November 27, 2017

As Griebel exits MetroHartford role, gubernatorial run may be next

HBJ Photo | Gregory Seay
HBJ Photo | Gregory Seay
R. Nelson “Oz’’ Griebel, an ex-banker who is the Hartford region’s chief economic-development promoter, on Pratt Street, where the MetroHartford Alliance’s offices are housed.
Photo | HBJ File
Redevelopment of downtown’s Front Street (top) began and peaked with the opening of UConn’s Hartford campus (above) during Oz Griebel’s watch as MetroHartford Alliance CEO.
Photo | HBJ File
Andy Bessette, Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, Travelers Cos.
Bonnie Malley, Chief Operating Officer, city of Hartford
Anthony P. “Tony” Rescigno, Chief Executive Officer, New Haven Chamber of Commerce

To R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel's way of thinking, Connecticut and Greater Hartford may not posses the natural resources and enticing climate of more alluring regions competing against this state for jobs, but they have plenty of other assets to leverage into sustainable economic vitality.

"This state is full of many well-intentioned people. But we don't have natural-gas wells here. We don't have 80-degree weather in January,'' Griebel said recently, referencing the energy-rich Southwest and sun-soaked Southeast.

"How you play your face cards when you're dealt is important,'' he said.

Griebel, a downtown resident, is close to playing his final hand, retiring at yearend as the first and only chief executive officer in the 16-year history of the MetroHartford Alliance, a nonprofit economic-development promoter also based in the center city.

The Alliance has hired New York economic-development consultancy Camoin Associates to assist with the search for its next CEO. Travelers Cos. Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Bessette, who chairs the Alliance's board, said the nonprofit seeks to have a successor in place by early 2018.

Griebel — "Oz'' as he's known to thousands of entrepreneurs, business and civic leaders and politicians — sat recently with the Hartford Business Journal for an expansive interview, recounting the highs and lows of his tenure as CEO of an organization whose mission statement espouses its focus on "jobs, capital and talent" in the region. HBJ is a paid member of the MetroHartford Alliance.

He also confirmed what many inside and outside his inner circle have known or speculated about for some time: Griebel is weighing a possible second run for governor in Connecticut. He mounted a failed GOP campaign for the same seat in 2010.

"Yes, I'm considering it,'' he said from MetroHartford Alliance's fifth-floor office at 31 Pratt St. He declined to elaborate, saying his focus for now is on Alliance affairs.

Griebel, 68, said he decided to step away after some personal reflection and discussions with members of the Alliance board.

"Change is good for everybody,'' he said. "Sixteen years is a long time."

Asked to list his "successes'' in his role essentially as the Hartford region's chief economic cheerleader, Griebel defers.

"There are no individual successes,'' he said. "The contributions this organization has made since we began belongs to everyone — the board, the chairs of the board, (etc.). … I have been able to tap the intellectual capital of many people.''

"This organization is in very good shape. Our balance sheet is in very good shape,'' he said. The Alliance's fiscal 2017 revenue was $5.6 million, mostly from members' dues.

Though Griebel is generally credited with launching the Alliance's financial-services cluster, to rally Hartford's insurance, banking and wealth-management providers around shared issues, he said the idea came from former Hartford Financial Services Inc. Chairman and CEO Ramani Ayer. Ayer chaired the Alliance from 2002 to 2003. The Alliance also launched a health-services cluster on Griebel's watch.

Plenty else has happened to the local, state and national economies during his tenure, the biggest of which was the Great Recession from 2008 to 2010, which hit the city and state hard. Since then, state budget-setters have faced constant wrangling to get their arms around Connecticut's fiscal crisis, which led to two of the biggest tax increases in state history.

In addition, Connecticut's image has been sullied as an unfriendly place to do business because of over-regulation and high income and property taxes. More recently, health insurer Aetna, which was founded in Hartford more than a century ago, announced it was moving its headquarters to New York City.

Also during Griebel's tenure, the city's fiscal woes mounted edging Hartford to the brink of insolvency.

"I'm confident we'll continue to work together to address those fiscal woes,'' he said.

Griebel lists a number of pluses for the city and region during his tenure as Alliance head, starting with downtown's Adriaen's Landing project that led to redevelopment of Front Street and ultimately to UConn relocating its campus there. The presence of UConn and more downtown apartments has led to expanded retail, including more restaurants, in the center city.

Regionally, pluses include the facilities expansion of Bradley International Airport and the addition of nonstop flights to the West Coast and to Ireland, Griebel said.

"Connecticut's bones, Hartford's bones, the region's bones, are very strong," Griebel said.

Public-private partnerships

Another focus during Griebel's tenure has been trying to attract and retain more Millennials to the region, which has become a major economic development mission around the country.

It was under Griebel's stewardship that the Alliance seeded the Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs group (HYPE) in 2006. Griebel said the vision for HYPE came from a 2005 visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., by him and other Alliance officials.

The Twin Cities' chamber, and another in Oklahoma City, Griebel said, are exemplars of the kind of sustained public-private sector dialogue around shared interests in economic growth that he hopes can be replicated in the Hartford region.

"Other regions of the country have had demonstrable, sustained economic growth,'' he said. "I attribute it to those regions having sustained engagement between private-sector leaders and elected officials.''

"What I've not done well,'' Griebel said, "is ensuring there is sustained dialogue between the CEOs of the corporate sector and elected officials.''

Griebel points to past attempts, including during the administration of former Gov. John G. Rowland, to promote a business-public sector relationship. That kind of relationship existed previously when the region's so-called "bishops'' plotted the course of the Hartford region's economic and political prospects.

Travelers' Bessette has volunteered his leadership to the Alliance alongside Griebel's from the time of its formation 16 years ago. Into his second stint as Alliance chair, Bessette said Griebel brought credibility to the job as a former Bank of Boston executive.

When Griebel was hired, there were two organizations engaged in promoting economic development in the region — the Hartford Chamber of Commerce and the Hartford Growth Council. In 2001, the pair merged, creating the MetroHartford Alliance, with Griebel as its first CEO.

Griebel actively recruited business members — and collected dues for — the new organization, said Bessette. Travelers is a "leadership'' investor in the Alliance.

"He's been a very important leader in convening the entities in a public-private partnership,'' Bessette said. "What he did to lead the organization, we should celebrate.''

Who’s next?

Similar traits are being sought in Griebel's successor, said Bessette, who describes himself as de-facto chair of the half-dozen member search committee. He said Griebel's replacement should be in place sometime in the first quarter of 2018.

But two traits, in particular, will be front and center among the successor's qualifications and achievements, Bessette said.

"You need a strong leader who can convene the business community," Bessette said, "and has strong economic-development objectives, which is growing jobs, growing companies and growing economic development in the Greater Hartford region."

"We want a seasoned professional who has brought tens of thousands of jobs to a region,'' he said.

Bonnie Malley, chief operating officer for the city of Hartford, chaired the Alliance board from 2015 to 2016, when she left local insurer The Phoenix Cos. to join the city.

Malley said Griebel's leadership is respected beyond the Alliance and the Hartford region, to include other regional chambers and economic-development partnerships. He also has emerged, she said, as a passionate expert and promoter of a cohesive transportation policy.

Griebel chaired from 2001 to 2005 the former state Transportation Strategy Board, which became, he said, a "strong advocate'' for improved roads and bridges — and consideration of tolls to fund them — the CTfastrak busway linking Hartford and New Britain, a Springfield-Hartford-New Haven rail, and enhancing the state's port system.

Malley hopes the Alliance makes at least one change under its next leader.

"What I believe the organization needs — and I think the organization and Oz recognize — is that you can't be all things to all people,'' she said.

She said much of the Alliance's agenda is driven by its membership, nearly all of whom are businesses, some of them major regional employers.

Anthony P. "Tony" Rescigno, chief executive officer of the New Haven Chamber of Commerce, said he worked with Griebel on various legislative issues, including recent efforts to try to persuade state lawmakers to adopt a budget.

Griebel, Rescigno said, displayed leadership statewide through his willingness "to engage other chamber heads. He always gave the other major chambers a chance to sign on.''

"The guy is a true professional,'' said Rescigno, who also is retiring at yearend after 17 years leading the New Haven Chamber. "He takes the bull by the horns. He's a guy that is looking at things way ahead of everybody else.''

Rescigno said he was unaware that Griebel is contemplating a run for governor, but said he isn't surprised.

"I think he'd make a great governor,'' the former GOP first selectman of North Haven said. "If he does run, I think he'd be formidable.''

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