The Illinois Business Journal recently met with Leadership Council Chairman Dennis Wilmsmeyer, its president, Mike Riley, and Executive Director Ellen Krohne.
IBJ: It appears that the Leadership Council has undergone a transformation over the last three years. Membership, the number of committees and the activity of the committees are all up. What’s triggered the change?
Krohne: The executive committee undertook a strategic planning effort in 2012. I was hired that year and I did a lot of interviews with the organization’s past leaders and founders, about 50 business and civic leaders, and we surveyed the Leadership Council members to find out what they wanted from the organization. We pulled all of that together and, building on the strong reputation the Leadership Council had earned from its prior successes getting things done quietly behind the scenes, we developed a growth strategy for the organization that we’ve been implementing since.
Riley: As we worked through what’s important for our five pillars (Business, Government, Education, Industry and Labor), we established goals for each. It became apparent that we needed to focus on our committees and on our members’ needs in order to work as a group, as our group is very diverse. We’re one of the few groups that have business, labor and government sitting at the same table talking. Members range from top leaders in multi-billion-dollar companies to CEOs heading $500,000-a-year companies. It’s really an opportunity to bring issues up and work together to try to better the area.
Krohne: One of our first priorities was to strengthen our membership base, not only growing the number of members but making sure that we had members spread across our five pillars and spread across the region that we serve.
Riley: I always tell businesses that aren’t members that they can’t afford not to be. Even if they don’t come to every meeting, their financial support is important so we can continue to do the things that we’re doing.
Krohne: We started committees based upon the strategic plan and what we needed to accomplish. One of the things that we wanted to do was engage members more, so we started a marketing and communications committee to make sure we’re communicating with our members internally; we’re keeping them up to date; and we’re addressing the issues in the region and making sure that people know all about the reasons to grow their business here. We also added a public policy committee, a membership committee and a manufacturing committee and continued our strong focus on transportation-infrastructure, labor-management cooperation, and the St. Louis Metro East Levee Issues Alliance. And our military affairs committee the Scott Air Force Base Task Force, led by Madison and St. Clair counties, continue to work hard in support of Scott and the servicemen and women associated with the base.
IBJ: How does the economic development committee work?
Krohne: We put together an economic development leadership team made up of the leaders in economic development across the region. Some are Leadership Council members and some are not, but they’re the right people to help drive it. The Economic Development Leadership Team wrote an economic growth action plan utilizing Vision 2020, a regional strategic planning effort that had recently been completed, to act as a roadmap for everyone involved. We chose specific areas to focus on like transportation, distribution, logistics, manufacturing, entrepreneurship, retention of existing businesses — including Scott Air Force Base. Then we started up the economic development network again which involves all of the economic development professionals across the area. We meet quarterly with that economic development network.
IBJ: Some of the members of the Leadership Council must spend a lot of time on council work.
Krohne: It’s amazing to me. Our members all have businesses or organizations to run. They’re very busy people but they take the time to volunteer and not just show up for a meeting but they say, “I’ll take that and do it.” That’s the spirit that I think is the key to the Leadership Council.
Wilmsmeyer: As I see it, it’s momentum. The more successes you have, the more people want to be a part of it. The more people get involved, the easier it is to get others engaged. And, people are more likely to get involved if they know their work is going to help bring real results.
IBJ: The Leadership Council has grown from 135 members in 2012 to 206 now — a 55 percent increase. Can you continue to grow?
Riley: I think the answer is yes, we can continue to grow. We don’t have a maximum number in mind. There are two challenges: continuing to grow and continuing to prove to our membership that they are receiving value for the money they are investing. I think we’ve been able to do that. They’re hearing about it and they’re seeing it.
IBJ: I imagine that there are many business owners out there who’ve never heard of the Leadership Council.
Krohne: That’s true, but I think it’s indicative of the fact that we’re not about taking credit. Our goal is to unite the region for growth and we do that behind the scenes.
We focus on collaboration. We want to be sure that the Leadership Council is uniting the region for growth, working with our counties, making sure we help the region work together in Southwestern Illinois. That has been a very important focus for us but we also work across the river. We’re part of the St. Louis region and we want to be recognized as being part of the region. That’s important and we’ve done that through working with the St. Louis Regional Chamber the St. Louis Regional Business Council, Bi-State Development Agency, East-West Gateway Council of Governments and getting involved with other organizations in Missouri and having our members participate in them.
Wilmsmeyer: I give the counties all of the credit in the world for making things happen. Take the levee issue, for example. Without them and without their leadership and their foresight, seeing the problem, understanding the consequences of non-action and hitting that problem head on, we would not be nearing accreditation now. And (St. Clair County) Chairman (Mark) Kern has kept everyone focused on Scott Air Force Base. The County Board chairmen have done a fantastic job and we’re very appreciative for their leadership and look forward to continuing that relationship.
Krohne: I concur with that, but I’d also like to add the economic developers within the counties and within the cities. We have some really strong professional people here that do a great job of handling the prospects, helping retain existing businesses and helping them grow. That’s the kind of meat and potatoes work of growing a region that’s needed and I think we’re blessed with some really good folks that do that at the county and city levels.
IBJ: What’s on the horizon?
Krohne: We’re hoping that focused efforts by St. Clair County to locate the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in St. Clair County will be successful. That could really change the landscape here. The NGA could be the beginning of a whole park of companies out there that are all based on cyber. We’ve brought in some really good members that are contractors at Scott Air Force Base. These IT contractors have the expertise and experience within the organization and they’re helping us understand what it is we need to do to support that development. Their number one source of recruiting is Scott Air Force Base. So, what’s a better fit than that?
Wilmsmeyer: I think this is a very good time for Southwestern Illinois. The levees are near accreditation which will open the door to investment in the region; St. Clair County Board Chairman Kern is chairman of the East West Gateway Coordinating Council; and, Madison County Board Chairman (Alan) Dunstan has really pushed collaboration around the new freight district, logistics and transportation. For me, where we’re headed in the next several years is very exciting.