Q&A with Ronda L. Sauget, new executive director of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois
IBJ: It’s seems to us like everything you’ve done to this point in your career prepared you for this moment.
Sauget: It certainly did, and how exciting is that? You know, I started out in banking, and my job at the Federal Reserve was all about market intelligence. Understanding the markets and bringing information together and connecting people … helping form policy for our senior leadership team.
From that position I was asked to join the FleishmanHillard (competitive intelligence) team. In the beginning, it was to be more of a support function, helping Fleishman be more competitive in the marketplace. But soon after I started, they said, ‘We need to be offering this to our clients.’ And it grew and grew and became a significant revenue contributor to our organization. I will tell you, it was really hard to keep up with that. It was an amazing moment to add value to a client relationship by bringing knowledge and intelligence and strategy — and I just fell in love with strategy. I worked with companies and government agencies worldwide.
IBJ: Is that part of what led you to start your own company (Validus Business Strategies LLC, in 2006)?
Sauget: Absolutely. You have a real opportunity to make an impact, on businesses, on people. I love economic development. In that field you’re looking at the challenges that keep people and businesses from coming here or the reasons they do come — and evaluating all of those and determining how we can make ourselves in Southwestern Illinois as competitive as possible. That led me back to doing my doctorate on strategic management and executive leadership (in 2012 at Webster University). I have also taught in the (Webster MBA) capstone course, and that’s a hard thing to do, you go through a lot of different areas — accounting, finance, leadership. But when you bring it all together, that’s where the power of strategy is.
IBJ: You’ve also got degrees from SIUE?
Sauget: I do. This has been a long-term home. I started here and have got undergraduate degrees in finance and marketing. Then I also did my MBA here. (The council is based at SIUE’s University Park).
IBJ: What’s on your daily calendar these days?
Sauget: (Laughs). I’m not sure you want to look at my daily calendar (holds up paper filled with highlighted items). This is my fifth day. I’ve picked up the calendar of the previous executive director (Ellen Krohne, who retired Nov. 30) and am going out and meeting people.
The big thing for me as a market research person is listening and learning what people would like to see moving forward. You’re always in that role. Today, I was meeting with some of our Executive Committee members on what they’ve liked so far, what we can do better. My goal is to look at where we are today, where we want to be and how we’re going to get there.
IBJ: Where do you go from here?
Sauget: Certainly we have some key initiatives under way. Scott Air Force Base is one. Driving our levees to reaccreditation in 2017 is another. And continuing to push the transportation infrastructure and manufacturing in the area. Those are our three big initiatives. As a former president and chairman and working on all the committees at the Leadership Council I have a large experience base to take the momentum forward.
IBJ: The council has never been one to stand still. In fact, it’s a little like a moving train.
Sauget: You know, it is, and I love the action-oriented part of it. It’s never boring. It’s always going to change and things are moving. We have a strong membership base.
IBJ: What do you expect is going to be your single, biggest challenge?
Sauget: Bringing people together as a synergistic team. I think we’ve made a lot of strides doing that as a region, but it’s a work in progress. Our initiatives don’t stop at the river. We all have to work together as an entire region.
I think that’s what’s exciting about this job. We want to competitively position Southwestern Illinois and the region as a whole to not only retain business, but attract business and create jobs.
When I look at all of the communities in Southwestern Illinois, there is so much potential here. If you look at river, road, rail, air, pipeline and transit, this is an area where all those come together. Taking those assets and making the most of them is really important and in a lot of ways people don’t think about that. My dissertation was on river, road and rail resource sharing and strategic alliances, so I like bringing that together.
IBJ: So you’ve been talking about logistics for a long time?
Sauget: There is such band width here in transportation and logistics it’s just impressive. If you look at all these companies, you think, ‘Why are they here?’ It’s because of the strategic advantage.
There are so many opportunities to use the central United States as an amazing conduit. We recently produced a freight study. It shows us as a distribution location within one day’s travel from just about anywhere you want to be.
But what’s important to think about: If you’re not working on that every day, you could easily lose your positioning strategy to another location.
This is a great place to do business and we want people to see that. Our mission is uniting the region for growth, and if you look at our communities, from Alton to Columbia, you see vibrant businesses here. We are an epicenter for job creation. We want to not only maintain that but create more jobs and more investment, moving forward.
IBJ: Tell us about your family
Sauget: We have two children, both married. My husband (Dan) and I own the Sauget Farm, which was established in 1844. It’s located in Cahokia and is a grain farm. That was the original property when the Saugets came to this area. They’ve been around a long time. They are deep-rooted in the area, the Sauget family. We’re here to stay and not going anywhere.