Power Players: Meet Six of Columbus’ Most Influential Civic Leaders

From Ohio State’s Kristina Johnson to Battelle’s Lou Von Thaer, from Nationwide’s Kirt Walker to New Albany Co.’s Jack Kessler these are the power plays on Columbus’ civic stage.

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
Ohio State President Kristina Johnson

Kristina Johnson: A President with Potential 

Columbus is swooning over Kristina Johnson. “I’m in love,” says a business leader with close ties to Ohio State. What excites civic types is Johnson’s community focus, a much different mindset from her immediate predecessor, Michael Drake. “I think the president of Ohio State University has an obligation to take a leadership role,” the business leader says. “President Drake didn’t really see that as his role at all. But Kristina does.” 

Her model appears to be Gordon Gee, Ohio State’s only two-time president, a beloved local figure who seems to always cast a shadow over other occupants of Bricker Hall. “She’s Gordon Gee-ish in that she never forgets a name, a relationship,” says another business leader. But some feel she might even surpass Gee, especially in his second presidency. One civic type says she may be one of the most impactful presidents OSU has ever had—and the university is getting her at the peak of her powers. “I think we’re on the brink of seeing some dramatic, innovative opportunities with OSU that we haven’t seen before,” the second business leader adds. 

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You hear all these superlatives—“scary smart,” “visionary,” “absolutely passionate”—and you can’t help but wonder if folks are getting a little carried away. Johnson has been at Ohio State for just over a year. She’s made some impressive hires (provost Melissa Gilliam and Grace Wang, the university’s new technology and innovation czar, to name two), and she’s begun to outline an ambitious plan to attack student debt. But her community initiatives are largely works in progress. A civic leader says she’s being methodical and careful, learning the local politics and players. She told this civic leader she plans to stay at Ohio State for at least eight years. Her goal is to be a force for years to come. 

Lou Von Thaer, CEO of Battelle

Lou Von Thaer: Building a Better Battelle 

When Lou Von Thaer arrived in Columbus, he made some tough choices. Business was stagnating at Battelle, so the new chief executive cut costs. He wanted the nonprofit research giant to become a “leaner and more market-facing organization.” More than 250 people lost their jobs in Central Ohio, as did 90 employees elsewhere. 

Von Thaer’s pivot paid off. Since then, revenue has soared at Battelle. In May, he predicted revenue would hit $10 billion in 2021, doubling the figure from his first year at the helm, according to an interview Von Thaer did with Columbus Business First. “Battelle is stronger today than it was when he got here,” says a Columbus business leader. “We’re lucky to have Lou.” 

What’s more, Von Thaer has become an active community leader. Civic players say he’s more involved than his predecessor, Jeffrey Wadsworth. Von Thaer, a member of the Ohio State Board of Trustees, chaired the search committee that hired OSU president Kristina Johnson. Business officials have long wanted Battelle and Ohio State to collaborate more closely, and it appears that’s occurred during the pandemic. “The relationship between Battelle and Ohio State, with Kristina, seems to be better than ever, which is a good thing, because the two of them play a very important part in attracting talent to our community,” the business leader says. 

A civic insider says Von Thaer is potentially in line to become the next chair of the OSU board, while another source predicts he’ll rise up the ranks at the Columbus Partnership, becoming a chair or co-chair of the civic organization. “He’s got a runway to be the CEO of Battelle probably for another seven, eight, nine years, and so that makes him a player today and a player tomorrow,” the source says. 

Nationwide CEO Kirt Walker

Kirt Walker: Bringing Nationwide Back to the Table 

The CEO of Nationwide is an automatic power player in Columbus. The corporation is perhaps the city’s most important—the largest Columbus-based private employer, with a deep history of ambitious community commitments, such as the Arena District and the $50 million pledge that gave the insurance company the naming rights to what is now called Nationwide Children’s Hospital

Columbus civic leaders are still getting to know Kirt Walker, Nationwide’s chief executive since 2019, but they already say he’s more involved in community affairs than his predecessor, Steve Rasmussen. For one, Walker is participating in the Columbus Partnership; Rasmussen wasn’t very committed to it, civic leaders say. Walker also is set to become the chair of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital board in 2022, replacing Alex Fischer, and he joined with AEP’s Nick Akins and Huntington Bank’s Steve Steinour in guiding the Mid-Ohio Food Collective’s $30 million Rooted In You fundraising campaign, a triumph that will likely meet its financial goal in 15 months instead of the expected three years. 

Born on a farm in Iowa, Walker is described as quiet, humble, down to earth and unassuming. A nonprofit leader predicts Walker will mimic Rasmussen in one way: pushing his executive team to play major roles in the community. “He’s a collaborator and a builder,” the leader says. “He’d rather be in the back of the room than in the front.” 

More:Deadly Iowa tornado drives Kirt Walker from family farm to Nationwide CEO

Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer

Alex Fischer: Moving on from the Partnership 

Columbus civic leaders have a new favorite parlor game: speculating on Alex Fischer’s career options. Some are confident he’ll end up working for Les Wexner, his longtime benefactor at the Columbus Partnership. Others wonder if he’ll run for governor. Or mayor. Or senator. And some think he’s going to hook up with a different extraordinarily wealthy family—his old Tennessee pals Dee and Jimmy Haslam, the Columbus Crew co-owners

All these scenarios are conjecture, however, because Fischer isn’t really providing any clues. “I’m not ruling anything in or out because that would kind of spoil the exploration,” he says. The only thing he says for sure is he and his wife, Lori Barreras, are committed to staying in Central Ohio. 

After stepping down from his job as the CEO of the Columbus Partnership in January, Fischer plans to spend the first three months of 2022 in Arizona, where he and Barreras own a home. His agenda: decompress, reflect and talk with friends, colleagues and his wife about how he can continue to have impact in Columbus. At the Partnership, Fischer was one of the city’s great planners—in fact, he launched an effort to create a 100-year vision for the city. But as he moves on from the civic organization that made him one of Columbus’ most influential people, he says he genuinely doesn’t know what will come next. “A lot of people don’t believe it, and that’s their problem, not mine,” Fischer says. “I couldn’t be more excited about exploring the gray space. It’s a really unique time in my life, and I’m going to do it very thoughtfully, and I’m going to do it on my timeline, not anybody else’s.” 

Jack Kessler

Jack Kessler: A Civic Treasure 

Perhaps no one has played the civic game better—or longer—than Jack Kessler. The New Albany Co. chairman cracked Columbus Monthly’s top 10 power list twice—in 1980 and five years later. He never made it again, but he’s remained a force through the ensuing decades as a kind of civic consigliere: building relationships, offering advice, setting up deals, resolving disputes. He’s a master networker, either making the rounds at the Columbus Club or his trademark early morning calls to keep tabs on what’s happening. At 85, even as his friend and business partner Les Wexner relinquishes his chairmanship of the Columbus Partnership, Kessler remains a member of the group’s governing board. A 1988 Columbus Monthly profile described Kessler as “quiet class and a great deal of charm.” Some things don’t change.  

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