“We’re Open for Business” – An Interview with Secretary of DBED, Mike Gill, and CEO of Evergreen Advisors, Rick Kohr
We have had some incredibly successful, local people as part of our quarterly newsletter in recent years, ranging from Bill Miller of Legg Mason, Brian Rogers, CEO of T. Rowe Price, John Schuerholz of the Atlanta Braves, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, Dr. Ben Carson, Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour… Today we can celebrate one of Evergreen’s key players. It has been over six months since my partner Mike Gill started a new chapter as the Secretary of Business & Economic Development. I have known Mike for close to 25 years, going back to when my wife Holly went to work for Mike in an early stage venture, AMERICOM. Mike and I have stayed connected, but Mike didn’t become a partner in Evergreen until we “closed” the deal on his back porch on a hot afternoon over an iced tea in 2007. His energy, network and incredible business success is what attracted me to Mike and sell him on joining our firm. I wanted to check in with him to see what he has learned in his new position; what has surprised him; his goals for DBED; and why someone with his success would take a job in a state that, more recently, is viewed as anti-business. It is an interesting read…
CEO Evergreen Advisors
RK: Mike, I am honored to be your friend and partner. Maryland is fortunate to have you as its Secretary of Business and Economic Development.
One of the things I admire about you is not only your business success, but also that you are an incredibly great family man. Great family man, successful entrepreneur; but to me a family man is probably the most important. You can have both, but if you don’t have the family man, that’s probably not a sign of success. You have been married a long time – 40 years, or 35?
MG: Forty years and going on a hundred, with great kids and grandkids.
RK: This is an interesting point in your career. You’ve had an incredible amount of success between IBM, AMERICOM, and Clemson baseball, yet you took on a job where the perception of the state business climate was pretty bad / tough. Why take the job?
MG: Wow, great question. You know, lots of things come to mind. It wasn’t that something was missing in my life. Being a part of Evergreen, and being your partner, I was loving every day. But this was like a new world with a Republican governor. I knew Larry Hogan from when he was Bob Ehrlich’s appointed secretary.
I received a call first from Jim Brady, Hogan’s senior advisor during the campaign in December, and then I eventually met with Larry. Larry said, “Mike, it’s the most important position I have to fill in the State of Maryland. I have 22 cabinets and this is the most important one. I have to get it right because it’s our economy of Maryland, and that’s what I ran on.” When he laid it out that way it was hard to say no.
RK: But you did.
MG: I did initially. And the truth of the matter is, and I’ve told Larry, the truth of the matter is that I got back to Jim Brady the day after he told me he really wanted me to think about it. I said, “Jim, I just don’t think I can get there. I understand the seriousness of it and the significance of it, and I don’t know if I can get there.” So I hung up the phone and 2 days later I called Jim Brady back saying, “Jim, can we have another conversation?” So here I am.
RK: Maryland is fortunate to have you. I’m not sure they could have picked a better person. What experiences do you have, business-wise, that you find relevant for this role?
MG: You know, Rick, telling and selling a story. In this particular role, what appealed to me first is the fact that the State of Maryland has great assets. We have the Port of Baltimore, we have our great universities like Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. We have our natural assets like our mountains, we have our shores, and we have great people. Smart people. We have a lot of things going for us. So part of me thought to myself, “I’ve got a great group of products and we just need to get refocused on how to tell and sell that story.” So part of my motivation was – we really can make a difference. Secondly, I’ve been a Maryland kid my whole life. I grew up in Baltimore County, a Timonium boy like your wife Holly: the Gills and the Smiths – how simple is that? But we’re from Timonium, we’re from Baltimore County, from Maryland, so it came natural to me to say I want to do this.
RK: You have not been in the business position long, just 6 months. What’s been the biggest surprise to you thus far – good and bad?
MG: Wow. Here’s the good: The good is that the people of Maryland are great people. So number one, the people of Maryland are special. I’ve never ceased to be amazed. And Rick, as you pointed out, I’ve been here almost 6 months. I’m amazed that everywhere I go people want to talk about the economy of Maryland. They want to talk about what they are trying to do to grow their businesses. They are asking me about how I might be able to help them in some fashion; me, our department, the Department of Business and Economic Development. There’s an energy level about the businesses of Maryland that just blows me away. I think part of it is the fact that over the last 8 years that wasn’t the case. I mean businesses woke up every day. The owners of the businesses had mortgages, they’ve had bank loans, they’ve had payrolls to meet, and they’ve had to do what they had to do – whether the state of Maryland was at their back or in their face. I think that’s probably been a very big positive to me. The people of Maryland, the businesses, are so excited about the possibilities because of the Hogan administration. That’s an exciting thing to me.
The negative? I probably didn’t realize how negative the environment for business had become in the State of Maryland. I didn’t realize that. I walk into places where I haven’t been before and I hear somebody say, “Why would somebody ever have a business in Maryland if they could have a business in Virginia?” It gets to me, and I’m a competitive guy. I can share with you that more than once, as I have heard that, I have walked over to that person and said, “Let me tell you why….”
MG: “Let me tell you why you want to have a business in Maryland!” So it’s not exactly like I just sort of blow it off. It did surprise me though, because I didn’t realize how deep the negativity was, relative to being a business in Maryland – if you had other options. But having said that, the combination of people in Maryland and the assets that we have far outweigh the negativity. I can deal with the negativity.
RK: That aspect exists in virtually everything you do, so that makes sense.
RK: So we measure you a year from now…
MG: I’ll still be 5’ 11 ½”.
RK: Well I don’t know about the 5’ 11½” …
MG: Alright, 5’ 11”.
RK: We will measure when we get done with the interview. I think I’m taller, but regardless, I don’t have as good of a fastball.
So we are going to measure you, we are going to grade you, in a year, two years from now. What initiative or initiatives should we look for that you want to be measured by when you leave the position 3 years from now at the end of your 4 year term?
MG: We talk about it inside of our department all the time. We talk about it with the Governor, we talk about it with Craig Williams, Chief of Staff, and I’ve been asked often about my vision for the State of Maryland. I’ll give you a couple of thoughts on that one:
MG: One of the things that I talk about in terms of a vision from where we are to where we could be, whether its 12 months from now or 24 months from now – We are Attending. We, the State of Maryland, we are a part of, and we are attending, an economic development conference. Maybe it’s in Alabama, maybe it’s in Kansas City, and maybe it’s in Indianapolis. It is a national gathering of states and economic development groups. One of the visions that I have is that we will be a part of one of those.
The buzz. The buzz on the floor of the exhibition hall is of the state of Maryland. Everybody is talking about what Maryland is doing differently – reduced their corporate tax rate, reduced their personal income tax rate, addressed workmen’s compensation, addressed unemployment insurance, and created a more favorable environment for retirees – what is going on in the State of Maryland? Lots. Because we’ve always had good bones. The bones in Maryland are unbelievable. And now, all of a sudden, on the policy side of things, we have caught up with a lot of the other states. Maryland is now perceived to be one of the top 5 states in the nation to do business.
It’s probably one of the things that drives me – the fact that we do have the great assets. We have great people. We have smart people. The University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins bring in, between the two of them, over $3 billion dollars a year in research dollars.
RK: ‘B’? Billion with a ‘b’?
MG: They bring that kind of money in. So I think the combination of where we need to get to, relative to some of our policies, and I think that from the attitude of the state, and the perception that we have for a place to do business, we will go to another level.
RK: The bones are there and we got the right person in the position. That’s not surprising here.
So one of the things – you and I have been friends since 1989, give or take…
MG: We were really young weren’t we?
RK: We were young. And we’re still young.
MG: Hey Rick, what’s that line from Caddy Shack – something about “let’s get moving, we’re only young once”? I don’t have it right…
RK: We’ll look that up before we finish the interview.
RK: One of the things that has always fascinated me is, the older I get the more I appreciate the Big 6. Where did it come from and does DBED have this yet?
MG: Another question I love, for different reasons. So quick story – it’s the mid-80s, I had started AMERICOM in 1984. I read an article in Fortune Magazine about Jack Welch, then Chairman and CEO of General Electric. In the article he is referring to the Big 6.
MG: I’ve always been into motivation. I’ve always been into slogans. I’ve always been into anything that maybe can capture the hearts and the souls of our people. So I read about the Big 6 and the very first one was “Take reality as it is, not as it was, or you wish it were.” I thought to myself, ‘this is brilliant’. Another was “Control your own destiny or someone else will.” And “If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.” The Big 6 – they were resonating. So I wrote them all down. I didn’t find anywhere in the article that Jack Welch had created them, so I figured I could use them.
RK: We have them on laminated cards at the office.
MG: And I want Mr. Welch to know that, in case he reads this interview, I always give him credit.
MG: So the Big 6 sort of became part of our mantra at AMERICOM. We talked about it all the time, we had it on posters. We never had a management meeting where we didn’t talk about it. Every issue that we faced somewhere in the Big 6, we talked about it. The reason why I’ve always loved the very first one, “Take reality as it is, not as it was, or as you wish it were,” is because when you are dealing with real issues, if you can’t get past that one, you can’t solve the problem. Because we all have the tendency to want to take names and ask “who do we blame?” That delays our ability to solve the problem and move on. So I loved it.
And by the way, Rick, in that same Fortune Magazine there was an article about Louis Gerstner. Louis Gerstner, at the time, was Chairman of American Express. It was a great article. He eventually became the Chairman and CEO of the IBM Corporation, in 1994. He was the first non-IBM person hired to head up IBM. Louis Gerstner had a quote in Fortune: “From behind a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” So that was Louis Gerstner. I’ve always believed that if you want to make things happen, stay out of the office. That’s not where the action is.
RK: That’s not part of the Big 6, but that is the summation of the Big 6. At least that is how I take that.
RK: So DBED – do they have the Big 6?
MG: We’re sitting here right now having this conversation. But earlier today a delegate from Southern Maryland was in the office to meet with me, Delegate Anthony O’Donnell – a great guy, very capable. We were talking about some of the challenges down in Southern Maryland. I reached into my coat pocket during the conversation, pulled out the Big 6, and I said, “Delegate O’Donnell, it’s all about the first one, ‘Take reality as it is, not as it was, or as you wish it were’.” And so, whether it’s interfacing with Delegate O’Donnell, an important member of the Legislature of Annapolis, or with our people at DBED, they know the Big 6. We’ve begun to quote it, although we don’t have it quite as infiltrated yet, but we’ll get there. I need a little more time.
RK: So you’ve been in the office a little less than 6 months, but we are planning on you having that up on the walls and you making that part of the culture.
MG: Exactly. I was going to get deeper into it and say what kind of culture are you trying to create?
RK: So you’ve talked about the culture, the Big 6, things being different at DBED than what you might have expected. Culture – what are you trying to change and accomplish at DBED relative to where you started from?
MG: Well you know Rick, the Department of Business and Economic Development (which, by the way, we are evolving, and by October 1st will officially become the Department of Commerce), from a cultural standpoint, I tell people all the time, is part of a state government. We have binders that do nothing other than tell us how to hire somebody. State government is kind of like that closet that we all have in our homes where we throw everything. Everything we don’t know where to put, we throw in the closet. And every once in a while, we clean out our closet. That’s state government. Whether it’s personnel, or something else, we just add more stuff. But from a cultural standpoint, inside of DBED, I tell our people every day, “We are going to run like a business.” And when I say that, here’s what I really mean, because if you make the statement “we are going to run like a business,” it means different things to different people. When I talk about it, I talk about it in terms of career paths. I talk about promotions. I talk about recognition. I talk about teamwork. I can tell you from my relatively short experience in my current role that the characteristics of running like a business are foreign to state government.
I can also tell you that the people we do have in state government are really terrific. They are the same type of people as the people anywhere else. When you put them in our particular environment, they are nurtured differently, and therefore they become a little different. But from a cultural standpoint, I’ve got a great Deputy Secretary named Ben Wu. Ben and I went back and forth about culture, and I said, “Ben, we’ve got to keep changing the culture, we’ve got to keep looking for the Best of the Best.” We’re going through the reorganization of transitioning from the Department of Business and Economic Development to the Department of Commerce. I said ‘I love this’ because I don’t want to be just another state government agency. Ben said, “Mike, Steve Jobs had a great line. It was, ‘It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.’” I love it! So up on the wall in my office I’ve got a pirate flag. Because we’re pirates. Pirates are independent, fearless. They stay together. We are pirates over at DBED.
RK: So… there are pirates in Pittsburgh, and we are here. We are in Baltimore. That seems hard to reconcile. How do you reconcile? I’m an Orioles fan…
MG: I’ve just decided that the pirates of Economic Development in Maryland trump the family of pirates dancing on the dugout of Memorial Stadium when we lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979. For many of us here in Maryland, we have never been able to accept anything that looks like, feels like, acts like a pirate.
RK: No, because we are family here.
MG: And we are family at DBED, too, and to hell with the Pittsburgh Pirates!
RK: A couple more questions…
RK: What key changes in strategy are you implementing differently from your predecessor, the O’Malley Administration’s Dominick Murray, which we wouldn’t have seen a year ago?
MG: We are working so hard to create a culture – a culture all about passion, engagement, and teamwork; a culture that’s all about the customer. We are working very hard at that because we know that if we do that, our ability to retain, attract, and help grow businesses in Maryland goes way up. In terms of items that are more specific and measurable, we are reorganizing economic development in the state of Maryland.
RK: You have over 200 employees. You say that you are reorganizing – what does that mean?
MG: What we are trying to do is, in looking at the organization and opportunities in the marketplace, and looking at where our people are currently focused, is put more energy and emphasis in a number of key areas. For example:
We’re going to have a number of additional people in the business development segment interfacing with the counties’ own economic development groups. That’s important because it’s where the action is and opportunities lie.
We are going to increase our emphasis on industry expertise: Aerospace, Cyber, Info Tech, Manufacturing, Agriculture, and Energy. These are all key industry groups in the State of Maryland, and we are going to put more resources there. As we create this new organization, those resources are going to be fluid and flexible. The groups will crisscross everywhere like that ride at the Timonium fairgrounds. The bottom line is we will be a matrix; whether it be finance programs, industry expertise, or business development. We’re going to be highly connected so we can optimize all of the opportunities in Maryland.
RK: That makes sense. We have the right man in the right spot. You had great successes in your career: Ernst & Young, IBM, AMERICOM, and Clemson Baseball. There were great successes and some things that were setbacks. What was the biggest learning experience that had the most lasting impact in the course of all of the great wins?
MG: That was really a great question, and I wish I could identify one moment that jumps out at me. Let me take an odd approach – Resiliency. I grew up in a really good family with a lot of resources: great mom, great father, good education, and great siblings. I think that the foundation was set back when I was a teenager – the foundation of never quitting. Never, never, never, never, never quitting. Clemson when I was 19… that was a setback for me. Then I think it was resilience as I went through the next 10, 15, 20 years of my life through Towson, IBM, etc. I went through start-up heartaches. I got through them, but somewhere, somehow, I got through the challenges and I didn’t quit. I’ll give my parents the credit. Of all the things I’ve learned in my life, I think being resilient and never quitting is on the top of the list. We all face it and deal with it. Some turn back. Some say ‘let’s find a way’.
RK: I give you props, because you did it. You’ve lived through some tough times. That’s hard to face.
MG: I’m very blessed.
“Let’s go — while we’re young,”
Al Czervik from Caddyshack.