AEP’s Nick Akins, Huntington’s Steve Steinour Take the Reins at the Columbus Partnership

Community leaders predict the new co-chairs will lead in a different way than their predecessor, Les Wexner.

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
Steve Steinour, Huntington CEO

For nearly three decades, Les Wexner was the city’s most powerful leader, a Titan among Titans. So how do you replace him when he decides to take a step back from community affairs? You get two people to fill his civic wingtips. 

In January, Nick Akins, the CEO of AEP, and Steve Steinour, the CEO of Huntington Bank, will succeed Wexner as the co-chairs of the Columbus Partnership. In 2002, Wexner and two close allies—the late Columbus Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe and New Albany Co. chairman Jack Kessler—founded the alliance of Central Ohio business and community leaders. Since then, Wexner has been the group’s chair, and under his stewardship, it’s grown into the city’s most powerful civic organization. 

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Though Akins and Steinour are admired and respected business leaders with solid track records of community involvement, neither has the civic footprint of Wexner, whose wealth, vision and community commitment have reshaped Columbus over the past four decades. Those differences raise questions about how the Partnership will evolve without him at the helm. 

Nick Akins, AEP CEO

Steinour came to Columbus in 2009. It was a dark time for Huntington, and many Downtown types viewed Steinour, a hard-driving East Coast financial guy, as a short-timer hell-bent on selling Columbus’ hometown bank. But Steinour had a different plan. After pulling Huntington out of its fiscal crisis, he started building a banking empire. Huntington acquired Ohio rival FirstMerit in 2016 and merged with Michigan-based TCF bank in 2021, retaining the Huntington name and its Columbus headquarters. Steinour also stepped up in the Columbus community. He joined the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center board and became a major backer of Pelotonia, the Mid-Ohio Food Collective and the Columbus Urban League, among other causes. 

Since AEP named him CEO in 2011, Akins has been as equally engaged in Columbus. Under his leadership, the electrical utility made the largest financial contribution to the city’s Smart Columbus initiative—$185 million—and Akins, a nationally respected voice on energy policy, just finished a term as the chair of the Ohio Business Roundtable, an alliance of Ohio CEOs. Civic leaders describe him as decent and down-to-earth, having grown up modestly in Louisiana, a background that has helped him connect on a personal level with the missions of local nonprofits such as the Mid-Ohio Food Collective. (Musical prowess is perhaps Akins’ only flashy attribute: He plays drums in a charity band called The Power Chords with fellow Columbus chief executives Tom Krouse of Donatos and Joe Hamrock of NiSource.) 

Unlike Wexner—a business founder and Columbus native—both Akins and Steinour are corporate hired guns. Does that mean their co-chair tenure will be short? Longevity isn’t common in corporate corner offices, after all, and both have already exceeded the typical length of a CEO tenure. “Both Steve and Nick are rocks, but they won’t be here in five years,” predicts a civic leader. 

No matter how long they stay, however, civic types expect a different leadership style from the pair: more collaboration, more humility. One Partnership member envisions a shared leadership model, with Akins and Steinour relying on other governing board leaders to carry bigger loads. The new co-chairs “just don’t hold the same kind of power as Les, nor do they want to,” says the Partnership member. 

This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.