The ‘CEO-Mayors’ Who Care About Cities Instead of Profits

Dan Gilbert of Detroit is just one example of what a CEO determined to help their communities can accomplish.
March 2015
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

One of the most compelling urban tales I’ve encountered in recent years is about Dan Gilbert, the entrepreneur who decided five years ago to move his company and all its employees from the Detroit suburbs into downtown as the city was sliding into bankruptcy. A risk-taker in business, he was willing to make one huge bet on a historic urban revival.

Gilbert’s company is Rock Ventures, better known for one of its subsidiaries, Quicken Loans. It has been enormously successful, to the point where Gilbert’s net worth has doubled in just the past year to almost $4 billion, according to Forbes. Gilbert is reported to have purchased as many as 40 buildings in the downtown area and moved more than 12,000 of his employees into them while recruiting other companies to fill more.

In a city as down and out as Detroit, you can imagine what kind of clout this new “CEO-mayor” now wields. He seems intent on marketing not only his conglomeration of companies, but also his city, because the fates of both are now deeply intertwined.

Gilbert’s business decision sets him apart from another breed of urban CEO described in an informative new book by Sam Williams, the legendary chamber of commerce leader in Atlanta, who for two decades has been immersed in the challenge of making urban areas more economically vibrant. Williams’ book The CEO as Urban Statesman provides five poignant examples of current or retired top company executives who devoted their time, talents and accumulated knowledge to their communities, not to enrich themselves or their companies, but to improve the quality of local life.

The contrast is important. If Gilbert and his company succeed, chances are much greater that Detroit will survive and perhaps become economically vibrant once again. It’s the company that matters. The urban statesmen that Williams describes have a different goal -- solving problems or achieving specific results for their cities, with little thought given to their own companies or personal gain. Gilbert is doing well by doing good; the others are doing good by harnessing the skills that made their companies and careers do well.

I always have been concerned that the divide between the public and private sectors is too wide in this country. There is one obvious exception: the legislative process -- from the U.S. Congress to the county council -- where the business lobby often is quite effective. But at the executive and managerial level, both sides need to learn more about each other. So Williams’ book, which is instructive as well as descriptive, contributes important information and analysis at an opportune time.

One of the five stories I found particularly compelling because it was so unusual was about Columbus, Ga., and John Turner, whose family owns the W.C. Bradley Co., a diversified local institution since 1885 now in real estate, fishing gear and outdoor equipment. After an effort that took 15 years, Turner’s public-private partnership successfully created the world’s largest urban whitewater course on a 2.5-mile stretch of the Chattahoochee River that crosses the Alabama-Georgia line. Getting this done required navigating a series of obstacles represented by two state governments, two cities (Columbus and Phenix City, Ala.), four federal agencies, and a range of environmental and civic groups. It was complicated further by the need to purchase two old electric power dams.

Construction to remove most of the old infrastructure and restore the river’s traditional rapids began in 2010 after years of preparation and was largely completed in two years. Scores of permits were required at every stage. “Permitting to do anything in the river,” Turner said after the project, “is typically your worst nightmare.” Still, the first year of the whitewater course’s operation was a rousing success, attracting thousands of tourists and winning praise from USA Today as one of the 12 “greatest man-made adventures on the planet.” And everyone is agreed that it was John Turner’s savvy and patience, along with the full cooperation of the Army Corps of Engineers, that got the job done.

The other four stories in Williams’ book are about Atlanta, Houston, Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City. All involve the familiar roadblocks presented by regional and intergovernmental tensions, uncertain funding and so on. But all had positive endings. The one clear difference from Dan Gilbert’s Detroit effort is that some of the CEOs involved could not have done what they did while still in their jobs. They had to be retired to take on the role of urban statesman.

The question is whether this corporate involvement will continue at a time of business consolidation and globalization. It’s a question that should be discussed beyond the halls of chambers of commerce.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com