Howes: No-name CEO group targeting regional development

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The group of Metro Detroit’s most influential CEOs already urging adoption of a regional transit plan also is exploring creation of a new economic development shop focused on southeast Michigan.

Headed by DTE Energy Co. CEO Gerry Anderson, the group is in talks with Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah to develop a private-sector entity that would expand the region’s business attraction efforts akin to The Right Place Inc. in Grand Rapids, Columbus 2020 in Ohio’s capital city and Greater MSP, an economic development group in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

The move, still in its early stages, would be the latest by the informal group of top CEOs who meet quarterly at DTE headquarters to identify areas they can impact with funding and leadership: transit, job training, public place-making and economic development. They have no name, no staff, no offices and no website.

“The CEO Group is working with the Chamber to strengthen the region’s economic development efforts in order to bring our approach and resources into line with what we see in the strongest peer regions across the country,” Anderson told The Detroit News in a statement Tuesday.

Among the reasons: groups like Business Leaders for Michigan concentrate more on shaping statewide policy; economic development groups affiliated with local governments tend by their nature to be parochial; and regional efforts by groups like the chamber so far lack the heft and financial resources to compete with rival metro areas.

“Yes, we are talking about that,” Baruah said in an interview. “It’s the opinion of the chamber that we are under-performing when it comes to business attraction.”

Few things better illustrate the region’s weakness in business attraction than its failed bid to make the second round of Inc.’s competition to land the giant online retailer’s second North American headquarters. Leading the effort was Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert and other key business and political leaders — not a regional economic development group whose job is showcasing southeast Michigan to would-be investors.

There isn’t one. That’s a deficiency the business leaders, in partnership with the chamber, think needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. So is supporting technical education in Detroit, a critical need for would-be employers looking to employ Detroiters:

On Wednesday, Mayor Mike Duggan is expected to announce plans for revitalizing Breithaupt Career and Technical Center’s program in hospitality and culinary arts training with support from Quicken Loans and its Bedrock real estate affiliate.

The school’s automotive technician training program also is expected to be bolstered by support from Ford Motor Co., according to a source familiar with the situation. And DTE, following a $500,000 investment in a rejuvenated Briethaupt program, is committing to hiring (or help get hired) welders and auto mechanics from the school.

The CEO group with no name includes many of the heaviest hitters in Michigan business. They include the CEOs of Ford and General Motors Co., their peers at Lear Corp. and American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc., the CEOs of the leading health-care companies, the heads of Quicken affiliate Rock Ventures and Ilitch Holdings Inc., as well as the CEOs of the Kresge and Ralph C. Wilson Jr. foundations.

In a letter 10 days ago urging the region’s politicians to “get going” on public transit, the CEOs said, “as leaders of corporations and foundations in southeast Michigan, we are proud of the long list of things moving in the right direction in our region. Public transit is not on that list, and that needs to change soon.”

The rare public statement is emblematic of a path the group is trying to walk: identify key issues affecting the region’s competitiveness and quality of life, determine whether civic-minded business leadership can make a difference without hijacking usual processes, and move quickly to take action and deliver results.

The CEO group mirrors a similar effort begun in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region 15 years ago following a breakfast organized by Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson, then head of the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation. In its early years, the group garnered support from McKinsey & Co., the global consultancy then new to the Twin Cities — and a former employer of DTE’s Anderson.

The Itasca Project, named after the state park regional business leaders frequented in the 1950s and 1960s to discuss pressing issues, assembled CEOs and university presidents into what it now calls “an employer-led civic alliance focused on building a thriving economy and improved quality of life.”

“Such an organization should prioritize regional vitality over business self-interest and be willing to take on issues that are inherently difficult to solve,” three past chairs of Itasca wrote five years ago in an essay headlined “Doing well by doing good: A leader’s guide.”

They continue: “We’re not an organization. We work virtually, without a formal office. There’s no full-time staff, but we have been fortunate to receive support with operations and logistics ... as well as some of the fact-gathering, which is so critical to our work. We leverage personal relationships rather than sell memberships. We have no public-relations people or thirst for recognition.”

The group “operates behind the scenes,” a McKinsey senior partner told The New York Times in 2015. It also delivers results: one outgrowth of Itasca’s collaboration is Greater MSP, officially the Minneapolis St. Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership, founded in 2011.

Its mission is “to accelerate job growth and capital investment” in the 16-county region surrounding the Twin Cities — two concepts southeast Michigan’s ranking CEOs understand. Realizing that vision means reckoning with the region’s reality and delivering the change it needs.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.