While the civic scene is still reeling from the surprising departure of Nationwide‚??s Jerry Jurgensen, a new CEO begins to set his agenda at the powerful corporation.
Since his shocking and sudden ouster from Nationwide in late February, Jerry Jurgensen hasn't gone into hiding. There have been sightings of the former CEO all over town. At a Blue Jackets game. In an Arena District Starbucks. In a Bexley Starbucks with his good friend, developer Frank Kass. Supposedly at a civic meeting (wearing a sweater instead of a suit and tie).
Two days after his departure, he and his wife, Patty, attended a party at Rocky Fork Country Club hosted by another recently departed Titan, former Huntington National Bank CEO and chairman Tom Hoaglin. "He was smiling," says a person at the event. "He was coming to recognize there was nothing he could do about it." Two days after that, he went to his last meeting of the Columbus Partnership, the exclusive group for the city's top business leaders. And he co-hosted with Hoaglin a fundraiser in late March for Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who's seeking the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat next year.
According to friends, he isn't sure of his exact plans. "He's 57 years old, in great shape, not ready to retire, but I don't think he's ready to take a corporate job," Kass says. But it looks as if Jurgensen will stay in Columbus and remain active in civic affairs. Although he has resigned from the Partnership and the board of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., he remains on the board of Nationwide Children's Hospital. Gov. Ted Strickland says in a release that he expects to continue to rely on Jurgensen's "advice and insight on important economic issues and the establishment of a transformative educational system." (Earlier this year, Jurgensen joined Strickland on a tour of Ohio newspaper editorial boards to sell the governor's new education plan.) While Richard Stoff, executive director of the Ohio Business Roundtable, wouldn't confirm that Jurgensen would stay on as the chairman of the group of influential CEOs, he did say he "looks forward to continuing to work with him."
And Jurgensen has taken office space in the same location in the Arena District, the Belmont Building, as his friend Bob Walter, the retired founder of Cardinal Health; the site is walking distance from Jurgensen's home in the Condominiums at North Bank Park, which he and his wife bought for $2.9 million in 2007. It, incidentally, has a great view of the Nationwide complex on High Street.
But first things first. Jurgensen, who routinely rated high on lists of the best CEO golfers, headed to his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the end of March to work on his golf game for a few weeks. "His immediate goal is to get his handicap down," said Kass at the time.
The third week of February was busy for Jurgensen, especially since the company's board was in town for a series of meetings. At 9 am on that Thursday, Feb. 19, Jurgensen's focus was supposed to be on a civic matter: a gathering to discuss a promising education initiative at a conference room down the hall from his office on the 37th floor of One Nationwide Plaza. Among those there were Columbus Partnership president Bob Milbourne, Columbus schools superintendent Gene Harris and Crane Group CEO Tanny Crane. Another participant, Nationwide Foundation president Chad Jester, told the group that Jurgensen wouldn't be able to attend. The meeting went on without him.
As it turns out, Jurgensen had more pressing concerns: He was learning from the board that after more than eight years as the head of Nationwide, his time to lead the company ranked 108th on the Fortune 500 list had expired. Thanks for your service, and, by the way, clean out your office… by the end of the day. No transition period, no graceful exit. Adios, pal.
Jurgensen began to make calls to break the news-to Strickland, Kass, Milbourne, Limited Brands founder and CEO Les Wexner, New Albany Company chairman and friend Jack Kessler and others. Later that day, a press release stated that the board and Jurgensen had "mutually agreed" to end his career at one of the world's largest insurance and financial services company. Since there had been no buzz on the street that Jurgensen was in trouble, the announcement was met with a resounding What?! "I was shocked to hear about it," says Kass. "I had to sit down."
Jurgensen wasn't just another CEO. Since arriving in 2000, he made a quick and big impact. Aside from spearheading Nationwide's steady and strong growth, overseeing the expansion of the Arena District and launching a plan for a mini Easton in Grandview called Grandview Yard, he plunged deeply into civic affairs. While he worked on several issues, including education and economic development, his legacy will be committing $50 million from the Nationwide Foundation to Children's Hospital (now named, surprise!, Nationwide Children's Hospital). After Jurgensen's resignation from the Partnership (members must be sitting CEOs), Milbourne sounded forlorn. "I'm just feeling a big loss," he said at the time. "It's a big gap to have to fill. We have a retreat coming up and he was half the agenda."
According to this magazine's ranking of the city's most powerful people, last done in 2005, Jurgensen ranked No. 3, behind Wexner and Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe, respectively. His style seemed to cut both ways. Some civic types found his direct manner and sense of humor refreshing-he wasn't shy about pushing back against the alliance formed by Wexner and Wolfe (good friends who seem to agree on almost all issues). Others, though, found him abrasive. While Mayor Mike Coleman issued a statement praising Jurgensen, the two reportedly clashed on occasion, particularly over development issues surrounding Grandview Yard.
The way Nationwide's board handled Jurgensen's ouster was topic 1A among his friends and foes. Speculation surrounded several issues. First was the board itself. Of the 15 members, 10 are affiliated with the agricultural industry (Nationwide began as an auto insurer for Ohio farmers in 1925). Only one member lives in the Columbus area: James Bachmann, retired managing partner of the Columbus office of Ernst & Young accounting firm who also serves on the board of Abercrombie & Fitch. Sources say he and Jurgensen were friendly, even played golf together, and that their wives spent time at the Bachmanns' home in Florida earlier this year.
Was there a long-simmering culture clash between the farmers and the city slicker? After all, Jurgensen became the first CEO of Nationwide from outside the company, and his background was in banking, not insurance. (Nationwide brought in the former executive at Bank One in Chicago to help it move strongly into the financial services arena.) Or was the board miffed about the financial hit the company took in 2008: a loss of $342 million due to natural disasters and the economy? (The business, though, still holds an A-plus grade from A.M. Best, an insurance-rating company.) Then there was the $23.5 million stock option deal Jurgensen cashed in on Jan. 1, when Nationwide Financial Services went from a publicly held company to a subsidiary of the privately run corporation. Although the payout had been in the works for months, and Jurgensen, who was CEO of both entities, was not involved in the board discussions on the topic, the general view of executive compensation in this deep recession changed drastically over the course of the transaction.
Answers aren't forthcoming, though.
Jurgensen, who didn't return calls for this story, has told friends he wasn't exactly sure why he'd been let go. The board has been mum since its press release, and a call to Bachmann for this story was returned by a Nationwide spokesperson.
The man now fielding questions about Nationwide is the new CEO, Steve Rasmussen. In one respect, the succession plan Jurgensen put in place worked. He thought the best person at Nationwide to take over would be Rasmussen, a Nationwide veteran who became president and chief operating officer in 2003. But it's safe to say the transfer of power was not in the manner Jurgensen imagined.
On March 12, at 9:30 am, Rasmussen sits at a round table with a Diet Coke in front of him in the office previously occupied by Jurgensen. It belongs to Rasmussen now. "It's pretty much the same," he says, except for a painting of Abraham Lincoln he had hung on one wall.
The new CEO comes across as direct, hands-on and straightforward-a get-it-done kind of guy. He says he wasn't aware of the board's plan until a few days before it told Jurgensen. Rasmussen acknowledges that the period between his learning and the announcement was, to say the least, awkward. When asked about his reaction to the board telling him Jurgensen was out, he says, "OK, your call. Move forward."
His understanding of the decision is that Jurgensen's job was to reorganize the company, and now he's the one to manage the reorganization. As for the abruptness of the power shift in the executive suite, he says, "I can't answer that. I have no idea." He and Jurgensen talked briefly. "He wished me well," he says. "All that sort of thing."
Rasmussen is aware, of course, of the long tradition of Nationwide leaders playing important roles in civic matters. Prior to Jurgensen, Dean Jeffers, John Fisher and Dimon McFerson made major imprints on the city, from saving the north side of downtown by expanding company headquarters on High Street to investing in Nationwide Arena and the Arena District.
Before the promotion, Rasmussen was involved in community affairs, serving on the board of the Columbus Metropolitan Library and working with the Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus public schools and the local chapters of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Easter Seals. (He also sits on the national board of the Urban League.) Like Jurgensen, he puts education high on his list. "My wife and my in-laws are educators," he adds.
Rasmussen assures that the company's current involvement with Ohio State and Nationwide Children's Hospital, among others, will not change, and that the commitment to downtown development and Grandview Yard is still strong.
"I'm not an unknown," he says, citing that he and Wolfe know each other since both live at Miranova. But soon after taking the job, he met with Wolfe and Coleman, as well as talked to Milbourne (Rasmussen has assumed the Nationwide seat at the Columbus Partnership). In short, his message is clear: Stay the course, nothing has changed.
But he acknowledges his life indeed is different now that he's sharing space at the table with the likes of Wexner and Wolfe. He's a certifiable Titan. Asked about how he will fulfill that role, as compared to Jurgensen, he says, "Jerry took his point of view. I will have my point of view."
"He will be a very good member of the Partnership," says Milbourne. "He'll be different, more low key. He's a good listener, a team player. He's willing to make decisions, organized and focused." But Milbourne adds that making an impact takes time. It took Jurgensen a few years to develop into a civic force. "It doesn't just happen."
On Feb. 23, the Columbus Partnership held a meeting hosted by OSU president and group member Gordon Gee at his home in Bexley. Even though Jurgensen already had resigned, he accepted an invitation to attend one last session.
Before the keynote speaker, Kresge Foundation president Rip Rapson, addressed the gathering of 25 or so members about philanthropy, Wexner spoke. He acknowledged Jurgensen, complimented him on his work and asked if he wanted to say a few words. Jurgensen accepted the offer. Before he began, though, the group stood and applauded. Sources say he displayed no hint of bitterness or anger even though he had lost all the power and prestige associated with his job just four days earlier. He was upbeat, sometimes emotional about his feelings toward Columbus. At the end, the fellow CEOs rose and gave him another standing ovation. "It was something I will never forget," says Milbourne. "The keynote had a tough act to follow."
As does Rasmussen.
Ray Paprocki is editor of Columbus Monthly.