‘We’ll Do It Together’
Iowa’s capital city has garnered much national attention in the past several years, ranking at or near the top in best-of lists. If Greater Des Moines has not quite yet arrived, it certainly seems to be well on its way. Martha Willits, FA’69, GR’72, GR’97, and Gene Meyer, GR’81, have two distinct vantage points from which to assess success and challenges in a metropolitan area that is increasingly spreading its arms wider.
Focused on economic and community development, the Greater Des Moines Partnership has grown and transformed over the past 125 years. Today it serves more than 5,000 business members and partners with 21 affiliate chambers of commerce to recruit and assist businesses and strengthen a talented workforce. Drake Blue sat down with two of its leaders as they discussed the region’s distinctiveness, its changing landscape, and its future leadership needs.
Gene Meyer spent the majority of his professional career working for the Iowa Department of Public Safety. He served as mayor of West Des Moines from 1997 to 2006. In 2011 he became senior vice president of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, taking over as president—alongside Jay Byers as CEO—in 2012.
Martha Willits taught music first in the Des Moines Public Schools system, then privately before serving as a member of the Polk County Board of Supervisors from 1984 to 1996, as chief professional officer at United Way of Central Iowa from 1996 to 2004, and as president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership from 2004 to 2012.
Relationships Are Big Business
w Theorists will tell you: If a community is really strong—the political capital, the economic capital, and the social capital—it will be a vibrant community. That goes way back to de Tocqueville, who came to America and said, “This is what’s so great about America.” Well, this community really gets that. Social capital (relationships, networks, interaction) is the interesting one because a lot of communities aren’t as on top of their social capital work.
m What’s very unique to Des Moines, and something we use when we recruit people—especially young people—is access to the business leadership. When we tell people that you can get a meeting with the president of one of the big insurance companies or one of the banks or any one of our companies, they look at us funny. But, in fact, it’s true.
w There’s a historical model here. The community leaders of the past—the Hubbells, the Ruans—they all knew and respected each other. So size matters. And Des Moines is at that sweet spot. I used to go to national chamber meetings, and they’d ask “As a chamber executive, do you know the head of the largest company in town?” And others would say, “Well, I met him once.” Well, we know him a phone call away.
m There’s become an expectation. The people that led in the past—their successors have stayed in the game, very much involved. And all of these corporate leaders across the metropolitan area give of their time—to the Greater Des Moines Partnership and to their communities. And they don’t delegate that. They participate themselves.
w Our leaders are willing to say, “We’ll do it for the good of growth,” or “We’ll do it for the good of the next generation. It doesn’t matter if I’m advocating for my insurance company or my bank. We’ll do it together.” You don’t see that everywhere. Even the corporate leaders—who may not be rooted in Iowa and may not be in their position for long—they quickly get the message. And even if they’re only in that role for, say, a decade, they’re going to take their decade very seriously.
w We baby boomers have hogged the leadership for a long time. And we 60 year olds have done great. But we’ve kind of blocked the 50 and 40 year olds out of leadership. And now it’s imperative that we really do help transition in the next generations. I love the model of Gene and Jay [Byers].
m The consequence of naming Jay CEO and me president is that I am very well connected with the senior leadership of this community—from my days on the school board in West Des Moines and as mayor of West Des Moines and as commissioner of public safety. I served on boards and committees at the Partnership. I had a great relationship with all of them, and they stayed connected to the Partnership.
Jay, on the other hand, knew those people, but he is more connected with people his own age, people that are up and coming in their careers. And we have seen a great influx of all of those young people becoming involved in the Partnership, becoming more engaged in the community. And that is really healthy.
w Gene and I built our careers on relationships. Jay does too, but Jay understands the technology side. He used to say to me, “Martha, Facebook is the next chamber. That is chamber work.”
m The next generation has already brought innovation and technology. Who knows where we’re headed? It changes daily. But they have a ready acceptance, an ease with which they adapt.
Acting Locally, Thinking Regionally
w Involvement comes naturally for lots of folks in Iowa. It does, however, lead to one of our biggest challenges: a proliferation of community involvement—elected officials, school boards, city councils, library boards. We like our systems. And they make us strong. Lots of involvement. They also make us redundant or duplicative sometimes.
m We could be more efficient. It’s like the old NIMBY thing—not in my backyard. You go to a community, and they say, “We ought to have regional government. But not our government” or “We ought to consolidate schools. Just not our school.” It does provide us with a lot of strength—more and more people engaged, more and more people involved in their local communities. That’s a plus. The minus is that the metropolitan region of some 17 cities sometimes gets a little complex—lots of different issues and lots of special interests. And while everybody talks about the region—and they mean it—they’re also protective of their own boundaries.
w And then, of course, because we have so many governments, we’re really good at creating 28es (intergovernmental agreements), for instance. Then we have to create another little mini-government to bind them all together. A solid waste agency or a this or a that. And it works. And I am a strong believer in all of the involvement. We just have to get smarter and smarter in how to make the systems work.
m The issue is regionalism. We’re beginning to recognize more and more, even as far out as Newton and Pella and Grinnell—it’s not just Ankeny and Urbandale and Altoona—that when a business locates in any one of those communities, the entire metropolitan region is a winner. Because those new employees that come here live in different communities, they shop in all of our communities, they purchase goods and services across the entire metropolitan area, and they take advantage of services across the entire metropolitan area. So everybody gets a piece of it.
w My kids are moving from Minneapolis back to Des Moines, and they don’t care about those lines like you and I lived them. What they mainly care about—their No. 1 priority in some ways—is trails. They don’t know where they cross the line, and as long as every community has them hooked together, they’re happy. It’s a different mindset.
m That’s got a lot to do with the new, young leadership evolving in the region. They think differently.
w We’re already moving beyond what Gene and I have worked on forever, the broader Polk County region, to a statewide region. You’ve attracted Newton, Pella, and Grinnell. Next will be a Midwestern region.
m Bringing in just those three cities alone gives all of us more to talk about, more things to market. We get to talk now about Grinnell College. We get to talk about the Newton racetrack. We get to talk about Vermeer and all the wonderful things that go on during the Tulip Festival. In the world in which we compete today, however, even that’s not big enough.” We belong to an organization now—and it’s Omaha, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Des Moines—and we talk all the time about how we can collaborate, how we can do more things together to attract business to the Midwest. So it’s bigger than just central Iowa.
w Theorists talk about how there will soon be only 10 mega-regions in the country. And the Midwest has got to make one. Or we’ll be lost in the shuffle. One of the huge value constructs of our mini megaregion is higher education. With a bigger circle, we have three incredible state universities. We have an incredible cadre of private universities—Drake, Grinnell, Grand View. And then there are Central and Simpson. All incredible institutions that know their niche, and it’s a strong one. Then we have the nation’s strongest community college system. And we talk about this in our meetings with Kansas City—that this will be one of our big value points.
Leadership at the Greater Des Moines Partnership has a notable Drake quality. Paul Schickler, BN’74, GR’83, president, DuPont Pioneer, is chair of the 2014 board of directors. He was preceded in that role by James Wallace, BN’77, chairman, president, and CEO, GuideOne Insurance, in 2013; and Larry Zimpleman, BN’73, GR’79, chairman, president, and CEO, The Principal Financial Group, in 2012 and 2011.