It’s not the paycheck that draws spirited entrepreneurs and established business leaders into public office. It’s not the fame, unless smear campaigns and constant media scrutiny sound like your idea of fun. So why give yourself the stress?
For Tom Ganley, owner of 32 automotive dealerships and a candidate for the 13th U.S. Congressional District in Ohio, the answer is an easy one. He says the Founding Fathers wanted government run by a changing cast of lawmakers. “They believed there should not be career politicians, but it should be the citizen legislators — the blacksmiths, the farmers, who went off to Washington for six weeks, legislated a few laws and returned back to their jobs,” Ganley says. “We have to remember that and strive to get back to it.”
Given the tough economic times, business leaders with a proven record of success may be right in thinking they can do a better job of governing than the people who got us to this point. “Now is a really good time to bring strong business principles to the running of our government,” says Martin Zanotti, former mayor of Parma Heights, co-chair of the transition team for Issue 6 and CEO of Republic Anode Fabricators.
We talked to Zanotti, Ganley and three other Northeast Ohio business owners about the motivation behind making the jump from head honcho to public servant.
Candidate, 13th U.S. Congressional District in Ohio
President and CEO, Ganley Automotive Group
He covertly worked with the FBI for three years to record and videotape mafia thugs who were trying to murder him and his family. He rode to work every day for one year in a bulletproof, bomb-resistant FBI car with one agent driving and another in the back with an M16 rifle. Ultimately, the FBI convicted an organized crime syndicate because of his help and awarded him its greatest civilian honor: the Louis E. Peters Award.
He’s Tom Ganley, he’s running for Congress, and he’s not the sort to be pushed around. Owner of the largest automobile dealer in Ohio with 32 locations and 48 years of business experience, Ganley claims no connections with special interests and says he won’t owe anyone favors if he wins Betty Sutton’s 13th District congressional seat. (He originally announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate seat soon to be vacated by Sen. George Voinovich before turning his sights to Sutton in mid-February.)
“As a business owner, you have to say ‘no’ often,” he says. “I have that discipline to say, ‘Absolutely not, and there is a better way.’ ”
Ganley owns other businesses in the insurance, real estate, aviation and financial fields. He started Heritage Financial from scratch, and now it’s the largest independently owned financial company in Ohio.
Meanwhile, seven of the 12 people he hired in 1968 when Ganley started his first American Motors’ Rambler dealership on Lakeshore Boulevard are still working for him. “I know how to create jobs,” he says.
“I’m very disenchanted with what’s going on in Washington. For example, a child born today is in debt to the federal government $38,000. I have a strong issue with that.”
Selling cars vs. politics:
“I think it’s similar in some respects with how you meet folks and greet and get to know them. You gain consumer confidence just as you gain voter confidence in politics.”
Pitfall of mixing business and politics:
Alienating half of your potential customers. “People will say things like, ‘I don’t like Republicans, so I’ll never buy a car from one of your places.’ ”
What’s wrong with Washington:
Too many lawyers. “They had their day in the sun, and it doesn’t work. They are great at framing language and laws, but they have no business sense.”
First business lesson he’d offer them: How to create budgets and stay within them. “You have to do that all the time in business. You create a plan and a pathway, and you must have the discipline to follow through with that.”
A fiscal fix in 40 words or less:
“In this downturn, all businesses, from the largest to smallest have had to contract. Yet the federal government has continued to expand. We not only have to stop that, but we need to reduce government and reduce it drastically.”
Best advice from a businessperson:
“Be yourself and don’t be afraid to say ‘no.’ ”
Former mayor, Parma Heights
CEO, Republic Alternative Technologies
Much has been written about Martin Zanotti, the former Parma Heights mayor who helped steer the Issue 6 campaign to success and is co-chair of the transition team that will study and make recommendations for the new Cuyahoga County government. And despite the rumblings, Zanotti says he is not running for county executive.
“I don’t have an agenda, and what I’ve done in the last couple of years is a passion that I have,” he says of his two terms as mayor and his deep involvement in last fall’s Issue 6 campaign.
Zanotti became mayor in 2001 after serving on Parma Heights City Council for seven years. He updated government processes, created new parks, jump-started development projects and resurfaced roads. In the end, some criticized him for leaving behind a budget deficit. “I think I helped maintain an inner-ring suburb in difficult times,” he says, calling it his greatest accomplishment as mayor.
All the while, Zanotti kept his private life — CEO of a metal fabricating company called Republic Alternative Technologies, which he owns with his brother — out of the public arena. “My brother and I seldom talk about politics because it’s a good way of keeping it separate,” he says.
The business is still kept strictly separate, even as Zanotti dives into county reform.
“There were much greater risks with my involvement in Issue 6 than rewards because of the history of reform efforts in our area, but I’ve always been an outsider on the political side,” Zanotti says. “It’s difficult taking on the establishment, and clearly Issue 6 was perceived by many as war against the
Zanotti just wanted to be more involved in his community. “I’d lived in Parma Heights since 1960, and I worked at the city pool when I was 16. I knew Mayor [Paul] Cassidy, and he encouraged me to get involved and serve my community.”
Business vs. politics:
“The big difference in politics is having to convince a legislative body that your ideas are good. There are certain politics in the corporate world, but there are no politics when you are a small-business owner. Your business lives and breathes on the decisions you make.”
Of course, there are similarities:
“Being mayor was similar to being CEO of a company because you are responsible for all of the employees and their issues. And if service to the residents is the end product, that’s similar to the business world.”
What’s wrong with politics:
“It takes a distinctly different set of skills to be elected than it does to do the job.”
What’s right with politics:
“There are a lot of good people in [politics] because they care about the people they represent. There are so many people now who want to make a difference in this region and who are enthused about this new wave.”
What his employees would say about him:
“I’m fair, I’m hardworking, I appreciate their efforts, I’m a big-picture type of person.”
Don’t get involved in politics if you don’t have …:
“a thick skin. I don’t mind fair criticism, but you get a lot of cheap shots.”
State representative, 16th House District
CFO, Cricket Power Equipment
The campaign commercials smearing Nan Baker during her 2008 run for her Ohio House of Representatives seat were ugly. They accused Baker of taxing EMS service, and it wasn’t true (apologies from the Ohio Democratic Caucus came later).
“It was on every 20 minutes on cable and network TV,” Baker says, still peeved. She got the satisfaction of winning and spent half of what her opponent did on her campaign, but it’s clear the tactics still sting. “The only way politicians can really get above all that is to run a very aggressive grassroots campaign,” Baker says. “And that’s what we did.”
Baker wants to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to the Ohio House’s Economic Development Committee, where she is the ranking minority member. The committee met sparsely before she began to remobilize the group and helped spearhead a robust jobs-driven package that proposes tax relief for companies that hire unemployed Ohioans and the creation of a statewide online portal serving small businesses.
Aside from her legislative work, Baker is the mother of three adult children and vice president for the business she founded with her husband: Cricket Power Equipment.
“The experience of knowing what it takes to be a business owner is invaluable. You can’t learn that,” she says, recalling the early days of Cricket Power in the late ’70s when the business was a mobile power equipment sales and service outlet. Now it has an expansive retail center.
“Entrepreneurs are their own breed,” she says. “They work hard. They’re the last to be paid. It’s a good group that, I believe, is the backbone of Ohio.”
“I understand what businesses go through.” When a House bill comes to her that is well-intended “but is a killer when it comes to small business,” she says, “that’s where that level of understanding really comes into play.”
Baker spends Mondays at the business office in Westlake and Tuesday through Thursday in Columbus. “Friday I come back and catch up in the office. I do the books, advertising, inventory tracking, and ... hiring of employees. My husband handles daily operations.”
Proudest legislative accomplishments:
Baker offered amendments to the Third Frontier initiative lowering how much the state will borrow to fund job creation to $700 million over four years. The bill passed the state house 85-13. She’s also involved in the Future of Ohio Jobs Package. “Though these are good bills, it’s tough.”
Best advice she ever got from another politician:
From former Ohio House Rep. Sally Conway Kilbane who told her: “Listen to all sides of an issue, not just the one side that might be visiting your office.”
Lorain County commissioner
Owner, Ted’s Floor Coverings
After Ted Kalo’s floor covering business had won yet another government contract, one of the seated Republican county commissioners referred to him as “another good-old-boy Democrat from the city of Lorain.”
That was the day everything changed.
Kalo, who had never considered running for office, won a seat on the county commission. The problem was the victory came with a significant loss: Because government bids were now off-limits, a huge portion of Kalo’s customer base vanished overnight.
“I couldn’t do about 80 percent of the business I did in the past,” he says. Throw the recession on top for a major crimp in business.
“I was in a downtown urban area that really collapsed,” Kalo says. “Most of the businesses moved out. And when you’re an elected official, your client base gets strong or weak based on the decisions you make and how those affect your constituents and customers. And everything you do is in the newspaper.”
But Kalo, a business owner for 15 years after working in the industry for 13 years at another company, has a story that resonates with Lorain County citizens. He is one of them. He was a local union laborer, and he stills runs his business, which moved from Lorain to Sheffield Township in December.
“I believe the voters elected me because I’m no different than anyone else,” he says.
Now, everything that happens in the county is his business. And he’s OK with that, especially because the second-term commissioner is confident that his work pulling together the Lorain County Growth Partnership is helping people out — people just like him.
As a Lorain business owner, Kalo often found the process of going for loans and pursuing tax abatements an ordeal. “I felt there was a way to streamline the process. That was the platform I ran on: one-stop shopping for economic development.”
“First, holding my temper. Being more patient. When you’re the owner of your own business, you make a decision and move forward. Government takes longer. In business, good or bad, the buck stops on your desk. In government, there are checks and balances.” When he first introduced the one-stop shop for economic development, the media wrote blistering stories claiming he was a back-room guy who wanted to keep things from the public. “The intent was public and private partnership, which is now all the rage,” he says. “We were able to accomplish that in Lorain County with a lot of forward thinking.”
Biggest advantage of being a business owner in public office:
Budgeting. “You have a finite amount of dollars and services you need to provide, so you plug those dollars in where they can generate the most service. … Every businessman worth his salt knows how to sit down and make an annual budget.”
Best advice from a businessperson:
“The customer comes first, which rolls over to politics because your customers are your constituents.”
Best advice from a politician:
“Think before you speak.”
Candidate, Cuyahoga County executive
Chairman and CEO, Consolidated Graphics Group
Ken Lanci started working at his father’s downtown Cleveland printing business at age 13. He also got an early lesson in bankruptcy as a teenager when the company collapsed. At age 19, Lanci took over the new company his father started and increased sales from $80,000 to $1.5 million in two years.
“It just meant I was able to pay my bills and grow the company enough to settle my debts and make it successful,” he says.
These days, Lanci has another transformation on his mind with his bid to become Cuyahoga County executive. “I decided to run after Issue 6 passed — and there was no thought of it prior,” he says, adding that friends he talked to rallied behind his idea to run.
You have to admit the guy has a pretty impressive track record. He started Consolidated Graphics Group in 1996 and Consolidated Technologies Group in 2008. Today the companies have a total of 150 employees and annual sales approaching $25 million.
He’s had some other impressive business successes as well. He purchased a third-generation family wine distribution business in 1987 after a bank deal fell through. The Teamsters were against him. “Breaking a Teamster union is not a popular thing to do,” he quips. “But I did it.”
He then reorganized the company, bought the assets, changed the name and started from scratch. In seven years, he grew the business to be the largest wine-only distributor in Ohio, rejoined the union and ultimately sold the company to Heidelberg Distributors.
“It’s not about the money for me. It’s not about the power. The typical political career path is to move from job to job and to get a raise because you get a bigger job, and then a bigger job. A lot of people say the [county executive job] is a steppingstone to the governor’s job. I can tell you right here and emphatically, I do not want the governor’s job. I don’t need the job.”
On the potential of working for someone else:
“I wouldn’t have the luxury of the schedule I’ve had all my life. For the first 25 years in business, the luxury of that schedule was working seven days a week and never taking a vacation.”
First foray into politics:
In 1979, Lanci was elected to Northfield Village council. “It’s a job where people try to tell you what to do. I was always my own person, and I voted on what was good for the people. I did my job, I enjoyed my stint there, and then I moved out of the community.”
So he’s coming back to politics because …:
“I think county finances really need a hard look.” He’s called for a performance audit whether by the state or an independent firm so that the new county executive has the proper information.
True or false:
Lanci really plans on drawing an annual salary of $1 if elected: “That’s true. I think people are tired of politicians continuing to dip into their pockets not only to get paid, but to reach deeper for self-serving interests I want to restore some integrity.”
“The culture exists at some agencies where the customer is a bother. We need to understand that without customers, we wouldn’t be there. No customers, no job.”
What’s wrong with politics:
“Money has poisoned politics. The idea of being a public servant has long been trashed. People forget that they are elected as a servant. You are supposed to serve the public. Not yourself.”
What’s right with politics:
“Issue 6 and what happened in Massachusetts [with Sen. Brown’s win]. Politicians have now been told that people have the final say. And I hope they all listen loud and clear.”