Crain’s Cleveland Business

May 8, 2022

‘Marriage counseling’ enabled Akron-area leaders to collaborate

Several years ago, the Akron area went through a wholesale change in its civic and business leadership. The city, Summit County, the Greater Akron Chamber and The University of Akron, among others, all saw their chief executives retire, pass away or step down, and a whole new crop of leaders took their place.

Many wondered how the city and the county would fare in the wake of such wholesale changes.

Pretty well, it turns out. In fact, they seem to have helped found a new spirit of collaboration.

“There have been big leadership changes over the past five or six years,” Mayor Dan Horrigan said. “And a lot of us realized we’d have to do things differently.”

Doing things differently, in Akron’s case, meant not going it alone — as many say the city had attempted to do for decades, with mixed success.

Don Taylor, CEO of Welty Building Co. and chairman of the Greater Akron Chamber, says it’s not the fault of past leaders, who were known for taking a top-down approach to economic development. It’s just that different times require different leadership styles, he said.

“It’s new styles, having the right leaders at the right time,” Taylor said. “If we had a world full of Gen. Pattons, it would be a miserable world. But if we didn’t have a Gen. Patton during World War II, we might all be speaking a different language in a different world. … Leaders aren’t for all time, but you need the right leaders at the right times.”

‘A clean-slate moment’

Horrigan, Taylor and others credit collaboration for producing things like the Elevate Greater Akron economic development effort, formed jointly by the city, the county, the chamber and the GAR Foundation; a partnership between historical rivals Akron and Cuyahoga Falls to conduct better planning for development in the Merriman Valley that they share; and, most recently, an application for $75 million in federal Build Back Better grant funding for all of Northeast Ohio that was put together by the Akron Chamber, the manufacturing support agency MAGNET and others working on ways to support the region’s polymer industry.

That last effort isn’t a success yet, but Akron leaders are optimistic about the big grant, especially since the region’s application made the first cut as federal officials narrowed the field from 529 applications to just 60 — and also say they intend to award up to 30 grants.

But this coming together, leaders say, took a lot of effort and a fresh approach promoted by people such as Taylor and GAR president Christine Amer Mayer.

“It seemed like a clean-slate moment,” Mayer said. “There was change sweeping through a bunch of anchor groups at the same time, which made a lot of people nervous, for good reason … but it also presented an opportunity for a lot of new relationships and to reset the frame for collaborations.”

It also took the help of Cleveland-area collaboration consultant Chris Thompson, previously director of regional engagement for the Fund for Our Economic Future and a former Crain’s reporter.

Thompson is described by Mayer, Taylor and others as the “marriage counselor” who helped the various parties figure out how to work together. It’s not a description he minds one bit.

“I compare the work to marriage counseling. But it’s not just a husband and wife, it’s often several husbands and wives … it’s a polygamist’s dream,” Thompson said.

First, the various parties had to decide if they really wanted to be married, which would require sharing resources, communicating openly and agreeing on common goals. Thompson helped the various parties answer those questions and arrive on the same page, say Mayer and others.

But even Thompson sounds almost surprised that his clients have managed their marriage so well — not because he didn’t have faith in their abilities, but because collaboration is rare, hard to achieve and usually fails.

“This work is rarely possible and, when possible, nearly impossible to achieve,” said Thompson.

Thompson said he had an exceptional group of clients in this case.

“It’s very rare to see a city, a county, a chamber of commerce and philanthropy jointly sitting and doing economic development together,” he said.

He especially gives credit to Taylor.

“He was the galvanizing leader that held them together,” Thompson said.

Taylor, who’s long done business with Akron and surrounding local governments as a developer and seen them through the eyes of a leader at the chamber and a board member of the regional economic development organization Team NEO, said it was obviously time for a new approach when he started discussing collaboration about five years ago.

“It was like the Hatfields and the McCoys on some things — you get to where you can’t even remember why you don’t like each other,” Taylor said. “But we can’t do things the way we’ve always done them from an economic development standpoint and expect different results.”

Common language, common goal

He decided to take a different tack: not trying to dictate terms the way a CEO might, but working in ways he says he learned from Thompson and Mayer, like a counselor.

“My approach in working with the city, the county and the chamber was to get a common language and a common goal, and let’s work from there,” Taylor said. “Who’s in the best position to get the result we’re looking for and who has the best approach? We had to set the egos and the history aside so we could work on trust, and then, based on that trust, we could hear each other. … I had a lot of coaching from Christine Mayer.”

But then, no one wanted to disappoint Mayer, including him.

“A Knight Foundation member and the GAR exec director (Mayer is both) were part of the process, so there was an incentive for everyone to get along,” Taylor said. “No one wants to make the Knight Foundation mad or upset GAR.”

Mayer — part of a chorus of a constant credit-passing that might be more indicative than anything of real collaboration — says Taylor took the right approach from the start, when he started talking about collaboration.

“It grew from that conversation, which was great, into something I think is even more powerful, which is to question if, as a community, we’re doing the right thing with economic development,” Mayer said. “And that’s the direction we took with Elevate Greater Akron.”

Now, the process has become infectious, some participants say.

“That thinking and collaboration, I can feel it’s taking hold — we have a lot more partners,” said Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro. “And the relationships we have with Team NEO, JobsOhio and some of the other economic development agencies have gotten much, much closer in the last couple of years.”

Team NEO, JobsOhio and MAGNET all worked with Akron, Summit County and other surrounding communities on the recent Build Back Better grant application, along with other economic development efforts, Shapiro and others noted.

Area corporations have been tapped and gotten involved, too.

Goodyear and Bridgestone Americas both put up money to support the grant application, said the chamber’s senior director of research, Brian Anderson. What’s more, he said, Avient Corp., a polymer manufacturer in Avon Lake, also joined in, committing $900,000 in matching funds toward the grant.

Now it’s a matter of whether the spirit of collaboration can continue. Those involved say they intend to keep up the commitment on their end.

Thompson is hopeful, but as usual he says it can’t be counted on without more hard work.

“There’s never anything that forces anyone to stay at the table; they can just walk away whenever they want,” Thompson said. “But it’s been five years now that these partners have chosen to stay together at the table — that’s unusual.”

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