Life after John F. Wolfe

Eric Lyttle
The hearse carrying John F. Wolfe, former publisher of the Columbus Dispatch, travels past former employees and well-wishers.

Not many decline an invitation to the Dispatch holiday luncheon. It's a who's who of business and political leaders, crammed into the top floor at 34 S. Third St., the same Mad Men-style office that, for decades, has been a destination for city power players and wannabes seeking John F. Wolfe's counsel and consent.

The 2015 luncheon had all the trappings of gatherings past: The conversations and the drinks flowed, and chef Hartmut Handke's spread was top-shelf, featuring smoked scallops and salmon, Chilean sea bass, roasted tenderloin, a display of salads as glorious as a nature's color wheel and, of course, Wolfe's favorite-the lightly breaded chicken wings. "He just loved them," Handke says.

But this luncheon was distinctly different, too. Though the iconic sign proclaiming the Dispatch "Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper" adorned the roof above the guests, it now was only a neon reminder of what used to be. Six months earlier, faced with the reality that family owned newspapers were a relic, Wolfe did what, for many, seemed unfathomable: He sold the Dispatch, the city's daily newspaper that for more than 100 years had been his family's primary source of pride, wealth and power.

The difficulty of the decision seemed evident in Wolfe's appearance. He was thinner and his eyes looked sunken. "He didn't look good," Handke says.

Concern about his health picked up a couple of months later when Wolfe was honored by the Ohio Newspaper Association with a lifetime achievement award. "He was an obvious choice," says ONA director Dennis Hetzel.

At the Feb. 18 awards banquet at the Polaris Hilton, Wolfe looked exceedingly frail as he made his way to his seat, steadied on the arm of Dispatch Printing Co. CEO Michael Fiorile. "He'd lost a lot of weight. He was gaunt," Hetzel says. "When he walked up to accept the award, you could tell it was a struggle."

Wolfe offered a few brief remarks in a voice even softer than usual, and then "hauntingly" shuffled back to his seat, as one onlooker described it.

It was the last time most in the room would ever see John Wolfe alive. He died June 24, at 2:19 p.m. at the James Cancer Hospital-the acclaimed medical facility the Wolfe family was instrumental in helping to fund. He was 72 years old. According to his death certificate, the immediate cause of death was respiratory failure caused by the pancreatic cancer that he'd endured for two years with characteristic stoicism and privacy.

Columbus profoundly changed that day. The city not only lost one of its most important and influential figures, but his death also marked the end of an era that traced back to the 19th century. John F. was the last in a line of Wolfe patriarchs who shaped-and blocked-numerous civic and political agendas. With no heir apparent to lead the sprawling family now in its fourth generation in Columbus, many questions are left hanging.

Could it mean the sale of Wolfe's broadcasting holdings, which include 10TV and WBNS radio? How will Wolfe's death affect the Columbus Partnership, the alliance of city business leaders that he launched in 2002 with his longtime friend Les Wexner, founder and CEO of L Brands, which gave rise to Columbus 2020, the region's job-creating engine, and the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., which has spearheaded such landmark projects as the Scioto Greenways and the Columbus Commons?

What happens to Wolfe's ownership stake in the Arena District and Grandview Yard? The Columbus Blue Jackets and the Crew? What happens to the Third Street block of Capitol Square, where the Dispatch building sits-perhaps the most prized piece of property in the county? What will be the impact on the many other organizations that Wolfe supported as a trustee, board member or financial backer, including the Wexner Medical Center, Nationwide Children's Hospital, St. Ann's Hospital, COSI, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the Franklin Park Conservatory, Ohio State University, Franklin University, Columbus Academy and the Columbus School for Girls, to name just a few. If it was important to Columbus, it was important to John F. Wolfe.

"I can't walk around anywhere Downtown without seeing John F. Wolfe's fingerprints," says Guy Worley, president and CEO of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp.

"Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations"

The line outside John F. Wolfe's calling hours was impressive both for its length- spilling out the Columbus Club's front door onto Broad Street for half a block before turning down Fourth for nearly another-and for the notables seen standing in it, such as former mayor Mike Coleman and Cardinal Health CEO George Barrett, who normally don't stand at the back of the line for anyone.

John F. Wolfe wasn't anyone. He very well might have been, as his longtime friend and attorney John Zeiger told him just a week before his death, "the finest citizen this city's ever had." But he had a head start. The Wolfe family has been putting its mark on Columbus for more than a century, ever since brothers Robert F. and Harry P. Wolfe (John F.'s grandfather) moved to Columbus in 1893 and started their own shoemaking business.

Wolfe Brothers Shoe Co. grew into one of the city's most successful businesses. But it was only the beginning, as they staked their claim to power by purchasing both the Ohio State Journal in 1903 and the Columbus Dispatch in 1905. Through the years, a succession of Wolfe men, including John F.'s father, Preston, shaped Columbus by growing their business interests-venturing into banking (with BancOhio and Ohio National Bank) and radio and television stations with the same call letters, WBNS, which stand for Wolfe Banks, Newspapers and Shoes. (The family got out of the shoe and banking business decades ago.)

Major responsibility was suddenly thrust on John F. at age 32 when he became Dispatch publisher after the death of his predecessor, Edgar Wolfe Jr., in a plane crash in 1975. But it wasn't until nearly 20 years later that he began to fully come into his own. Before then, he toiled in the shadow of his second cousin, John Walton (J.W.) Wolfe, the family patriarch legendary not only for his civic and philanthropic contributions, but also his delight in exerting his will to reward friends and punish enemies.

After J.W.'s death in 1994, John F. became the head of the family. The contrast could not have been starker. J.W. looked at politics as a blood sport and clashed with Wexner when the fashion retail mogul first emerged as an impatient billionaire with big ideas. John F. brought a different temperament, more fair-minded and less brash. He embraced Wexner, and the two became a dominating civic duo-using the Columbus Partnership as their vehicle-that changed the spirit and face of the city.

John F. was willing to play hardball-as evidenced by the Dispatch singlehandedly pushing the Hollywood Casino off of its intended Arena District site to the hinterlands of Columbus' West Side, as just one example. But he was far less driven by ego than his predecessor. "He was a consensus-builder," says Worley. "He was very collaborative and collegial. He used that word a lot."

"He took the fiduciary role very seriously whenever he was placed in a position of authority," says a longtime business associate. "I don't think people realize how passionate John was and how deeply he felt the responsibility of being in a leadership role."

The reason Wolfe took his role as the family leader so seriously, many say, is that he realized he was the proverbial last of the Mohicans. There was no heir apparent.

His wife of more than 50 years, Ann, was never officially involved in running the Wolfe enterprises. "John took care of the business. Ann took care of the family," says an associate. Among his three daughters, the youngest, Katie Wolfe Lloyd, showed the most interest. She launched the former Capital Style magazine in 2009 and was named vice president and publisher of the magazine division shortly after the Dispatch Printing Co. purchased Columbus Monthly and Columbus C.E.O. in 2011. Since last year's sale of the printing operations, she is now vice president of Wolfe Associates, the private foundation in charge of charitable giving for the Dispatch Printing Co. None of the other fourth-generation Wolfes hold any executive positions in the family businesses.

One name mentioned for leadership consideration is Michael Perrini, who's married to Sara, the oldest daughter. Perrini, the managing director of private wealth management for Robert W. Baird & Co., is said to have the skills to help lead the family's fortunes. He also served as the family spokesman at Wolfe's memorial ceremony at the Southern Theatre and impressed the crowd of several hundred with a warm, humorous soliloquy humanizing his father-in-law in ways few ever heard. He told of Wolfe's abilities on the dance floor or during a card game, his irrational obsession with trash day and sharing life with three daughters. Perrini told the crowd that one of John F.'s frequent quotes was, "Girls, for as dumb as you think I am, you live pretty well."

Perrini, however, has never worked for the Dispatch Printing Co. or any of its affiliates. "He's awesome," says Lucy Wolfe, John F.'s cousin and a Columbus real estate agent and Dispatch Printing Co. shareholder. "He's got a very good business head and a lot of savvy. I'd feel better if he was involved."

As it stands, it doesn't appear anyone from the Wolfe bloodline will run the family's various businesses. "My great-grandfather [Harry Wolfe] used to have a saying: Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations. That was his warning to everyone," says Lucy. "Turns out he might be right. The next generation doesn't have A) the desire or B) the ability to run everything. It looks like everything will be run by employees."

"I think the leadership that John put in place worked closely enough with him to know his wishes," says cousin Bill Wolfe of Columbus. "But they need some leeway to make some decisions on their own. It will take some time to see what transpires."

The Empire

Those closest to Wolfe say the realization that there was no family successor had been driving his business decisions for a long time.

"Over the years, John F. was very mindful of the need for prudent estate planning and financial planning to ensure that Ann and his girls and [five] grandchildren were taken care of," says a longtime friend and colleague. "He recognized that this wasn't just a baton that he could simply hand off. By simplifying the assets, the business and its sustainability, he did his family a great service."

That simplification included selling the Columbus Dispatch, the ThisWeek chain of weekly newspapers, the magazine division and the printing facility, to New Media Investment Group Inc. for a reported $47 million-a fraction of what those assets were worth a decade earlier.

In hindsight, many wondered whether Wolfe's decision to sell was prompted by his cancer diagnosis. State Rep. Mike Curtin doesn't think so. The former Dispatch editor and the first non-Wolfe to be named president of the Dispatch Printing Co. says, "I was not terribly surprised at all that he sold the paper. I never thought, and still don't think, that the sale had anything to do with his health. Economic imperatives drove the decision. Whatever health issues John was experiencing were secondary to the decision."

The sale left the Dispatch Printing Co., despite the name, without any print holdings. Its affiliates are now the Dispatch Broadcast Group, which includes WBNS-10TV and WBNS-AM/FM radio stations, as well as WTHR-TV in Indianapolis, and Capitol Square Ltd., a commercial real-estate development company that owns much of the Third Street block across from the Statehouse, as well as numerous other properties around the city, including 20-percent ownership stakes in the Arena District and Grandview Yard.

Additionally, the family owns more than 5,500 acres of farmland in Madison County and another 970 acres in Clark County, most of which is being sharecropped. And there's the Wigwam, a private hunting lodge-style resort on about 60 acres near Reynoldsburg, where the family has entertained guests, including a number of U.S. presidents, for nearly 90 years. It's valued by the Fairfield County auditor at just over $4 million. John and Ann also owned three private residences, including their 25th-floor condo at Miranova, the longtime Wolfe summer home on Journal Island at Buckeye Lake appraised at $1.3 million and a Naples, Florida, manse close to the Gulf of Mexico valued at $6.8 million.

The leadership of the business now rests with Michael Fiorile. On July 29, a month after Wolfe's death, Fiorile was elected chairman of the board of directors of the Dispatch Printing Co.-the first non-Wolfe to hold the title. "If the paper hadn't been sold, this would be a far different discussion," New Albany Co. head and longtime friend Jack Kessler told Columbus Monthly on the morning of Wolfe's memorial. "But with the paper being sold and the real estate, which is doing fine, and the farms, which are doing fine, and then the TV stations, with Mike Fiorile running them for the family, I think everything's in very good order. I think John left this world with his family in very good financial order."

Fiorile did not respond to numerous phone calls and emails requesting comment for this story. The Wolfe family, through Zeiger, issued a statement that said, in part, it "remains committed to the ongoing success of each of the Companies. They will operate under the direction of existing management, which has our full support."

Fiorile has a wealth of broadcast experience; he's served as chairman of the CBS Television Affiliates Board, as well as on the National Association of Broadcasters board. He joined the company 22 years ago as CEO of the Dispatch Broadcast Group, after stints as general manager of stations serving the Carolinas and in Sacramento.

But he also faces an uphill battle. The broadcast side of the business has long been the golden goose since the revenue tide began to turn against the newspaper industry. But it, too, faces some of the same economy-of-scale challenges that Wolfe faced with the Dispatch.

"There's no question the small, family-owned media enterprise is very few and far between," says Mike Cavender, executive director of the national Radio, Television and Digital News Association. "I can probably count them on my hand."

They've been replaced by large conglomerates like the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 173 stations in 81 markets, or Nexstar Broadcasting, which owns 104 stations in 58 markets, whose size gives them greater leverage in negotiating rates for programming with networks and national advertisers.

Knowledgeable sources say Wolfe had been encouraged since the early 2000s to grow the company's radio and TV holdings with an eye toward becoming a Midwest broadcast power. But for whatever reasons, he never acted on the advice.

Now speculation is high, even among employees at 10TV who asked not to be identified, that the stations could be prime takeover targets after the highly profitable election season and the Summer Olympics.

In March alone, 10TV grossed nearly $600,000 in advertising revenue just from five presidential candidates leading into the Ohio primary, according to FCC filings. And that doesn't include cash from the various non-candidate groups like PACs, or advertising from any of the state and local races and ballot issues.

"Television stations love political years, especially if you're fortunate enough to own a station in a swing state," says Cavender. "It can go a long way toward boosting your bottom line for at least a couple of quarters." In addition, the Dispatch Printing Co.-owned WTHR-TV in Indianapolis, the market leader for 16 years, is an NBC affiliate, and as such, aired the lucrative Summer Olympics.

That success could be what determines future ownership. "The big conglomerates will eventually come calling if they haven't already," Cavender says. "There will be suitors, and everything has its price."

The real estate side of the equation is even harder to figure out. A recent story in Business First quoted Fiorile as saying he'd like to have the former home of the Dispatch leased to new tenants within a year.

Sources say Wolfe planned to move the radio stations from their current Front Street offices, which are being leased, to the Dispatch building. But the site is too valuable for the plans to end there. The Dispatch Printing Co. not only owns the former Dispatch building, but virtually the rest of the block south to State Street, as well as the surface parking lots stretching east to Fourth Street. "Conceptually, we look at the land we have and know that there is a higher and better use than parking lots, but you only get one chance to develop it," Wolfe told Columbus C.E.O. magazine, Columbus Monthly's sister publication, in October. "Sooner rather than later we'll engage with different potential planners to give us an idea of what might be doable."

It may be the one unfinished part of Wolfe's final plan, says one close associate, and, perhaps, the best indication that not even Wolfe himself realized how quickly his health would fail.

"John was the bucket"

Where Wolfe's absence will be felt most is in the loss of his guidance and leadership. Gov. John Kasich made reference, during Wolfe's memorial service, to the hundreds of people-Kasich included-who made the trip to Wolfe's fifth-floor corner office to seek his counsel. "Think about how much advice was dispensed in that office and how much of the landscape of Central Ohio was changed by what transpired in that office, on that couch, papers spread out on that coffee table," says a former associate. "It's mind-blowing."

Another longtime friend and colleague used an analogy to describe the impact Wolfe had on Columbus. "Leadership is like putting your hand in a bucket of water. You move it around in there, and you think you're having a great impact. But when you pull your hand out, there's little evidence that it was ever in there. It was different with John F. In many ways, he was the bucket."

Wolfe's leadership style was most often described as selfless and collaborative-the cornerstone upon which one of his greatest contributions, the Columbus Partnership, was founded. The Partnership has proven so successful that last year it was highlighted by the Harvard Business School Professor Jan Rivkin in a case study as a civic model for economic development. Rivkin dubbed it, "The Columbus Way."

"John F. Wolfe lived his entire life thinking about the future of Columbus and the success of Columbus," says Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. "But you don't want to do that alone. John, Les [Wexner] and Jack [Kessler] taught us a behavior pattern and a standard of collaboration that wouldn't have happened without him."

Fischer, who says, "I still find myself reaching for the phone to call John," explains that moving forward with the Partnership's work is possible because of the ideal Wolfe set. "That history was baked in on the idea that we don't want Columbus' future, or Columbus' current, to be attached to anyone."

And that hope is the big unanswered question. Can this spirit of collaboration continue without Wolfe, who was the city's institutional memory and served in some sense as an informal check and balance? (No one else had enough standing to counterbalance Wexner, the most powerful voice at the Partnership.) And now that there is no longer a clear cut No. 2, who among the other top CEOs-not without ambition or ego-will compete for more influence?

"It's yet another transition and we're doing it, not with ease, but in the spirit John had been instilling in it all along," Fischer says. "Except now, there's a dozen or more people who play that role instead of two or three. That's where we've turned the corner, and that's what John was most proud of."

For his part, Wexner looks to the memory of his former partner to motivate civic and economic development for years to come. "John F. was such a wonderful partner," Wexner wrote in a statement for this story. "One of the ways in which we honor his legacy is to make certain that we move forward in building on the momentum that he helped to create. I am more focused than ever in making certain that we think about 'What would John F. do … What would John want us to be?'"

The future direction of the Columbus Way, however, must find a new course-one that doesn't pass through 34 S. Third St.