COLUMBUS — About 40 years ago, a titan of business and philanthropy in central Ohio made a call to a rising star. John G. McCoy, the founder of Bank One, hoped to make an impression on Leslie H. Wexner, founder of The Limited.
Wexner had built a booming business based in Columbus and was on his way to eventually becoming the wealthiest man in Ohio, but he did little beyond work. McCoy’s call, and some gentle prodding, changed everything.
“John G. McCoy said to me, asked me, if I would give of some of my time, and some of my money, to the community,” Wexner said during a recent interview. “I was working 80-hour weeks. I told him that I didn’t have time, and I told him that my shareholders wouldn’t want us to give away money.”
McCoy told Wexner that he was wrong, and McCoy didn’t back down. He argued that Wexner not only owed it to the community, but that his business and his employees would be better for it.
“John G. said, ‘You have a lot of employees in central Ohio, a lot of customers, and it is in the interest of your company to help build the community,’” Wexner said. “He was right.”
All these decades later, Wexner has left an impression on central Ohio. He has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to his adopted causes, Nationwide Children’s Hospital and his alma mater, Ohio State University. His wife, Abigail Wexner, has found many other causes to support. And he has influenced developments such as Easton Town Center and New Albany.
Wexner didn’t come from a wealthy or influential family. He had no experience in philanthropy or civic leadership, but he now understands the value of the call from McCoy.
“He coached me,” Wexner said.
A long tradition
Now 80, Wexner is looking to a new generation of civic leaders in Columbus, men and women, politicians and business leaders, who can take up the mantle that he and his great friend, the late John F. Wolfe, assumed from men like McCoy.
Some saw that leadership ring as a club of sorts, long-dominated by wealthy white businessmen who sculpted the local landscape behind the scenes. Outgoing Columbus City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer has said, “We’re just part of the help.”
Columbus, like any community, has always had influential business and civic leaders.
Dr. Lincoln Goodale, the son of a Revolutionary War hero, was among the first and set a high bar. He settled in Franklinton in the early 19th century and amassed a fortune in real-estate prospecting and retail storefronts.
As a physician, he offered his medical services free to the poor. In 1851, Goodale sold 40 acres to the city for $1, for use in perpetuity as a public park, the largest such park in the country at the time.
Samuel P. Bush succeeded Goodale and has been the mold for the city’s civic leaders for more than a century. Bush moved to Columbus in 1890 to run Buckeye Steel, became president of the company, organized the Scioto Country Club, helped found the Columbus Academy and was the first president of the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association. He also helped organize the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
At the behest of the mayor of Columbus at the time, Bush headed relief efforts following the Great Flood of 1913, one of the deadliest floods in the United States, which killed more than 400 in Ohio.
He also worked with national leaders during the Depression on a series of employment and relief efforts. Ultimately, though, Bush likely is more famous for his grandson and great-grandson, U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
John H. McConnell, founder of Worthington Steel and the original majority owner of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and John W. Galbreath, founder of a national development company and one-time owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, also left grand legacies in central Ohio as they built businesses and invested in the community.
Wolfe, the former publisher of The Dispatch and head of The Dispatch Printing Company, which among other business interests helped develop the Arena District alongside Nationwide Realty Investors, came from a family long engaged with the city. Wexner learned a lot from Wolfe and leaned on him as a friend and adviser.
Wexner admired the Wolfe family’s engagement in Columbus and desire to improve the city.
“There were a lot of things they cared about,” Wexner said of the Wolfe family. “That wasn’t my background.”
Wexner hopes members of the next generation leave Columbus a better place than they found it, like his generation tried to do, and see things not as short-term opportunities but as long-term assets and investments. One such project was among the first of Wexner’s civic-leadership experiences.
He read one day that Columbus City Schools planned to sell Central High School, on the Scioto Peninsula, to a hotel chain. He was flabbergasted to think the regal school building might give way to a hotel on one of the city’s premier pieces of real estate. He didn’t know what to do, or how to stop it, so he called Wolfe and simply said, “We can’t let that happen.”
They didn’t. The old high school is now COSI.
Wexner’s conversations with Wolfe over the years, and his networking with other central Ohio leaders, led to the realization that coordinating efforts in the community was in everyone’s best interest. Thus they formed the Columbus Partnership, which has grown far beyond what Wexner thought possible. He wants the partnership to give the next wave of leaders something he never had — an outline.
“If there is a blueprint,” Wexner said, “no one showed it to me.”
The Partnership has more than 50 members today, including, besides the Wexners, such people as Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium; pro golfer Jack Nicklaus; Jane Grote Abell, chairwoman of Donatos Pizza; Mark Kvamme, venture capitalist and founder of Drive Capital; Michael V. Drake, Ohio State University president; Nancy Kramer, founder of digital-marketing firm Resource Interactive and chairman of Resource/Ammirati; Matt Scantland, CEO of CoverMyMeds; James Hagedorn, Scotts CEO; Lisa Ingram, president and CEO of White Castle; and Bradley M. Harmon, president of the Dispatch Media Group and publisher of The Dispatch.
“We found out that there were people we didn’t know who wanted to be engaged,” Wexner recalled. “There was no grand plan, just coordination. Before you know it, it looks organized and planned, but it happened idiosyncratically.”
Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the partnership, said he thinks the bench strength is as deep as it’s ever been.
“More people are getting involved, both the public and private sector,” Fischer said. And more are getting involved at a younger age.
He said that Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, at 42, probably is one of the younger big-city mayors in the country, so he’ll be a political player for awhile.
Fischer also said that the current Columbus City Council is the best he’s seen, with more energy, creativity and passion, along with different perspectives. He singled out Jaiza Page, 33, and Shannon Hardin, 30, both young African-American leaders. Michael B. Coleman was the city’s first African-American mayor, serving from 2000 through 2016.
Fischer, who came to the city from Tennessee a decade ago, said Columbus is a relatively new-money town, and despite the histories of the business titans here, doesn’t have the old-money class system that other cities do.
It also accepts newcomers, he said, like himself.
“Someone gave me the keys to the city. There’s a lot of room to run around in,” Fischer said. “Lots of people coming and going. We don’t shun that.”
Fischer also said that people such as Wexner, Wolfe and developer Jack Kessler have supported the cultivation of new leadership. “They invited young leaders to come into the boardrooms,” Fischer said.
Lisa Ingram, who leads the family-owned White Castle business, is one of those young leaders who felt embraced and encouraged by people such as Wexner and Wolfe.
“They are not dictatorial,” Ingram, 47, said. “They have been inclusive, listened to our voices and given us a seat at the table.”
CoverMyMeds’ Scantland, 38, is another.
“I have been incredibly impressed with their selflessness. People talk about ‘the Columbus Way.’ I wasn’t sure what it was, but it means selflessness and putting the needs at large ahead of the needs of any one organization.”
Laurie Stein Marsh, who heads Leadership Columbus, a program to train the next generation of leaders, expects more diverse viewpoints among the next group of leaders.
The question is, who will replace the Wolfes, the Wexners, the Schottensteins, the Lazaruses?
“It’s a complete shift of leadership,” Marsh said. “I think that people really feel that they can be part of the community agenda, and also contribute to the community.”
The breadth and diversity of the city’s civic leaders is much stronger than ever before, Wexner said. And he sees that as a great thing for the city’s future.
“No question, having more voices is better. They have different experiences, talents, networks,” he said. “The more people you have engaged, the quicker you reach critical mass and velocity, the more heads and hearts are connected.”
Politics in Columbus also are seeing a changing of the guard.
For the Republicans, Clarence Mingo, 45 and Franklin County’s African-American auditor, and state Rep. Laura Lanese, 54, are among the vanguard of younger leaders in central Ohio, said Brad Sinnott, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party.
It is difficult for Republicans to win countywide, with Columbus and Franklin County clearly leaning Democratic, Sinnott said. “But with the right kind of candidate, we are able to attract crossover and unaffiliated votes.”
For the Democrats, Ginther, Page and Hardin are all young, as are fellow Columbus City Council members Elizabeth Brown, 33, and Michael Stinziano, 37. City Council President Zach Klein is just 38.
One Democrat, Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor, 30, said he views Columbus as an emerging American city with a strong economic base and creative class. But future leaders here are going to have to deal with income inequality and a lack of affordable housing, and remain ahead of the game to ensure that the city continues to prosper.
“Cities have come and gone,” O’Connor said.
Another young official, also a Democrat, is state Rep. Kristin Boggs, 39, of Columbus. She said she and her husband plan to stay in Columbus to raise their daughter.
As for her own political future, she’s not sure — yet.
“With term limits, the only thing I know is I won’t be in the Statehouse in 10 years,” said Boggs, an Ashtabula County native whose father and uncle served in the legislature.
She does think that more voices will be represented at the table, as does Klein.
“I think the power is spread and reflected in our neighborhood groups,” Klein said. “Certainly diverse thought is bringing everyone to the table. Bringing the faith community and civic associations (in), that’s the approach you need. I don’t necessarily see it as a changing of the guard. It’s changing demographics.”
Though the demographics are changing, new arrivals from other countries have found it difficult to get involved in local planning and decision-making at the highest levels.
An associate professor at a Connecticut college who researched the Somali communities in the Columbus and the Minneapolis-St. Paul areas concluded that Somalis were better incorporated into the Minnesota community, politically and culturally, than here in Columbus. Minneapolis, the U.S. city with the largest Somali immigrant population, elected a Somali to its city council in 2013, and to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016.
In Columbus, no one has even run for political office from the Somali community, the nation’s second-largest, even though the Somali community started establishing itself here more than 20 years ago.
Part of the problem is that Columbus has an at-large council system dominated by one party instead of a ward system, said Jibril Mohamed, an Ohio State lecturer and executive director of the Somali Community Action Network.
“There are limited pathways to the population of Somalis,” Mohamed said.
Hassan Omar, who has long led the Somali Community Association of Ohio, said he doesn’t feel his community has a voice at the table. “In the future, hopefully they will,” said Omar, who said he knows a handful of people interested in running for office.
Mohamed said it will happen at some point.
“We’re not giving up,” Mohamed said. “Everybody can be part of the governance.”
The next generation
Wexner and others relayed many names when asked about who is rising to one day replace him and his colleagues. Obvious among the names: his wife, Abigail Wexner. But also Abell of Donatos Pizza, Ingram of White Castle and developers such as Joel Pizzuti and Brent Crawford.
“I feel honored,” Ingram, who is the fourth generation to run White Castle, said of being mentioned. “But in our family, it is an expectation. It is part of being an Ingram.”
Unlike Wexner’s upbringing, the Ingram family — like the Wolfes — have been among the city’s movers and shakers for generations, and they have passed down a culture of community building.
Among the nine Ingrams in Lisa Ingram’s generation, the family members sit on 22 boards of directors in central Ohio. She said it is understood that members of the family will give back to the community “with your time, talent and resources.” The family’s foundation, which is part of the Columbus Foundation, gives away more than $2 million each year.
Scantland, of CoverMyMeds, never had a conversation like the one Wexner did with McCoy that realigned his priorities and scope of vision. Instead, Scantland said, his greatest mentors were his parents.
“They taught me that you have responsibility for the people that you live with, the community,” he said. “That sense of duty came from my parents and grandparents.”
Crawford, whose Bridge Park development is literally reshaping Dublin’s core, sees his business as something of an extension of his role in the community. He wants to build things that not only make money but also will last for a long time and give more back to the communities they touch than he ever sees. He also is, at age 45, near a time when things outside of his business are calling to him.
“You have to get to a point where you aren’t running a business, you are owning a business,” Crawford said. “That allows you to do different things, look at the bigger picture, invest in what you are passionate about.”
He wants to do more big projects. His company, Crawford Hoying, was one of three finalists for the massive Scioto Peninsula project that went to an Indiana company, but he also feels strongly about finding ways to improve access to affordable housing and addressing the growing income inequality in our region.
“We like to do hard things,” Crawford said. “I tell kids all the time, don’t limit yourself. It’s ‘How do I get there?’ not, ‘I’ll never get there.’”
Scantland sees the success of his company as a vehicle for improving the city’s economic vitality. He’s also focused on helping his employees engage with causes and organizations they are passionate about and where their skills can create change, especially in improving economic conditions for a much wider set of the city’s residents.
“The future of community involvement is not just money,” he said, “but finding ways to leverage our talent to find creative solutions.”
Ingram similarly is drawn to the issues of pervasive poverty and inequality. She thinks there will be a shift in what city leaders tackle as a new, more diverse generation comes into its own.
“The more diversity we have, the more we can find the real needs we have to address,” she said. “There is a population here that has not felt the economic boom of Columbus and we need to find ways to address the needs of those people.”
Derek Grosso started Columbus Young Professionals in 2005 and it now has more than 20,000 members. He said that members of the rising generation of Columbus are interested in strengthening their community. The club’s philanthropy and community-service events are some of its most popular.
“This generation is interested in that,” he said. “People today know that no one does this alone; you aren’t in this by yourself.”
Many of them also know who the Wexners and Ingrams and Grotes are. Many of them work for their companies, and they want to make Columbus better, just like others have before them.
“While you are looking ahead,” Grosso said, “you have to remember to look at what came before you.”
Reach JD Malone at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @j_d_malone. Reach Mark Ferenchik at email@example.com or on Twitter @MarkFerenchik.