The Paladino/Rudnick Battle

August 26, 2009

Part 4:  So Where Does that Leave Rudnick and the Partnership?

I’m a member of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership for the networking aspect; it gets me in front of people whom I would otherwise not get the opportunity to meet.  Some will argue that this benefit is not worth the dues one must pay to be a member and that’s a fine argument.  For now though, I’ll continue to pay my dues.

In addition to networking the BNP has (if I may paraphrase from their website) three other goals:

  • Support of business growth
  • Business services
  • Political advocacy

The third item has always been controversial as not all members may think like Carl Paladino or I do, putting the Partnership in a position where virtually any political advocacy in which they engage is bound to alienate some of their members.

I am in full agreement that the BNP (and all Chambers of Commerce in WNY) need to recalibrate, but replacing its leadership with someone who fits Carl Paladino’s expectations is no different than what Tom Golisano is doing to the State Senate, and likely to result in as much chaos as construction.

I think that if you’re going to work in both the community and in the political realm, diplomacy is of utmost importance.  Carl’s diplomatic efforts are, well, erratic at best (and I wish I could emphasize how badly we need more people like Carl, if only he could color the arguments in a more positive way).  He sees the BNP, BNE and other local organizations as structures that are in such bad shape that they must be plowed under and rebuilt from the ground up.

I think that Andrew Rudnick’s public persona is one of civility and diplomacy.  But what he also does behind the scenes matters, especially if he is not following the Partnership Board’s directives.  This is important:  Corporate leaders are beholden to their boards, not the other way around.

Should Rudnick go?  A friend of mine suggested that all public leaders be subject to term limitations.  I find that term limits have merit as long as they don’t apply to me or anyone else doing a spectacular job in his/her position; fans of Rudy Giuliani would agree as well.

Boards remove their executives when they fail to accomplish the board’s strategic directives.  If the Board decided that the Partnership should recommend voting against every incumbent next November (I hope I hope I hope), and Rudnick fails to execute, then that’s grounds for dismissal.  If the Board decides to take less provocative or behind the scenes approaches and Andrew complies, then he’s doing his job.  If the CEO is doing as the Board wishes then the CEO is doing his job.  Paladino is screwing up the chance to foment real change because he’s shooting at the wrong target.  If he doesn’t like what Rudnick is doing he should focus his attention at the Board.

But really, when it comes to Upstate success stories I can’t think of a single organization (and I’ve been thinking about this for well over a month) that stands out as having produced major, consistent results over the past 15 years, the Partnership included.  And by major I mean consistently media-grabbing.  In that regard, even Carl has only his Thruway toll initiative to brag about; what else has he done that has made a real difference for the community?

This is in no way meant to impugn Carl; indeed, in private he seems extraordinarily gracious and charitable, and I suspect he has impacted this area in many small ways, as has the BNP, the BNE, Catholic Charities, UNYTS, the Red Cross and so many other organizations.  The problem is that none of us are creating blockbuster initiatives with major, consistent impact; and none of our very worthwhile behind-the-scenes activities will ever make the press.

Maybe it’s because we can’t create those initiatives.  Short of taking up arms – short of a revolution – none of us, collectively or otherwise, can make a revolutionary difference given the political structure of our city, county and state governments.

So that leaves an evolutionary approach, a strategy that the BNP appears to be addressing at least as well as any other group.  I don’t think replacing Andrew Rudnick is an agent of change any more than I think creating a new chamber of commerce would be an agent of change.

In summary: Two polarizing figures, two different approaches, neither one visibly successful on a regular basis but striving for the same thing.

They’d be so much more effective if they’d figure out how to work together.

The End.


The Paladino/Rudnick Battle

August 24, 2009

Part 3:  The Partnership, and the Paladino – Rudnick Love Affair

I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog post that the Buffalo Niagara Partnership offers its members some benefits that are informative and – in the case of the Movers and Shakers session with Senator Stachowski, highly entertaining.

Equally entertaining has been the recent media blitz headed by Carl Paladino to oust Andrew Rudnick as the head of the Partnership.  A quick review, according to the dozens of emails (53 actually, and counting) that Carl has sent to Partnership members past and current:

  • Andrew stinks at his job;
  • Andrew is a polarizing figure;
  • Andrew should resign;
  • Anyone on the Partnership Board of Directors who supports Andrew should resign;
  • If this doesn’t happen in 60 days (clock started June 10th, do the math) Carl will “…lead a concerted effort to form a new Chamber of Commerce to lead our community”.

I have lots of respect for Carl.  He’s a family man, passionate about Western New York and both times I’ve had the chance to talk with him he’s been cordial and even-tempered.  I’ve written of him in past posts and complimented him (sort of) in his quest for change within state government.  I think he’s a pretty cool guy, influential in the local area and keen on trying to make Buffalo a better place (within his lifetime; pretty far-fetched, no?)

But he’s also acting like a jerk, spitting venom and twisting reality with some numbers that I think he pulled out of some stinky orifice somewhere.  He would accomplish lots more if he’d can the bullshit and build consensus rather than further polarizing a polarized community.

The tone of Carl’s campaign goes beyond confrontational and would have better served the community had it focused on whether or not the Partnership is achieving its goals for the betterment of Western New York.  Instead it’s loaded with vitriol, supposition, lots of statistics (plenty of taint there) and loads of innuendo but not a lot of meat.  Questioning Rudnick’s role as CEO is one thing; blaming him for our dysfunctional city school system and lame politicians is a bit of stretch. That part I don’t get.

Many of the emails begin with Hey Andy.  This has become the campaign catchphrase.  The emails are hard to read not because of their rancor (they’re like a bad car accident; you know you shouldn’t slow down and look, still you must) but because they are replete with bad grammar and even worse spelling.  Carl should hit the spell-checker button now and then; really, it would help a lot, especially coming from an executive as high up the ladder as Carl.  Okay, this is selfish motivation on my part:  I want my kids left with the impression that it takes more than grade school mastery of spelling to achieve greatness, just so they stay in school!

Rudnick isn’t biting, at least not yet.  The Partnership’s board so far has taken the high road and delivered responses that are both cordial and boring, not at all controversial enough for media attention.  You know that full-page ad the Partnership put in the newspaper a few weeks ago?  I suggested that they proactively put in some catchphrases of their own, be creative and grab people’s attention in the first three sentences, maybe cut through the storm clouds with some sharp wit.  They opted for maturity – thoughtful but bland – not something that would draw media attention unless they paid for it.

In the midst of Carl’s Hey Andy emails was one regarding Uniland’s successful attempt to get state subsidies for its development of the Avant building, and how unfair that was to all us taxpayers and to businesses like his own “…that…have to go to bankrupcy [sic][you know you shouldn’t look but you must] court to address our mistakes or incompetence”.  But Carl forgot to mention that his own company got an Empire Zone extended so he could place high-priced condominiums in it, saving him close to $1 million in sales taxes.  The hypocrisy spoke volumes and made me realize that cronyism is a personal failing only when it’s being painted on someone else.

Rudnick and the Partnership have said little in response to this or other Paladino emails.

Gary Burns from Buffalo Business First asked Carl what he would do to fix things around here.  Carl’s responses followed an interesting pattern:  Repeal this law, Remove that politician, Close those schools, Allocate money to Western New YorkThese are great ideas, and I am behind Carl all the way! And I’ll bet Andrew Rudnick would think these are great ideas too!  If only Carl were King of New York so he could implement these changes at will but he’s not so these solutions are nothing more than the same wistful thoughts all of us have.  Without going through the glacially slow and Carl-incompatible approach of working with the existing political structures, these changes will not occur, regardless of who is running the Partnership, the BNE or any other well-meaning organization, for that matter.

The problem with this battle is that it’s all Carl, yelling and screaming, demanding and getting media attention, throwing down the gauntlet and providing non-solutions while the Partnership and Rudnick try to take the high road and not settle into tit-for-tat trench warfare.  So you get this one-sided view of things which is tainted with opinion and innuendo dressed up as facts, when it didn’t need to be.

Yet Carl has a legitimate case.  Andrew Rudnick’s been a polarizing figure within an organization whose issues and opinions run the gamut from ultra-conservative to the radical left.  He and the Partnership can’t so much as sneeze without pissing off someone in that broad-spectrum constituency.  Carl should have kept it professional and leveraged concerns for Rudnick’s leadership into a more polished package, one that might have garnered both respect and influence from inside the Partnership board.  That he didn’t makes it all the harder to be an instrument of change but easy to be one of derision.  As a Partnership Board member and a corporate manager I find it hard to comprehend why Paladino would not try to maintain a professional mannerism on such a critical issue.  That he didn’t do this is a disappointment, and an impediment to progress.  As a successful business leader he knows darn well that the Partnership’s effectiveness comes down to the same questions asked of any organization:

  • What are its goals?
  • How well is it achieving these goals?
  • How can the leadership facilitate achieving these goals?

I’m afraid that if I joined Carl’s Let’s Fire Andy crusade that I would be sorely disappointed the moment I disagreed with the direction that Carl takes his version of a Buffalo Chamber of Commerce, for it is clear from his emails that it’s Carl’s way or the wrong way:  In essence, he evokes the same attitude for which he is criticizing Rudnick.

And in spite of all the media attention, Carl is a one-trick pony:  He got the toll barriers removed.  Anything else?  Nothing comes to mind.  That he is a polarizing influence – without a really great track record – in a community that has been incredibly polarized for two generations does not convince me that he could do any better at running a chamber of commerce than Rudnick has done.

Next Up:  So where does that leave Rudnick and the Partnership?


There’s a New Building Project in Buffalo!

August 3, 2009

IMG_6719

This would not be big news in any city with a bustling economy.  It’s major news here.

A bunch of people showed today up to a tent in a vacant lot and applauded everything and anyone and proclaimed that the new Kaleida Global Vascular Institute  is the best thing to happen to Buffalo since sliced bread.

10 politicians participated, so you know this was big.   The upside to this event was irresistible, even though most politicians hate sharing the limelight with other politicians.  That alone was telling:  This gathering was unique.

The downside is that it is unique.  Groundbreaking ceremonies for 300 million dollar projects are almost once in a lifetime occurrences in Western New York.  That put an edge on this celebration that I found discomforting.  All these people taking and giving credit, celebrating the all-too-rare win.

Well, that party’s over.  I wish for our political leaders not to bask inebriated-like in the glow of the Vascular Institute – as if this one building demonstrates how much they’ve accomplished – and instead get to work on the next project, and the next one after that.


Yearning for Those Friendly Skies

June 18, 2009

crowded airport

I loathe what air travel has become.  Used to be that flying made sense when travel by car would take more than 2 or 3 hours.  After 9/11 it was closer to 4 hours – making trips to Albany, Detroit or Pittsburgh more convenient by car than plane.  This past year, 6 hours’ drive time became my decision radius.

This week I debated if driving 7+ hours to Baltimore would be less stressful (and time-consuming) than arriving at the airport at least an hour before flight time, having my oversized can of shaving cream confiscated at security, waiting through incessant flight delays, being packed like sardines into the aircraft, developing motion sickness on the (very) turbulent flight, getting a lame rental car and driving the remaining distance to my hotel.

Flying to and from Baltimore saved me barely more than an hour in each direction.  And it was way more stressful than driving ever is.

Next time it’s going to be my car, a bunch of CDs, a list of NPR stations along the route and some coffee.  Air travel is too crazy.


Small Business Week in Buffalo

June 6, 2009

This past week was Small Business Week in Western New York.

  • Monday:  UB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) annual meeting
  • Tuesday:  Small Business Innovative Research grant writing seminar specifically targeted to small businesses and start-ups
  • Tuesday Night:  Buffalo Niagara Partnership Endurance All-Stars event.
  • Wednesday:  CEL Class of 2009 graduation ceremony
  • Thursday:  UB Business Partners Day

Before you say “Small business, so what?  Who gives a crap?” know that small businesses account for half of all employment in the U.S., and since the mid-90s have created 60-80% of net new jobs.  A very recent NPR report cited that small businesses accounted for 100% of all new hiring in 2009 so far.  Small business is Western New York’s future, for God knows that until New York State’s government is overthrown changes we are not going to be attracting any large companies to this area despite the best efforts of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise and our local politicians.

Some big corporations were represented at most of these events, too:  Moog, National Fuel, Greatbatch, M&T and others are sponsors of many of these programs, in part as a giveback to the community in which they operate.   I am grateful to the big guys who probably get little in return, other than some friendly PR.

UB Business Partners day was an unequivocal success.  Attendance was probably twice last year’s, and it will continue to grow.   UB and the CEL both recognize that entrepreneurialism is the seed by which business will blossom in Western New York.


Gross Incompetence Can Be Tolerated for Only So Long

May 6, 2009

failing-grades

There’s a fight going on in the Holland Central School district.  It’s the same fight being waged in many schools in Erie County: Too many teachers.

The teachers’ union (with the support of some parents) is resisting attempts by the Holland school board – with the support of other parents – to increase student-teacher ratios, especially in those grades with declining enrollment.  How much decline is there?  Well, the K-12 population of the school is currently 1,258 (last year’s graduating class:  99).  Next year’s kindergarten enrollment is currently estimated to be…less than 50.  Yet there are 6 kindergarten teachers.  Do the math and it is clear that in at least one grade there are probably too many teachers.

In Holland, this is a big issue.  It’s not even a blip on the Buffalo Public Schools radar.  In a bloated administrative system with an entrenched, uncooperative teachers union, a sense of victimization, isolation and systemic underachievement at all levels, the prospects for even incremental improvement to Buffalo’s public education seem remote.  Certainly, the examples set by union/administration feuding do not lend themselves to motivating students; and really, in the long run motivation is what it’s all about:  Motivated students will learn under any circumstances.

Holland is one of the most rural towns in Erie County and will spend $13,000 per student and graduate nearly all of them.  Buffalo on the other hand, spends upwards of $24,000 per student and will graduate less than half.  Holland’s board and the teachers will eventually reach some compromise.  Phil Rumore and James Williams will not.

What a tragedy for this area.  Most small businesses cannot offer jobs to those with such limited skills and worse, with little or no motivation.  The same local businesses starve for prospects because there are not enough skilled workers to go around.  And big businesses looking to possibly expand into the region?  Well, an educational system ranked at the bottom of the state drives one more nail into that coffin.

Our community’s future is being pissed away by a collectively incompetent group of professionals (and I use that word sarcastically) who appear intent on cutting the throats of the community around them.  It has taken us 50 years to get here, and we are guaranteeing at least 20 more years of another uneducated lost generation.

I get tired of watching so much money being thrown down a sewer; and greatly saddened that my analogy seems so appropriate.


The Next GM Pension Plan

March 30, 2009

gm-car

Because of its long term pension liabilities, GM is worth more dead than alive.  I doubt any automaker or wealthy investor (other than the U.S. Government) will touch it prior to its evenutal bankruptcy.

The company’s crazy pension commitments are just crazy.   As of last year they were costing the company $1,300 per car.  With GM sales down something ridiculous – over 50% in February from the year prior – pension costs this year will cost over $2,000 per vehicle.

What’s a GM pensioner to do?  Well, nothing, really.  The pensioner can sit on his or her ass all he or she wants and will still collect until the company is sucked dry.  After that, who knows?  For some reason I think I’ll be helping to pick up the tab.

Here’s my suggestion after the bankruptcy:  Offer up a pension amount fixed at some amount per car.  Let’s say the company agrees to put $1,000 per car into the pension account.  Take the total car sales for the year, multiply by $1,000 and divide by the number of pensioners; that’s the amount each pensioner will get the following year.

This has some real advantages over the current scheme, mainly that pensioners could make out really well in good years, and they have an incentive to help GM make sure it has good years.  And I won’t have to subsidize them through some government support package.

Just a thought.