This article appears in the May 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com .
Three days before being elected mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer was riding around town in an antique red fire truck known as the Pool Party Express. It was (and remains) an odd and funny image in my mind, and when I caught up with the candidate and the Fischer for Mayor Express on the side of Bardstown Road, I more or less told him that I didn’t know what to make of it.
“Well, no, you don’t know me very well,” he retorted.
Several weeks later, I walked into Fischer’s plain Distillery Commons campaign office. Having won 51 percent of Louisville Metro ’s votes, the mayor-elect was quick to avenge the fire-truck escapade and remind me that I’d given him a hard time for it.
“Remember that?” he asked.
The “that” was jovial but had a touch of pique in it. He was sparring and had caught me with my gloves down. “That’s true,” I said, smiling.
“I think it was a good ride,” he said.
“It worked out all right,” I admitted. Busted.
In my belated defense, Greg Fischer is not the kind of person one would expect to find campaigning from a vehicle perhaps better known as a prom party on wheels. He’s a man with few handles — habitually cordial; suits ranging from the dark to the gray; facial expressions that run a small, wry gamut punctuated by occasional smiles. And though he’s fond of mixing folksy dropped g’s with vowels lightly rounded and starched during a boyhood spent partly in Chicago and Connecticut, his voice tends toward a steady drone filled with businessisms. (Even his press secretary once told him he sounded “like a PowerPoint.”)
The mayor-elect told me about the day after the election (four hours of sleep, breakfast at McDonald’s on Broadway, at the office before his staff), his vacation (Miami to see his son and meet a former mayor, then off to the West Coast, working from his laptop throughout), and his priorities (engendering a community-service culture, communicating with Metro government employees and, of course, jobs, which had become almost a verbal tic of his during the campaign).
When I asked him what had surprised him most about being mayor-elect, he looked down at the table and thought about it for a moment. “Your presence as the mayor really uplifts people,” he said. “The symbolism of the officeholder . . . is really important to a lot of people in terms of being a partner in their efforts and validating the importance of what they do in the community.”
Fischer, I was learning, uses symbolism — visual statements — to build connections with people in ways his personality does not always do. The fire truck had been a symbol — a demonstration that he was out in the neighborhoods working for every last vote; that he may be dry, but he’s also droll; that he may be serious, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His inauguration breakfast also employed symbols — an almost surreal miniature Louisville built inside the Kentucky International Convention Center, complete with black carpet streets and a faux Metro Hall. Representatives of dozens of nonprofits, neighborhood groups and city agencies populated the event, signifying that they were all invited to the table in the Fischer administration.
Fischer also employed this technique in his career as a business executive. In their 2001 book Four Practical Revolutions in Management (to which Fischer made several material contributions), business management professors Shoji Shiba and David Walden wrote of the importance of symbolism and folklore in discussing how CEOs can “capture the imagination and convey passion.”
To illustrate their point, Shiba and Walden told a story about Fischer as the CEO of SerVend — the out-of-bankruptcy beverage and ice dispenser company that Fischer’s father bought and then gave to a 23-year-old Greg, Greg’s younger brother Mark and a business partner, Jerry Landers, who all turned it into a profitable company that they sold in 1997 for what the Courier-Journal reported was $73 million.
When Fischer the CEO learned that SerVend’s performance reviews were denting morale, he took dramatic action, gathering some employees together and setting the hated document ablaze. The symbolism of a performance review in flames was hard to miss.
As mayor, Fischer has yet to burn anything in effigy (and, indeed, he’s been conducting reviews of the offices of Public Works, Planning and Design Services, and Animal Services), but he has taken a symbolic tack with the Metro Council that seems to have had nearly that impact.
“I understand he’s going to come Thursday night to our first meeting this year, and that’s something that we’ve never seen before,” Jim King, the incoming council president, told me on inauguration day. King was Fischer’s most critical opponent in the Democratic mayoral primary, running one ad suggesting Fischer was a closet Republican who exaggerated his awards and had kept his company’s jobs in Indiana out of convenience. But King stressed to me that he was the first public official to support Fischer after the primary. “Instead of (the council) formulating our thought process and him formulating his and then us having to compromise on it, we can just work together to begin with,” King said.
Tom Owen, the outgoing council president who’d invited Fischer to the meeting, initially thought the address would be “just a symbolic one and a half, two minutes.” Instead, the mayor gave a substantive seven-minute-long speech in which he referenced the views of the council members themselves, drawing from a survey he’d previously given them to discern their priorities. “Many times I’m going to be asking you all for input on various matters which you may not have been asked for input on before,” he told the chamber. Then he took a seat in the front row and respectfully stayed for another 20 minutes until King politely excused him.
To Owen’s mind, Fischer’s inclusive approach isn’t merely political expediency for someone elected by a narrow margin; it’s just how he works. Owen told me that as a businessperson, Fischer had studied participatory Japanese management practices — “rather than top-down, it was bottom-up,” Owen said.
Fischer’s management training falls under the name of Total Quality Management, or TQM, which indeed first came about in the 1980s through an effort of some American businessmen to catch up with their Japanese rivals by importing Japanese business management practices. Fischer got into TQM in the early 1990s, when he was looking for a common language and processes for improvement that SerVend and other local businesses could use. So Fischer helped found the first outside chapter of the Massachusetts-based Center for Quality Management (CQM).
After selling SerVend, Fischer became a venture capitalist and helped start other businesses (apart from city-related corporations, he’s still listed as a member, director or executive for one active Indiana corporation, two in Kentucky and seven Kentucky LLCs; in an email, his spokesman told me that while the mayor remains an investor and property owner, he’s not active in running any businesses), but he continued to teach quality management classes around the country until 2006, when CQM ran into financial trouble and a similar quality management nonprofit took it over.
“That’s where he’s coming from,” Owen said of Fischer’s business management background. “Now will this particular niche chew him up? That’s to be seen.”
The mayor’s office is on the fourth floor of Metro Hall, the Greek Revival building on Jefferson Street between Fifth and Sixth streets that used to be the Jefferson County Courthouse. The ceilings are high, and the huge windows let in a lot of white natural light that bounces nicely off the cornflower carpet and butter walls chicly playing on Louisville’s blue-and-yellow theme. Paintings on loan from the Speed Art Museum , by such eminent Louisville painters as Carl Brenner, give the room a stately cachet.
When I walked in, the 53-year-old mayor was in shirtsleeves, making his way from his desk across the long room to the table where we were to conduct our interview. We shook hands, and I thought he looked tired, which one would certainly expect after more than a year of what Fischer estimates are 85-hour workweeks.
We sat down, and the mayor put his elbows on the table. I noticed his blue tie with little white polar bears, which he later told me was from the Louisville Zoo. Seventy-four days into his new job, he said it had been “very interesting. It’s good, positive energy. I definitely like it.”
“Has anything been particularly surprising?” I asked, reminding the mayor that he’d never governed anything before.
“People treat you much differently when you’re mayor than when you’re a candidate,” he said with a laugh, warming to the interview.
“Well, all your jokes are funnier.” Here, I laughed. He added, “I’m surprised at how closely some people follow what the mayor does. . . .The anonymity is gone.”
The conversation soon moved to job creation, which was the centerpiece of the mayor’s campaign and remains a pressing issue as Louisville’s unemployment rate still hovers well above the national average (11 percent in February versus 9.5 percent nationally for the same time period, according to the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training).
“The most immediate way you can create jobs is through construction projects,” the mayor told me. He expressed some optimism on that jobs-creation front, pointing to the potential of the Ohio River Bridges Project, a new VA hospital, the long-stalled Museum Plaza skyscraper and the planned eight-story Nucleus Innovation Center in east downtown.
He next mentioned “major corporate growth around our key economic clusters,” identifying two such clusters: advanced manufacturing, specifically in the auto industry, and lifelong wellness and aging care. “When Ford completes the assembly plant out here (later this year), it’s going to be the most advanced automotive-manufacturing facility in the world,” Fischer said. “And if we perform the way I know we can perform, that can lead to even more job growth out there, hopefully another thousand jobs.”
The lifelong wellness and aging-care industry, the mayor said, is something Louisville could be “best in the world at.” Rolling his hands back over each other, he told me that this industry could create “tens of thousands of jobs that are in a good place demographically.”
“Are we going to be able to create as broad of a middle class in the 21st century as we had in the 20th with the manufacturing jobs that we had?” I asked.
“Well, I mean I think this is the key issue that our country should be discussing right now,” he said, moving his head from side to side as if to underline the gravity of the problem. “This is why this area of advanced manufacturing is so critical and that we figure out as a country what the next stage of the manufacturing revolution looks like.” He told me that a crucial element would be developing a more versatile manufacturing workforce: “What that versatile worker can contribute, then, is a higher level of productivity, and we’ve got to have that higher level of productivity to compete against our lower-cost competitors outside of the country.”
The mayor admitted to some frustration over the Whiskey Row controversy, where he has agreed to let developer Todd Blue tear down a block of historic Main Street buildings between First and Second streets after 90 days — a period that ends May 9th — in exchange for dropping a lawsuit against the city. Fischer said that the settlement prevented the judge in the case from issuing an emergency demolition order and will ultimately preserve the facades, though if torn down they could stay down for years. In the 90-day interval, Fischer and the city government are working to help another group buy five of Blue’s seven buildings. But that hasn’t satisfied preservationists, who have been let in on the lawsuit.
“It’s frustrating that people don’t want to get the facts about what took place,” the mayor said. “But the facts are, we had a deadline because of the federal court decision. I inherited this situation and had to deal with it.”
Whiskey Row is exactly the kind of sticky issue that can bog a public official down in what Fischer called “the swamp.” “You know, most people just show up and fight the battle every day, ’cause there’s all kinds of problems comin’ at you and you go home, exhausted; you’re not quite sure what you got done, but the day went by fast. And unless you’re trying to change that through process and policy, you’re always going to be fightin’ the swamp,” he said.
This is where Greg Fischer’s quality management training could come in handy. “The main thing is, it teaches you how to think,” Fischer said, telling me with evident pride that he’d been considered a “master teacher” at CQM.
“It’s just kind of systematic thinking as opposed to just kind of showing up one day and throwing some crap against the wall (to) see what happens,” he said. Then he reached for a piece of paper. “I’ll take you one step further on this,” he said, sliding the sheet across the table. “Are you familiar with this concept of S-curves in business?”
“Not really,” I said.
By now Fischer really seemed to be enjoying himself. This was the mayor in Obi-Wan Kenobi mode. “Okay, so you’ve got...” — and here he drew a simple graph, with time on the horizontal axis and performance on the vertical axis. Then he drew something like this: ∫. “So when a business starts, it starts off with an idea. It usually struggles,” he said (the bottom of the ∫), “and then if it’s successful, it takes off and grows pretty rapidly (the steep middle part), and then once the market reaches a certain saturation point, it levels off (the plateau).”
“So to keep growing, you gotta come up with new ideas all the time, new product,” he said. And here the mayor stacked another ∫ on top of the first one, and then another one on top of that. “So, see, our performance or revenue or whatever it might be gets to a new level every time.”
If, as the mayor believes, Louisville is going to reach its next level with lifelong wellness and aging care, the people he was talking to on the first day of spring may have something to do with it. Fischer was at the headquarters of Nucleus — U of L’s life sciences research, innovation and business management hub — speaking to an audience of about two dozen business-casual, mostly 30something tech and science entrepreneurs.
The moderator introduced the mayor as a “serial entrepreneur,” and for more than 45 minutes, Fischer — his daytime tie gone missing — talked to the group, entrepreneur-to-entrepreneur, the seasoned hand coaching the rookies. Fischer said he was now a “social entrepreneur,” and he traced what he called his “entrepreneurial journey.”
He told them about how during summers in college, he worked as an industrial roofer, which was hot and messy. Looking for cooler temperatures, he went to Kodiak, Alaska, and parlayed crane skills he’d learned while roofing into a gig unloading salmon boats. “And that was a good job, because we worked 80 to 130 hours a week,” he said. The money helped pay for his tuition at Vanderbilt University and a year-long trip through Asia and Europe, and that experience led Fischer to name his fledgling company SerVend International “because I said one day we’ll be a great global brand.” The ploy worked: Fischer said SerVend snagged its first international customer because the client figured an “international” company would be able to handle the order.
The whole time he was talking, Fischer barely even mentioned his mayoralty, although he ended on a political note: “I would say my goal would be for you all to create at least 5,000 jobs from this room in the next five years,” he joked, leaving the podium to the sounds of laughter and applause.
But even as the mayor was entertaining and educating the Nucleus crowd, firefighters were trying to put out a fire at a Rubbertown chemical plant. The explosion would claim the lives of two workers and promised to consume a lot of the mayor’s time over the next few days as he reacted to the emergency.
It’s been clear from the beginning that Greg Fischer would be a radical stylistic departure from his predecessor, Jerry Abramson. That’s not unlike Dave Armstrong, the last mayor of the pre-merger City of Louisville from 1999 to 2003 and the person who pushed Fischer to run for office to begin with. “(Armstrong) judged what he was doing by what he got accomplished. I didn’t agree with everything, but I knew what he was doing and why, and that’s a better methodology,” said 16th District Councilman Kelly Downard, a Republican who ran against Abramson in 2006.
“Look, nobody can compare to Jerry,” Downard continued. “He was the consummate personality . . . .To get compared to him is not fair.” But he was quick to add that he thought Fischer “will be the kind of mayor that will engender a lot of respect and support.”
Like Fischer, New York’s Michael Bloomberg is an entrepreneur-mayor who, as a political ingénue with a low-wattage personality, succeeded a charismatic public figure, and Stephen Goldsmith is Bloomberg’s deputy mayor of operations. A Harvard government professor on leave and a former two-term mayor of Indianapolis, Goldsmith said Bloomberg brought a “business rigor” to the office, but he cautioned that “it would be a mistake to assume you could just come in and run a city as a business and not pay attention to the politics or the other factors.
However, I think too many mayors come in with just the latter and not the former.”
“Mayor Bloomberg spends a lot of time with union leaders and workers,” he added. “These guys have great ideas about how to improve the quality of their services.”
To that end, Fischer, who was supported by many unions during the campaign, has now been meeting with city employees, using the prop of a Citizen’s Bill of Rights to talk about what the city is promising to “our customers . . . our citizens.” By the time this story comes out, according to his schedule, he will have met with every Metro government employee.
The meetings may be symbolic, but that’s what the mayor is going for. It’s Fischer back in his comfortable role of the CEO boosting employee morale, making visual statements that bring everyone onto the team, putting inclusive quality management into practice. And so far, Councilman Downard is one Metro employee who is responding. “I admire the method with which he’s operating,” Downard told me. “Admire’s a strong term,” he admitted. “I respect him.”
Then he added, “Everybody came to me for the critical comment on everything for the last three or four years. And I would give it to them if it was there (under Abramson), and there was so much there that it was easy.”
Not so with the new mayor, Downard said. “He’s doing exactly what I think he should be doing.”