The eight men and two women who run this city. One Titan (think Les Wexner) is more equal than others.
(This story originally appeared in the October 2005 issue.)
Time was when a bunch of Homeboys ran Columbus—second-, third- and fourth-generation families named Galbreath, Guthrie, Jeffrey, LeVeque, Lazarus, McCoy, Schottenstein and Wolfe. Mostly Bexley-bred, they were tethered out for college and then reeled back home to learn how to rule their family enterprises . . . and their city.
And rule they did (white males all, by the way). No civic, financial or political decision of consequence was made without their blessing. Things changed, though. Columbus got bigger, more complex, less easy to control. And even as some of the bloodlines thinned—“not the man his daddy was”—new enterprises spawned new fortunes. Could selling sweaters, scented soap and bras really make Les Wexner three billion dollars?
Sure could. And when you have that much money, you don’t need a multigeneration pedigree to sit at the power table; your checkbook is your ticket. Wexner was eighth on Columbus Monthly’s list of the city’s 10 most powerful people in 1985, second in 1989 and first in 1996 and 2000.
And Wexner remains unchallenged atop our 2005 list, a man who’s used his vast wealth to change the face of Central Ohio—think New Albany, Easton and so much more. When he chooses to wield his influence, he almost always gets what he wants (see “Les Wexner talks” below).
Like Wexner, our power list is full of names with no Columbus lineage. Perhaps the most intriguing addition is Nationwide CEO Jerry Jurgensen. It’s not so much his ranking—number three, the same as his Nationwide predecessor, Dimon McFerson, in 2000—but the manner in which he flexes his muscle. Jurgensen doesn’t follow the rules of Columbus’s polite civic society; he’s brash and opinionated, willing to engage in debate and not bow to Wexner. When you run a Fortune 500 company that dominates downtown development, no wonder you have a lot of confidence.
Since Columbus Monthly’s first power list in 1976, the members of the Old Order gradually have dropped away, their once-proud family names visible now mostly on building plaques, street signs, little parks, businesses. Oops, there go all the Lazarus stores. McCoy? Weren’t they in banking? Galbreath? Who’s that?
Only “Wolfe” remains to be reckoned with. The Wolfe family’s net worth may be merely in the hundreds of millions—puny next to Wexner’s. But when your assets include the city’s only daily newspaper and its strongest TV station, attention must be paid. If not for Wexner, current scion John F. Wolfe would sit atop the power chart. He isn’t the boisterous, enemy-crushing roustabout his late cousin J.W. Wolfe was, but John F. still enjoys his leverage. If you’d like to run for public office, you’d best stop by his office at 34 S. Third St. and kiss the ring.
These days, Wexner and Wolfe disagree so rarely that they often seem to function as a single megapower. Challenge the mighty Wolfener at your peril. Indeed, so concentrated is power in the top two spots that two of the other eight people in our top 10 derive their own influence primarily from Wolfe or Wexner. Abigail Wexner, Les’s wife, is a smart, strong woman with causes of her own, but she doesn’t nab sixth place through sheer force of personality. And Dispatch Printing Company vice chairman Mike Curtin wouldn’t be number eight if Wolfe hadn’t handed him a power stick and authorized him to use it when necessary.
None of our remaining five players—four of them newcomers—would have serious power if they weren’t running major institutions or, in one case, city government. But it’s also how they use their power bases that separate them from the also-rans and the don’t-wannabes.
In some respects, Huntington Bancshares CEO Tom Hoaglin (number four) is the opposite of his close friend Jerry Jurgensen; Hoaglin’s soft-spoken and deliberate, rarely at the front of the parade. But everyone trusts him, and Huntington—the last major Columbus-based financial institution—supports all the proper causes. Battelle CEO Carl Kohrt (number seven) likewise brings both Battelle’s resources and his own considerable brainpower to bear on community issues. Tanny Crane (number 10), only the second woman to have made the power list, mixes the old and the new. A member of a prominent Columbus family, she’s the first Crane to break the top 10 by running the namesake business and pursuing tough civic jobs.
Then there’s the ambitious Fred Sanfilippo, CEO of the Ohio State University Medical Center, whose inclusion in ninth place begs the question: Where’s OSU president Karen Holbrook? It’s true that Holbrook’s three predecessors—Ed Jennings, Gordon Gee and Brit Kirwan—all made Columbus Monthly power lists. But Holbrook’s chances were probably nil soon after her appointment was announced in 2002 (see “Power outages”).
Finally, there’s the only non-CEO not married to Wexner: Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman, who at number five—up one spot from 2000—is the highest rated politician in the history of our power scale. It’s a testament to Coleman’s skills as a coalition-builder, although his decision to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2006 has somewhat weakened his leverage with the city’s Republican-leaning Titans.
Here’s our list of the 10 most powerful people in Columbus.
1. Les Wexner
It’s not as if anybody needs an organizational chart to establish that the founder and CEO of Limited Brands is the Titan among Titans. But one does exist: It’s the pecking order of the Columbus Partnership, the coalition of business leaders formed in 2002 with the stated goal of improving the city’s economic base. The members are all the usual power suspects. But the man at the head of the table is Wexner.
His accomplishments are an old story now: taking a $5,000 investment and turning it into a multibillion-dollar corporation (and himself into the richest person in Ohio), transforming northeast Franklin County with the über-suburb of New Albany and the trendsetting Easton retail/entertainment complex, changing the city’s architecture with the Wex-ner Center for the Arts, the Columbus convention center and New Albany’s Georgian mansions. Not to mention the millions and millions of dollars spent on philanthropic ventures.
Currently, the Partnership is at the top of Wexner’s to-do list. It fits his MO: long-term planning, thinking big picture, cultivating new leaders. He and Wolfe work closely. As one person who knows them both says, “They are joined at the hip. They publicly agree on every issue. They are a formidable team.”
Wexner also spends a lot of time these days thinking about Ohio State and downtown development. Rumors swirled for months that he was pushing the idea of expanding the number of OSU trustees so he could sit on the board again. But there’s no doubt he wanted a bigger board and lobbied the legislature to grow it from nine to 15. Which it did. And it was Wexner who forwarded the name of M/I Homes president Bob Schottenstein as the trustee to replace Tami Longaberger. Gov. Bob Taft appointed Schottenstein in July.
As for downtown, some critics would point out that the center city might not need as much salvaging if Wexner hadn’t sucked City Center mall dry by building Easton. But Wexner’s been preaching downtown vitality for more than two decades, dating to when he offered $25 million for a state performing arts theater, and continues to talk about the need for master planning.
Wexner’s no longer as impatient and brash as when he first appeared on the power list 20 years ago, causing resentment among the established types with his big visions and ego. The visions are still there; the style is now different. Friends say he’s more patient, the result of age (68), marriage (1993) and parenthood (four children).
Observers say both Wolfe and Wexner think a lot about the city. But Wexner, says one source, has the “willingness to use power in a focused way,” citing his effective and efficient way of applying pressure on the state legislature to change the OSU board. “Les is a slightly better student of the use of power than John.”
2. John F. Wolfe
The notoriously private Wolfe speaks softly and carries a big stick: the Dispatch media empire, which includes the daily newspaper, WBNS television and radio stations, Ohio News Network and ThisWeek newspapers. But the Wolfe family patriarch prefers collaboration and wields that stick far more sparingly and subtly than did his late cousin J.W. Wolfe, who for years prior to his death in 1994 was Columbus’s most powerful figure. Where J.W. liked to use his media outlets to protect his friends and punish his enemies, John F. is known for keeping his opinions on the Dispatch editorial page.
One of Wolfe’s best personal attributes is that he knows everything about Columbus. “He doesn’t forget anything,” says one source. “There’s a lot of knowledge about sports and politics in that head.” He has a commitment to the city as deep as his family’s roots; more so than any other CEO, says one civic leader, Wolfe wakes up thinking about how he can improve Columbus.
Insiders say Wolfe’s recent priorities have included a new downtown baseball stadium (he’s a longtime board member of the Columbus Clippers), halting a state proposal that would have eliminated a key incentive for companies to use the cargo airport at Rickenbacker and supporting a new strategic-planning organization (CompeteColumbus) formed by the Columbus Chamber and the Partnership.
While Wolfe is shy and reserved, he is not unapproachable. Last year, he good-naturedly put up with teasing from people both inside and outside the newspaper about the Dispatch’s editorial page shifting from the right, especially when it blasted President Bush for his economic and foreign policies. In the end, though, the paper, which was lobbied by Karl Rove and George H.W. Bush, called for four more years. In the end, Wolfe couldn’t go against his DNA.
3. Jerry Jurgensen
Precious few people expected Nationwide—ranked number 99 among Fortune 500 companies—would tap a guy like Jerry Jurgensen to replace Dimon McFerson as CEO five years ago. Speculation was McFerson would have preferred an insider to take the helm of the city’s largest downtown employer. But McFerson didn’t have a say, and the Nationwide board went with a banker. Jurgensen started as a commercial lender with Norwest Bank Nebraska and then made his way up the ranks of First Chicago—which merged with Bank One in 1998—in Minnesota and Chicago and became an executive VP. He’d never been a CEO, worked in the insurance business or lived in Columbus.
But if folks were surprised that Jurgensen got the job, they were downright astonished when he blew into town and began to speak his mind—telling people, according to one source, “I don’t care what you did in the past,” and issuing ultimatums. He would break with unspoken Columbus decorum and argue with fellow Columbus Partnership members at meetings. “Some of these conversations get almost painful when nobody wants to offend anybody,” says one source. “Jerry doesn’t care.”
No wonder the gossip line was talking about this “abrasive” and “arrogant” newcomer. There was talk about Jurgensen’s saying he missed Minneapolis because he now was “working for a bunch of farmers.” (Nevermind that he probably meant rural Ohio and not Columbus.) And folks were aghast when he openly questioned the jewel of McFerson’s legacy. “He was heard on the street questioning Dimon’s decision to build Nationwide Arena,” says one insider, who adds, “Les and John were very concerned. They questioned his maturity, makeup.”
However, Jurgensen is beginning to fit in. Wexner and Wolfe have come to respect him, though their relationship remains a work in progress. His intellect and decisiveness impress others. “He processes information faster than anybody I’ve ever run into,” says a civic leader. “He’s not afraid to make decisions. He is often the person at the meeting who brings up the new and bright idea.”
Also, Jurgensen might be “tempering himself a bit more,” as one person suggests. Or perhaps people are learning not to take his bluntness personally. “The thing about Jerry is he loves the debate,” says one source. “He loves you to challenge him on what he says.”
Look for Jurgensen in the near future to advocate for a broader downtown development plan that extends as far north as Ohio State. Speaking of OSU, Nationwide signed a 10-year, $9 million sponsorship deal in August with the university’s athletic department.
Then there’s the location of the new downtown baseball stadium. It looked as if there would be a head-on collision between Jurgensen and the Wolfe-Wexner team. The latter preferred a site in the River South district, while Jurgensen was determined to see it among Nationwide’s holdings in the Arena District. However, the train wreck was avoided when it was agreed that River South was better suited for the new Franklin County courthouse—and Wexner and Wolfe didn’t object to the Clippers playing near Nationwide Arena. One power player says that if those plans hadn’t fallen into place, and Wexner and Wolfe would have pressed for their preference, “Jurgensen wasn’t going to back down.”
4. Tom Hoaglin
Does the fourth rung on the Columbus Monthly power ladder belong automatically to the CEO of Huntington Bancshares? Well, no. It’s mostly coincidental that Tom Hoaglin occupies the same position held in 2000 by his Huntington predecessor, Frank Wobst.
Note the qualifier: mostly coincidental. After Bank One’s former CEO, John B. McCoy, was booted out of his job six years ago, the mantle of financial leadership in Columbus fell on Huntington. Hoaglin, a Bank One alum who took over at Huntington in 2001 after Wobst left under shareholder pressure, would have to work hard not to hold a high spot on any power list.
It’s also not at all coincidental that Hoaglin is treasurer of the Columbus Partnership—the guy the others trust to crunch the numbers on their civic investment. In some ways, Hoaglin’s the anti-Wobst—as reserved and self-effacing as Wobst was in-your-face and overbearing. One of the first things Hoaglin did after taking over at Huntington was to get rid of the trappings of corporate excess—the corporate jet, Wobst’s palatial executive suite. Hoaglin’s usually calm and approachable; Wobst was often volatile and inaccessible. What’s not to like about the new boss?
Well, nobody’s perfect. In March, Huntington settled a two-year federal investigation into accounting muffki-fuffki—bad numbers involving leases, mostly. The bank didn’t admit wrongdoing and promised never again to do what it hadn’t admitted doing. The investigation drove Huntington CFO Mike McMennamin, another Bank One alum, into retirement. Hoaglin survived, but agreed to “disgorge” nearly $700,000—presumably personal gains realized as a result of the funky numbers.
Has the accounting flap made Hoaglin a pariah among his power peers? Not a bit. He’s still a key Partnership player, and he’s on track to become chairman of the Columbus Chamber. Hoaglin and Jurgensen are tight, and insiders look for Huntington to buy naming rights to the new baseball stadium in the Arena District.
Don’t expect to see Hoaglin mugging for the cameras if that deal goes down, though. He’d rather stay in the background. “He does a lot of good in the community, but doesn’t concern himself with power,” says one observer.
5. Mike Coleman
Mayor Mike Coleman’s ranking marks the first time a public official has landed in the top tier of a Columbus Monthly power list: The previous high was number six, held by Gov. Jim Rhodes in 1976 and ’80, Mayor Buck Rinehart in ’85 and Coleman in 2000.
It’s possible that Coleman would have been higher had he decided not to run for governor in the 2006 election. A Democrat, Coleman has spent much of this year slamming Republicans and taking positions on partisan issues that rub the city’s business leaders the wrong way. Still, the Columbus corporate community genuinely likes the mayor and considers him a good partner.
Coleman is seen as pro-business, optimistic, easy to work with and not risk-averse. Business leaders say he tries to support a project rather than find reasons it won’t work. The cooperation is reciprocal: In 2002, Coleman cajoled the city’s banks to invest in the city’s older neighborhoods. In August, he announced that the financial institutions already had committed more than $3 billion.
Though some around City Hall deride him for being too eager to take credit for the city’s successes, one key player says he’s shrewd enough to step back on a project to avoid losing key Republican support.
If Coleman never accomplishes another goal, insiders say, he’ll be remembered for doing something his predecessors couldn’t: begin to reinvigorate downtown. “The mayor took to heart the recommendations of knowledgeable people,” one observer says. “Ten years from now, this downtown is going to be alive, largely because of the Coleman administration.” Coleman’s critics suggest his triumphs downtown have been countered by neglect elsewhere: specifically, the troubled Columbus Public Schools. “His voice, his energy needs to be there a bit more.”
Coleman’s statewide political ambitions will test his good relations with the business community. There’s concern he won’t be as accessible since he’ll be on the road campaigning. Also, it reminds business leaders of their least favorite thing about him: He’s a Democrat. Fears that he’s morphing into a partisan populist have been somewhat allayed by his choice of Guy Worley, the Republican former Franklin County administrator, as his new chief of staff. “In Columbus, he could really be above partisan politics,” says one observer. “Now he can’t. And Les, for example, is going to back the Republican candidate next year. So Mike loses that connection.”
Well, he hasn’t lost it yet. Les and Abigail Wexner each have donated $10,000—the maximum contribution for an individual—to the Coleman campaign.
6. Abigail Wexner
Yes, Abigail Wexner wouldn’t be on this list if she hadn’t married the city’s richest man. But unlike the wives of other wealthy men in town, she actually uses the power she acquired when she wedded Les Wexner on Jan. 23, 1993.
She’s praised for how she flexes her muscle: quietly and diligently. One person who works closely with her raves about the former New York City mergers and acquisitions attorney: “She’s behind the scenes, listens to issues—thoughtful; she reads everything, thinks about it and asks pointed questions.” Adds another source, “She does her homework and doesn’t just show up to give her billionaire opinion and leave. She rolls up her sleeves.”
The biggest example of Wexner’s ability to make things happen is the Center for Child and Family Advocacy, a byproduct of her work with the group she founded, the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence. Sources say she single-handedly raised the $11 million for the center, which opened earlier this year on the Children’s Hospital campus.
And Wexner’s ties to Children’s, one of the city’s most beloved institutions, got even stronger when she agreed—at the urging of Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe and his wife—to become the hospital’s board chair. Her leadership skills will be tested since she needs to find a new CEO to replace Tom Hansen, who announced his resignation this summer to take the helm of a similar institution in Seattle.
The Children’s chair follows her pattern of focusing on family issues. Although she was president of the Columbus Foundation and currently sits on the Limited Brands board, most of her work has been with the YWCA, KidsOhio and the New Albany Classic, a fundraiser for the family-violence coalition; she also has shifted some of the Wexners’ huge personal philanthropy to such organizations as the Children’s Defense Fund and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
After 12 years as Les Wexner’s wife, it’s clear she’s not just an extension of her husband. “She’s her own person,” says a civic type, “and wants to make a difference.”
7. Carl Kohrt
The last time the head of Battelle was on our power list was 1980, when Sherwood Fawcett ran the international science and technology institute. That says a lot about the bunker mentality at the compound just south of Ohio State on King Avenue.
Then there’s Carl Kohrt. Granted, the current president and CEO of Battelle is not a household name, but, as one civic type says, “At least he has a personality.” He’s described as smart, collegial and accessible, willing to reach out to the community—especially with OSU on plans for a joint project in the old downtown Lazarus building. Kohrt also gets credit for bailing out the local United Way campaign this year with a last-minute pledge of up to $670,000 (on top of Battelle’s previous $800,000 donation) so the nonprofit could meet its $53.5 million goal.
Kohrt’s biggest bravos, however, are for his work with COSI. Word is that Wolfe and Wexner asked him to jump into the COSI quagmire as board chair to fix the cost overruns caused by miscalculations in moving into the vast new money-sucking building on the Scioto River. It was dirty, tough work: a failed tax levy, cutbacks, reduced operating hours and a board reorganization. He also was in charge when COSI announced its CEO, Kathy Sullivan, would drop her daily duties to become an adviser to the science museum. After months of gloom, civic leaders are more optimistic that COSI will begin to emerge from its deep hole.
The 61-year-old Kohrt is relatively new to town, hired by Battelle in 2001 after spending nearly three decades at Kodak. And his power base may soon slip away since he’s nearing Battelle’s mandatory retirement age of 65.
But until then, Kohrt will have a seat at the power table.
8. Mike Curtin
Tom Hagen, the Robert Duval character in The Godfather, was not a blood relative of the Corleone family. But as Don Corleone took early stock of his sons, he realized Hagen, the family’s in-house attorney, was his most trusted ally. So it is with Mike Curtin and the Wolfe family.
Curtin started out in 1973 as a Dispatch intern, working his way up through the newsroom—and gaining a reputation as a top-flight political reporter—before becoming editor in 1995. Publisher John F. Wolfe wasn’t content to let him stay there, though. In the late 1990s, realizing there was no obvious heir apparent with the interest and ability to run the company in the coming years, Wolfe anointed Curtin. Today, Curtin is vice chairman of the Dispatch Printing Company, as well as associate publisher of the Dispatch. There is no doubt whom Wolfe trusts to run the media empire when he steps aside.
In the meantime, Curtin already ranks among the city’s power elite. If you need to see Wolfe, you talk to Curtin first, and he will decide whether you need to see Wolfe. Many observers credit Curtin for improving the Dispatch and also moving its editorial page closer to the middle. “Mike is the only guy who can talk to John straight up,” says one observer.
And while Wolfe is the source of Curtin’s power, it is increased by the respect people have for Curtin himself. Winning, says one source, is “not Mike’s litmus test. And if you don’t agree with him, you’re not dead.” Says another, “He is willing to share information and point you in a good direction—doesn’t tell you what to do, but gives advice.” Most of the time. Just ask the doctors who started the for-profit New Albany Surgical Hospital; they were on the beating end of a series of editorials crusading to stop the opening of the orthopedic center.
9. Fred Sanfilippo
Nobody on this year’s power list plays the game with more intensity than Fred Sanfilippo. Although he started out as a physician and medical researcher, specializing in immunology, Sanfilippo’s a full-time CEO now, running the huge Ohio State University Medical Center. His domain includes the OSU College of Medicine, all the university’s hospitals and other patient-care operations, and the schools of public health, allied medical professions and biomedical science. Add up the budgets and you’re way past $1 billion—big business by any measure.
In just the five years since he moved to OSU from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Sanfilippo has fast-tracked the university’s medical operations. He’s all about building—the $100 million Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital, a $150 million biomedical research tower—and earning national recognition. And he’s not secretive about what he wants: top-10 national spots for OSU in several health-related rankings by 2008.
It’s an aggressive game plan, and Sanfilippo’s willing to break eggs on the way to making his omelet. When Rob Michler, OSU’s nationally known chief of cardiothoracic surgery and presumptive head of the Ross Heart Hospital, fell out of favor with Sanfilippo, Michler was soon headed back to New York City. “Fred has a lot of meetings and listens to everyone,” says an OSU colleague, “but in the end, you do it his way or find another place to work.”
Sanfilippo hires strong business talents—CompuServe founder Jeff Wilkins and former Huntington Bancshares president Pete Geier among them—and he expects his senior managers to be bottom-line oriented. In June, Sanfilippo steered Wilkins into a new job as CEO of UMC Partners, a not-for-profit corporation intended to help OSU cash in on biotech research and other commercial opportunities. UMC Partners has a supercharged board of directors, including Chemical Abstracts Service CEO Bob Massie, Battelle CEO Carl Kohrt, former Borden Chemical CEO Bob Kidder, Limited Brands chief operating officer Len Schlesinger and, of course, Sanfilippo.
He works his community contacts well; Sanfilippo put his own name in play for a seat on the Columbus Partnership, and he got it. “He’s a guy’s guy,” says one acquaintance. “He plays poker with these guys. And he makes effective use of his power.”
Although he can be persuasive and charming, not everyone joins the Sanfilippo fan club. Some mistrust the big ego. “If he makes your top 10,” says another acquaintance, “his head will explode.”
10. Tanny Crane
Crane Plastics, the company founded by Robert Crane Sr. in the 1940s, is not a Columbus institution in a league with Nationwide and Huntington. Despite the Crane family’s long history in the Columbus civic arena, particularly regarding the arts, a Crane has never been among the city’s top power players. But Tanny Crane—Robert Sr.’s granddaughter and the CEO of the privately held Crane Group—has arrived.
Crane is the first female CEO to make Columbus Monthly’s power list—and the second woman overall. Five years ago, Crane was included in our “Future power” section and, it seems, the future is now. “She has come on strong lately,” says an influential observer. “She follows through on commitments. She has a presence about her that people take her seriously.”
Her community involvement is broad. She chaired the 1999 United Way campaign and currently serves on the boards of United Way, Wendy’s International, Columbus School for Girls, Project Grad and Action for Children. She’s an advisory board member of Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business and also sits on the board of directors for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. As community leaders have gotten to know Crane, and seen her in action, she has impressed them. (She is one of the original 15 members of the Columbus Partnership.)
Civic types heap praise on Crane for spending time on one of the city’s most thankless tasks: trying to improve the Columbus school district. She attends meetings, works on accountability issues and goes into the schools themselves. Crane “proselytizes about the schools,” says one power broker, who adds that while some business leaders view the district as a lost cause, “She sees it as something that must be fixed.”
She also has demonstrated a commitment to the city’s struggling south side, where her company is headquartered. “Her company’s leadership does a lot in the area of south-side philanthropy,” says an observer. “It’s a quiet thing. You don’t see Tanny out there thumping her chest.”***
Who might make up the next generation of power players? A few candidates:
Grange Insurance CEO Phil Urban is making his way up the power ladder. He’s described as a no-nonsense strategic thinker who gets involved when he thinks he can do some good. Urban chaired the Experience Columbus board and is currently co-chairing the ADAMH replacement levy for the November ballot. He’s “building a good name for himself,” says one insider. “He’s a power guy who puts his name on something and then delivers, unlike others who just want to put their name on something.”
When your last name is “Schottenstein” and you’ve got the backing of Les Wexner, it’s hard to be ignored. At Wexner’s urging, Gov. Bob Taft appointed M/I Homes president Bob Schottenstein—a member of one of the city’s most influential families—to the OSU board of trustees this summer. Considered quietly effective, Schottenstein also sits on the boards of Huntington National Bank, the Columbus Jewish Foundation and Children’s Hospital.
Holding a social-services position is hardly the best path for making a power list. Yet, Yvette McGee Brown, president of the Center for Child and Family Advocacy, is rapidly gaining notice as a future force. While the former juvenile and domestic court judge is popular and politically savvy, her biggest asset is her biggest ally: Abigail Wexner, who ranks the recently opened advocacy center as a top priority. So far, McGee Brown has gotten high marks for her leadership skills at the center.
There are a couple of reasons you don’t hear much about the president of City Council anymore. One is that he belongs to the same political party as Democratic Mayor Mike Coleman, which means he can’t grab headlines by acting as the loyal opposition—the way Coleman did when Republican Greg Lashutka was mayor. The other is that he’s Matt Habash, who prefers flying below the radar. But business leaders have been impressed with Habash’s stewardship of council over the last five years—and plenty of them wouldn’t mind if he takes Coleman’s job should the current mayor become governor next year.***
Not everyone who could wield power in Columbus chooses to pick up the sword and get into the fray. And a few who’d like power can’t seem to get it. Here’s a look at few significant power outages:
Considering Ohio State’s huge significance to Columbus, it would seem impossible not to include OSU’s president on a power list. Yet, Karen Holbrook doesn’t measure up. Many observers blame it on the fact that Holbrook, in her first university presidency, wasn’t prepared to handle such an enormous job, resulting in a series of early missteps, from flubbing certain personnel issues (the departure of longtime lobbyist Bill Napier, for instance) to being tone-deaf to OSU’s culture (wearing blue and yellow to a press conference the morning after the 2002 Ohio State-Michigan game).
Several insiders say that while she’ll never light up a room like former OSU president Gordon Gee, she quietly has become a more effective leader, even getting credit for making the risky yet correct decision to crack down on tailgating during football Saturdays. The Dispatch praised her leadership in an editorial in late August.
Yet, the opinion piece didn’t take the next step: encourage OSU to renew her contract, which expires in 2007. Holbrook has said she wants to wait until next year to make a decision, but privately, civic leaders say it’s unlikely she’ll get the chance to extend her five-year deal. Some insiders speculate her gender may be a factor—that the university’s first female president has failed to cultivate cozy relationships with the men who run the city.
Talk about a fall from favor. In 1996 and 2000, developer Ron Pizzuti was in the lower tier of the Columbus Monthly power list, largely based on his full plate of civic duties (with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Columbus Museum of Art) and his huge financial risk in building the Miranova residential and office complex on the Scioto River. Now, Pizzuti has been mysteriously booted out of the league of power players. Those who know aren’t talking. But a message clearly has been sent: The Columbus Partnership, now up to 29 members, has yet to issue Pizzuti an invitation.***
While CEOs have their own hired hands, no one in town has the same access to as many power players as Bob Milbourne. He earns his six-figure salary as president of the Columbus Partnership by trying to get the group’s 29 major domos to agree on an agenda and stay the course—while realizing that some members (named Wexner and Wolfe, for instance) require additional attention. Milbourne is the man to cozy up to if you want to see a Titan.
The Partnership recruited Milbourne in 2002 from Milwaukee, where he did similar work for nearly 20 years. His low-key yet confident style and keen political skills made a good first impression. A few civic types are beginning to grumble, though, about results; for instance, they cite Milbourne’s failure to find support for his pet project of creating a United Way-like campaign to fund the arts. Supporters, however, credit Milbourne for playing a key role in Columbus’s getting a big share of federal transportation money this year (for downtown bridges and key improvements at Rickenbacker). “He was pushing all the buttons in Washington to make sure Columbus got everything possible,” says one back-er. “Milbourne was not publicly recognized, but absolutely did a great job.”
The Titans have a history of wooing outsiders and then giving them a quick boot when they don’t read the power tea leaves correctly. (Witness the sudden departure of Philly’s Tom Lussenhop after a short stint as president of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp.) So far, Milbourne has earned good marks and, most importantly, managed to keep Wexner’s support without civic types thinking he’s in Wexner’s pocket.
It’s a mighty fine line to walk.***
It’s easy to make a case that Jack Kessler belongs on any Columbus power list. Indeed, he’s been there, done that. Columbus Monthly ranked him 10th in 1980 and seventh in 1985. That year Kessler finished one notch above Les Wexner, who was just beginning to make some civic noise.
Today, Kessler remains one of the city’s most influential leaders. One person calls him “the best I’ve ever seen at putting all the pieces together, getting people in the right place and working his contacts.”
So why does Kessler, now 68, no longer make the top 10? Well, his situation’s different. In the 1980s, he was a successful real estate entrepreneur. He forged a partnership with his friend Wexner, and together they began mapping out what would become New Albany. The sky, it seemed, was the limit.
Then came reversals—a soured deal in South Carolina, mostly—and a financial rescue by Wexner. Kessler’s still chairman of the New Albany Company, and he’s by no means without financial resources, but he can’t marshal his own corporate or institutional firepower, can’t single-handedly make a project happen.
What Kessler can do is advise, consult and guide. And he does it better than anyone else in town. There’s rarely an important decision in which he doesn’t play a role. He’s a key member of the Columbus Partnership and he’s the only Columbus resident still on the board of JPMorgan Chase & Company, the successor to Bank One. He’s rumored to be on the short list for one of six new seats on the Ohio State University board of trustees. And he still has the ear of Wexner, the city’s most powerful man.
Need a civic temperature taken? A project blessed? A turf battle resolved? Call Jack Kessler, and listen carefully.