June 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

Detroit bankruptcy raises Orr's profile across U.S.

Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr (Paul Sancya / AP, file)

Sixteen months after being called to serve as Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr has emerged as a public figure, famous within municipal finance circles and recognizable to legions of Detroit followers from Woodward Avenue to Wall Street and beyond.

The bankruptcy lawyer who initially described himself as a “technocrat” or “hired hand” has become the city’s financial decision-maker. He’s become a sought-after national speaker, prized by event planners for his ability to concisely explain Detroit’s bankruptcy story with flair and without written notes.

In April, he was applauded as the keynote speaker at the American Bankruptcy Institute’s annual conference and defamed as the “Pension Villain of the Week” by the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems.

Over the last year, Orr has become the highly visible face of Detroit’s bankruptcy — the human axis of a cataclysm being watched with unexpected fascination from Wall Street offices to Washington, D.C., corridors to the nation’s deeply distressed cities.

Decisive action, media savvy and a talent for collaboration have helped raise Orr’s national profile. But so has his ability to recognize his role in a historic moment. If he has a riveting story to tell, he’s also willing to hop on airplanes and tell it.

“It’s a spectacular bankruptcy case, the largest municipal bankruptcy ever,” says Daniel DiSalvo, a political science professor and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that hosted Orr and Gov. Rick Snyder last spring. With so many eyes on Detroit and its ability to solve pension and debt issues being faced by other cities, Orr is a pivotal figure.

Pensioners, who are taking cuts, may not love Orr’s solutions but respect him nonetheless. “I voted for (the deal),” says Raymond Anderson, a retired city worker. “He’s obviously a very smart man but ... having worked for the city and seen what goes on, I can’t really blame him.”

Just this week, between running the city and court appearances, Orr found time to address merger and acquisition experts at a New York conference and to lecture at a Wayne State University urban planning class. On weekends, the 55-year-old native Floridian travels back to his home in Chevy Chase, Md., to be with his wife and children.

In a brief interview Thursday, Orr said the speech-making is to a purpose, assuaging fears and qualms about Detroit from potential investors. “If it brings money into the city, then I like to do it,” he explains.

More than any other individual, including the city’s new mayor, Orr has captured the attention of media, from local newspapers to international TV crews. One week, Bill Nowling, his spokesman, quipped that Orr should pay him double. Why? his boss asked. “Because you’ve got positive profiles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times,” Nowling answered.

To be sure, Orr has made some missteps. He issued a public apology after his comment to a Wall Street Journal editorial writer last August — “For a long time, the city was dumb, lazy, happy and rich” — outraged some Detroiters.

Still, Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, says, “You can’t have a meaningful conversation about Detroit without also talking about, or with, Kevyn Orr.” Orr was a keynote speaker at May’s Mackinac public policy conference.

“The word has penetrated deeply in the national investor community that Kevyn Orr is setting the table for Detroit’s next chapter,” Baruah said.

In the niche of bankruptcy lawyers and restructuring professionals, “Kevyn Orr is a rock star, no question” says Samuel Gerdano, executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute, a 13,000-member organization. By dint of the Detroit experience (assuming no catastrophes to come), “he can do whatever he wants after this ... he’ll be on the shortlist for the next mega-crisis.”

Orr deserves credit, he says, for taking the risk to captain Detroit’s financial outcome, and for his ability to gain credibility with everyone from union leaders to creditors prepared to rip art off the DIA walls.

Orr’s direct delivery and humor have also worked to his advantage, locally and nationally. Nowling says Orr has “zero interest in politics,” but that his natural ability to connect with diverse audiences makes the question arise constantly.

Nowling recalls a security guard at the New York Times checking his own ID but waving at Orr: “Everybody knows who you are,” he said, telling Orr that his wife would be impressed that they’d met.

From the outset, Orr has deployed transparency as a way to dampen hostility. He sat down with reporters repeatedly, in freewheeling sessions, opened the city’s books to public inspection, and made it a point to master the city’s crannies and lore. As a speaker, he can switch from nuanced technical information to layman language without hesitation. Perhaps most importantly, Orr has been effective at solving complex problems in a highly risky role.

“You cannot overstate the depth of the (Detroit) problem. Many people would have run from that and said it couldn’t be done,” Gerdano says.

The result of Orr’s combination of technical skills and emotional intelligence is widespread respect — and increasing recognition. He’s enjoying a degree of celebrity, knowing that the votes are still being counted and months of challenges still loom.

“Let’s face it,” Orr says. “If you get it done, great. If you don’t, you’re a flash in the pan. They’ll say, ‘I never liked that guy.’ It will be ‘Kevyn, Kevyn who?’ ”

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Laura Berman is the Detroit News metro columnist.