the medical center complex, master planning and more. “Ten times out of 10 Jeff is going to be in the room on the tough issues,” says a source. “When Gordon says here’s how it’s going to be done, it’s left to Jeff to deal with the practicalities of getting it done.”
Kaplan, who worked with Gee at Vanderbilt, also prefers to stay behind the scenes. Described by colleagues as businesslike and “keeping his cards close to his chest,” he’s known for working long hours. “He’s the first one to turn on the lights,” says a friend.
Mike Curtin: In 2005, Curtin ranked No. 8 on the Columbus Monthly power list—not bad for a former Dispatch political reporter who earned the favor of Wolfe and rose through the ranks to become vice chairman of the Dispatch Printing Company and associate publisher of the newspaper. Curtin semi-retired in 2007, however, dropping his business responsibilities. But he remains Wolfe’s agent on community affairs. He is highly respected and gets things done. Just witness the vital role he played in getting the casino moved from the Arena District—first with a couple of hard-hitting columns in the Dispatch and then working with all parties to craft a compromise that relocated it to the west side.
Alex Shumate and Larry James: These two super lawyers don’t work for any Titans, but are called upon by many for their counsel. Shumate, global managing director at Sanders, Squire & Dempsey, serves on the Ohio State board of trustees (his second term) and has had close ties to the Wexner contingent through the years. Yet, says one observer, “He’s embraced by everybody and there’s never any controversy.”
On the other hand, James, partner at Crabbe, Brown & James, has taken high-profile roles through the years, serving as the city’s public safety director in the early 1990s and ramming through such big projects as the opening of the King Arts Complex and the recent renovation of the Lincoln Theatre. He’s a close friend of Mayor Mike Coleman. “He’s really involved in city and county matters,” says one insider.
After Jay Schottenstein and his family’s businesses donated $12.5 million to Ohio State in 1995 for construction of the Schottenstein Center (named after his father), the head of Retail Ventures has slipped into the shadows. That doesn’t mean he’s not engaged: Schottenstein spreads his money around, particularly in the Jewish community, and a source says he’s plugged into the issues. He just prefers to shy away from playing the politics of the civic game.
In some respects, it’s difficult being the son of a legend. John P. McConnell’s father, John H. McConnell, was a beloved figure before his death in 2008 for his dramatic and risky move to bring the NHL to Columbus. John P. inherited ownership of the Blue Jackets and leadership of Worthington Industries, which his father built from scratch. The power opportunities available to a man of his standing are plenty. But he shuns them. People who know him say it’s just not his thing. “He’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with,” says one.
Where are the women?
It’s clear that men dominate the power scene in Columbus. Except for Abigail Wexner, no woman appears on the big list or in any of the supporting roles. Clearly, there are women holding important positions in the city: Gene Harris is superintendent of Columbus schools, Janet Jackson runs the United Way of Central Ohio, Tami Longaberger and Tanny Crane lead significant family enterprises, Melissa Ingwersen is the Central Ohio president of JPMorgan Chase, the area’s largest private employer. And there are a host of talented women rising through the ranks.
Yet . . . several civic insiders say that if a group of 15 has to be put together to sign off on a project, a woman doesn’t make the cut (unless it’s Abigail). Even Crane, who slotted in at No. 10 in the last Columbus Monthly power ranking (only the second woman in the history of the ratings), has slipped from view. While she’s a longtime Columbus Partnership member, she wasn’t cited for serious consideration because her community interest is focused narrowly on public education.
One woman heavily involved in civic affairs blames a lack of mentoring and training. Others cite the old boys’ network. Is it a lack of interest or opportunity? Whatever the case, as one civic type says, “It speaks volumes about the community.”
Since 1976, Columbus Monthly has compiled periodic power updates. This is the magazine's eighth ranking.
|1||John W. Wolfe Dispatch Printing Company, The Ohio Comany, BancOhio||John W. Wolfe Dispatch Printing Company, The Ohio Comany, BancOhio||John W. Wolfe Dispatch Printing Company, The Ohio Comany||John W. Wolfe Dispatch Printing Company, The Ohio Comany||Les Wexner The Limited||Les Wexner The Limited||Les Wexner Limited Brands||Les Wexner Limited Brands|
|2||Charles Y. Lazarus F&R Lazarus & Company||John W. and Dan Galbreath John W. Galbreath Company||Dan Galbreath John W. Galbreath Company||Les Wexner The Limited||John F. Wolfe Dispatch Printing Company||John F. Wolfe Dispatch Printing Company||John F. Wolfe Dispatch Printing Company||John F. Wolfe Dispatch Printing Company|
|3||John W. Galbreath John W. Galbreath Company||Dean W. Jeffers Nationwide Companies||John B. McCoy Banc One||John F. Wolfe Dispatch||Dick McFerson Nationwide Companies||Dimon McFerson Nationwide Companies (later Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company)||Jerry Jurgensen Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company||Mike Morris AEP|
|4||Dean W. Jeffers Nationwide Companies||Charles Y. Lazarus F&R Lazarus & Company||Frank Wobst Huntington Bancshares||John Fisher Nationwide Companies||John B. McCoy Banc One||Frank Wobst Huntington Bancshares||Tom Hoaglin Huntington Bancshares||Mike Coleman Mayor of Columbus|
|5||John G. McCoy City National Bank (later Banc One)||Sherwood L. Fawcett Battelle Memorial Institute (later Battelle)||Mel Schottenstein Shottenstein, Zox and Dunn||Frank Wobst Huntington Bancshares||Frank Wobst Huntington Bancshares||John H. and John P. McConnell Worthington Industries||Mike Coleman Mayor of Columbus||Gordon Gee Ohio State University|
|6||James A. Rhodes Governor||James A. Rhodes Governor||Buck Rinehart Mayor of Columbus||John B. McCoy Banc One||Gordon Gee Ohio State University||Mike Coleman Mayor of Columbus||Abigail Wexner||Abigail Wexner|
|7||Sherwood L. Fawcett Battelle Memorial Institute||Tom Moody Mayor of Columbus||Jack Kessler John W. Kessler Company||Ron Pizzuti Pizzuti Companies||William E. (Brit) Kirwan Ohio State University||Carl Kohrt Battelle|
|8||Tom Moody Mayor of Columbus||John H. McConnell Worthington Industries||Les Wexner The Limited (later Limited Brands)||Jack Kessler New Albany Company||Ron Pizzuti Pizzuti Companies||Mike Curtin Dispatch Printing Company|
|9||John C. Elam Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease||John G. McCoy Banc One||John Fisher Nationwide Companies||Greg Lashutka Mayor of Columbus||Abigail Wexner||Fred Sanfilippo Ohio State Medical Center|
|10||William S. Guthrie Buckeye Federal||Jack Kessler John W. Kessler Company||Ed Jennings Ohio State University||Alex Shumate Squire, Sanders & Dempsey||Mike Curtin Dispatch Printing Company||Tanny Crane Crane Group|
Ray Paprocki is editor of Columbus Monthly.