by Carol Cain
December 19, 2011
(Part of an occasional series about Michigan leaders whose legislative and executive office experience in Lansing helped them transition to top jobs in corporate America)
Doug Rothwell is the quintessential behind-the-scenes guy who deftly works both sides of the aisle or several angles of an issue and simply gets things done.
In political and CEO arenas where egos are often fueled by headlines that come with victories, Rothwell stands out by his surprising lack of need for public accolades. He’s content to remain in the background and let others take the credit. And though he may not be recognizable to many outside of business and politics, his fingerprints on state policy are hard to miss.
A card-carrying member of the GOP, Rothwell has worked for two Michigan governors (Rick Snyder and John Engler), two governors in Delaware, and two Fortune 500 firms (General Motors and MBNA in Delaware, which was acquired by Bank of America).
He has transitioned almost effortlessly between business and politics as few others have. Those who know him best attribute it to his ability to listen and take all sides into consideration before drawing up a game plan.
Rothwell currently is president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, where he has been since 2005 when the organization was confined to Southeast Michigan and known as Detroit Renaissance. It’s a private, nonprofit executive leadership organization dedicated to making Michigan a “Top 10” state for economic growth — and whose member CEOs provide 320,000 jobs and generate $1 trillion in annual revenue.
“Doug is a guy you can trust, even when you don’t agree on something,” said Tony Earley, a Democrat who is former CEO of DTE Energy.
Rothwell is known for strong stances on such issues as how to reboot Michigan’s economy. Not everyone agrees with him, but even critics are impressed by Rothwell’s commitment and substance.
“Everything he does is grounded in facts. If you can show him how the facts support your position, he is willing to support you. This is part of the reason he is so good at bringing disparate factions together,” said Earley, now president and CEO of PG&E in San Francisco. Earley was chair of Detroit Renaissance and recruited Rothwell as CEO.
Setting goals and quietly achieving them — or quickly adjusting without fuss — is something he learned early on. His parents died within a few years of each other while he was in his early 20s, and he was left to care for an adopted younger sister 13 years his junior.
“I had to grow up fast,” Rothwell said. A native of Philadelphia, he met his future wife, Sharon, while attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. They married and his sister lived with them.
Love of Architecture
Rothwell loved architecture and planned to pursue it as a career. But a political science class changed that, and he’s been blending politics and business ever since. He has been a different type of architect, redesigning entities impacting business across the state.
He retooled the Michigan Jobs Commission while working for Gov. Engler, turning it into the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the key player in the state’s economic development efforts. More recently, Rothwell was the driving force behind expanding Detroit Renaissance, started by Detroit CEOS following the 1967 riots, to the statewide organization Business Leaders for Michigan. The influential roundtable of CEOs shifted its focus from the region to the entire state.
With Business Leaders, Rothwell has worked closely with Gov. Snyder and helped provide the framework for Snyder’s rebuilding Michigan agenda.
Snyder borrowed a page from the group’s Michigan Turnaround Plan, which relied less on specific incentives, such as rich tax breaks for movie makers and advanced battery manufacturers, and more on shoring up state finances through spending cuts and overall tax reductions for business.
It’s a gamble Snyder and Rothwell not only hope, but expect, will bring more jobs to a state in desperate need.
The two men, who both reside in Ann Arbor, have worked closely since the 1990s, when Snyder, a businessman and venture capitalist, served as MEDC’s volunteer chair and Rothwell its full-time president. It’s ironic that the current strategy of Business Leaders and MEDC under Snyder’s leadership have undone many of the incentives that helped Rothwell achieve success at MEDC over a decade ago.
“BLM seems to have acknowledged what the old MEDC wouldn’t or couldn’t — a decade of picking business winners and losers didn’t make Michigan a winner,” said Joseph Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
“BLM’s support for some labor reforms is most welcome, especially compared to the old MEDC, which wouldn’t even acknowledge Michigan’s uncompetitive union climate,” Lehman added.
But some, including labor, criticize Rothwell’s current strategy.
“He is a smart, committed person who cares about the future of our state,” said David Hecker, president of the Michigan Federation of Teachers, which has 35,000 members. “I would never question that. But we disagree with a lot of the strategies he advances through BLM. We don’t understand the support of a trickle-down theory of economics,” which includes tax cuts for business and reductions in education spending.
“We appreciate his vocal support of higher education, but you don’t get there by cutting higher education by 15 percent,” Hecker added.
Democratic leaders echoed that sentiment.
“The policies of Business Leaders for Michigan CEO Doug Rothwell, Gov. Snyder and the legislative Republicans have been disastrous for Michigan,” said Mark Brewer, head of the Michigan Democratic Party.
“Taking nearly $2 billion from seniors, middle-class families, and school children to give to insurance companies, oil companies, drug companies, and wealthy CEOs is not the way to move Michigan forward. It’s time we start investing in what has always made Michigan better than any other state — our workers and our middle class families.”
Another long-time Lansing political observer predicted that strategy would take its toll on Republicans next November.
“In a world with a Republican governor and legislature, these ‘elites’ may have an easier time getting their agenda through, but it will be interesting to see how that will play with voters at the ballot box,” said the insider, who did not want to be identified. But even that person gave kudos to Rothwell as someone you could trust.
Though Snyder’s agenda is just rolling out, Rothwell is convinced it is a game plan that will reap better results for the state. He said he isn’t totally opposed to using some tax and other incentives as an economic development tool, but thought the Granholm administration used them too often.
Snyder has steadfast faith in Rothwell, having asked the 55-year-old to head up his transition team as the new governor prepared to take power.
“Doug has done an outstanding job with Business Leaders for Michigan and their efforts to engage our state’s leading jobs providers and engage in the Reinvention of Michigan,” Snyder said.
Mike Finney, president and CEO of MEDC, is the third member of the Ann Arbor economic development trifecta with Snyder and Rothwell. Finney was vice president of MEDC when Snyder was chair and Rothwell its president.
Rothwell started his career in the private sector working as chief administrative officer at financial institution MBNA. He left to work for Gov. Mike Castle and became his chief of staff. Fate stepped in when Doug and Sharon, who worked for Castle as his state personnel director, attended a national governors’ meeting in Oklahoma City.
“The Englers and our group and the Rothwells were the only Republicans there,” recalled John Truscott, who was Engler’s press secretary. “We were in the corner having buffalo burgers and talking. They made such an impression on Gov. Engler that once he learned their governor was term limited he offered them both jobs,” said Truscott, president of public relations and issue management firm Truscott Rossman in Lansing.
Engler’s timing was impeccable.
The Rothwells had visited Michigan a year earlier, taking a driving tour of the Great Lakes region. Sharon’s sister attended the University of Michigan and they had been to Ann Arbor and loved it. Engler didn’t have to twist their arms to accept his offer; they moved to Michigan.
Doug Rothwell became CEO of the Michigan Jobs Commission and Sharon served as Engler’s chief of staff. Sharon’s career has also blended business and politics; she currently is vice president of corporate affairs at Masco Corp.
“When I gave Doug an assignment, I didn’t have to worry. It got done,” Engler said when asked about his economic development chief. He said similar things about Sharon.
Engler specifically mentioned the two Detroit stadiums –- Ford Field and Comerica Park — that were built under Doug Rothwell’s watch.
“We built them with less public money than any others in the country,” said Engler, now president of the influential Business Roundtable of CEOs from across the nation.
At MEDC, part of Rothwell’s success came through incentives he was able to offer. But changing times demand that a pragmatic executive change his strategy.
“Doug proves once again that skills that are valuable in government are valuable in business and non-profit work as well,” said Mark Murray, another former Engler appointee, who is now president of Meijer Inc.
“His time in business gave him a clear picture of factors that will increase business investment and job creation. On any issue, he is good at gathering input, using the input to inform his decisions, and then organizing his team to move it forward.”
Perhaps the biggest gamble of Rothwell’s career was shifting the focus of Detroit Renaissance.
“It wasn’t without some risks,” said Rothwell. “There were concerns we were leaving Detroit, but it was probably the right thing to do. We felt we could make more of an impact by bringing Michigan back.”
Many applaud the shift. “I think he has done a terrific job of transforming Detroit Renaissance from a regional organization to a statewide power,” said Earley. “His approach is classic Rothwell. Focus on a few key indicators, benchmark against the best, be brutally honest about where you stand, and then develop plans to close the gap.”
Business Leaders recently announced results of its five-year-old effort to rejuvenate the region in an effort called Road to Renaissance.
The Road to Renaissance was launched in 2006 to connect efforts from a wide variety of business, civic, academic and nonprofit organizations. It laid out six goals, and the only one not accomplished was creation of a transportation innovation center, which failed to become a reality because of a lack of government subsidies.
Business Leaders, which set up a $45 Renaissance Venture fund, is about to launch a second fund twice that size. It’s about filling a void in Michigan, which needs more money to invest in start-ups and to grow businesses, Rothwell said.
Business Leaders also launched an Ambassadors program that is reaching out to global CEOs who are from Michigan.
“Doug has done a great job bringing everyone together, including leaders from both the east and west [of Michigan], so that we can make progress on the issues that are important to us,” said Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford and a Business Leaders member.
Ford chairs the Ambassadors program. “Bringing investment to Michigan is important to me. My hope and expectation are that the Ambassadors program will lead to both,” he said.
The inaugural Ambassadors meeting this fall included 20 CEOs, who attended the Michigan State–Michigan football game, toured the Motor City with Mayor Dave Bing and welcomed a visit by Gov. Snyder.
Business Leaders will hold its first CEO summit on rebuilding the state’s economy on March 15 at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit.
“We’ll be hearing strategies for achieving success at the local, state and global levels, and looking for new ways to innovate, invest and accelerate Michigan’s economic growth,” Rothwell said.
Which also brings Rothwell and Business Leaders full circle as the burning issue that led to the organization’s genesis still rages — What to do about Detroit?
“The resurgence of the domestic auto industry has helped. And Dave Bing has done a great deal to restore integrity. We blew past the Kwame Kilpatrick woes of old,” Rothwell said.
“Detroit sets the image for Michigan. It is vitally important that Detroit be successful for Michigan to reach its full potential.”
When asked about his own future, Rothwell said he and his wife are building a retirement home in North Carolina, where they have family and plan to wind down their impressive careers. But don’t look for that move anytime soon. Too much is at stake for their adopted state.
“I love what I am doing and plan to do it another five or six years.”