Doug Rothwell: Helped to improve Michigan's economic climate

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

On a cold, messy winter day in 1993, Doug Rothwell and his wife, Sharon, ventured from Delaware to Michigan, both considering positions in Gov. John Engler’s administration.

Each took jobs, he as the state economic development director, she as chief of staff.

This launched Rothwell’s nearly 30 years of work in Michigan aimed at bettering the state’s business and educational climate.

“We never expected to retire from Michigan,” he said. “We honestly thought it would be a waystation … Once we came we didn’t leave.”

Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, is retiring after 15 years at the helm.

“We put together a plan to turn around Michigan to get it to be a stronger, economically vital state," he said. "We’ve had a lot of success doing that.”

Membership has grown from 25 to 100 today involving CEOs from companies across the state.

Rothwell helped shape reforms that brought Michigan out of the recession. One is the replacement of the Michigan business tax for most taxpayers with the more favored Michigan corporate tax in 2012.

While Michigan is not in the top 10 states in terms of competitiveness, it’s made progress in the past decade, he said. The state needs to focus on education, infrastructure and diversifying the economy, he said.

Among his many commitments, Rothwell is a co-chair of the steering committee for Launch Michigan, a coalition of education, business and philanthropy leaders to drive better results in education.

“I think what we really tried to emphasize going forward is we need to focus more on making sure that we get the resources to the kids that need it the most,” he said. “Some kids have barriers and handicaps and issues in front of them that other kids don’t. In order for us to lift our performance, we’re going to get the greatest lift by getting those folks lifted up the fastest.”

Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, said she’s seen Rothwell spend hours working as a champion for equitable funding for poor and minority children. Allen is a co-chair on the Launch Michigan steering committee.

“I have just seen him no matter what the complications, no matter what the distractions are, to stay focused on the main issue,” she said.

Allen said Rothwell is like an engineer when it comes to organizing leaders and helping them find solutions.

Doug Rothwell, president & CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. Rothwell is a Detroit News Michiganian of the Year honoree.

“He’s such a strong leader, but he doesn’t have to be in control to be a strong leader,” she said. “He just has this persona of strength and calm and strategy and that has really bared well for him.”

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said Rothwell was a key ally in Michigan’s economic recovery and through Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy.

“He is not only a trusted partner and friend to me and others,” he said. “He is a valued counselor to senior members of the business community. He’s been a trusted adviser and counselor to senior elected officials. He’s got a wealth of experience and perspective and judgment that I value greatly.”

Doug Rothwell 

Age: 64

Occupation: President and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan

Education: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Masters of Public Administration degree, University of Delaware with a Bachelor of Arts degree and the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government

Family: Wife, Sharon

Why honored: Rothwell is responsible for helping shape many reforms that helped pull Michigan out of the recession.