Sunday, April 27th, 2014

Portrait of a Change Agent

My friend and occasional Urbanophile contributor Rod Stevens has suggested that communities should create “Dewar’s Profiles” of the people in their cities that represent the type of entrepreneur they’d like to attract more of. I think this is a good idea. It’s about thinking of the characteristics of people who have achieved success, and chosen to build that success in a particular place. What attributes do those people have? Once you know that, you can go out and find more of them.

Some of this is place specific but I want to apply this concept to the civic change agent generally, a person who has a powerful impact on the trajectory of a community for the better over the long term.

I want to look specifically at J. Irwin Miller in Columbus, Indiana. For those who don’t know Columbus, it’s a small manufacturing city that is almost the antithesis of Rust Belt decline. Apart from Big Ten college towns Lafayette and Bloomington, it’s the only small city in Indiana that can be said to be thriving – and it’s doing it with manufacturing. Columbus is home to Cummins Engine, a large diesel engine manufacturer, but also numerous other manufacturing concerns, including the largest concentration of Japanese owned firms in the state outside of much larger Indianapolis.

The success of Columbus can in part be traced to J. Irwin Miller (1909-2004). Miller took over leadership at Cummins, which his family had bankrolled. Not only was he the CEO of Columbus’ leading industrial firm, he also ran Irwin Union Bank, the original source of his family’s wealth and the town’s most important bank. Desiring to create a community that would be attractive to skilled engineers and other talent he need make Cummins succeed, Miller created a foundation that would pay the architectural fees for schools and other public buildings provided that the client picked an architect from Miller’s list. That list included a who’s who of modern architectural legends including Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, IM Pei, and many others. Suffice it to say this was an offer the town fathers couldn’t refuse, the result of which is that Columbus has one of the world’s greatest collections of modern architecture, with six buildings classified as National Historic Landmarks, the US government’s highest designation. Columbus is literally an international architectural tourism destination. Beyond the architecture, Columbus also became somewhat infused with Miller’s progressivist ethos, though never without losing a certain bedrock Hoosier conservatism. The result is a high quality community that remains affordable, pro-business, and which has navigated the transition to the global economy to date in a way few other similarly situated cities did.

I find a few things of interest in Miller’s life, even out of what little I know. The most important is that he was not a self-made man. He was at least the second generation of wealth in his family. Born into total financial security and leadership of the undisputed first family and most important enterprises in Columbus, he had security of position and provision as close to that of a European aristocrat as we might find in America.

The best compare and contrast of the aristocratic and democratic man is of course found in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Tocqueville clearly had great admiration for America, but also understood the aristocratic virtues that it lacked.

When one was born into an aristocratic position, it came with utter security. That position could never be taken away except by war. This security of position I think is something those of us in America, where this is predominantly lacking, don’t full appreciate. And it has profound affects on the way people conduct their lives.

I have two former colleagues who came from a somewhat similar situation to Miller. One of them was the child of the president of a major corporation in Indianapolis. The other was the child of the president of a bank in a small Michigan city. Raised with elite status in their communities and financial security, both of them carry themselves with a certain ease and unself-consciousness that I could never muster. These are people, you can tell, who never had to fear that through some social faux pas or mistake or change of fortune, their careers or social standing would come crumbling down, or that they’d suffer material want.

By contrast, growing up poor in rural Southern Indiana, I am keenly aware of the fragility of any accomplishments I might have. I think that’s common and why self-made people who even manage to amass great wealth and success often still remain hungry for more. There’s an inherent insecurity of station in the character of the vast bulk of us that is so normal in America that we often don’t realize that some people don’t share it.

The fact that Miller was born into this absolute security of position and wealth gave him a freedom of action that those of us plagued with the curse of democratic insecurity don’t have by default. He was freed from the calculus of risk that infuses almost every decision or action the rest of us take.

But beyond simply security of position, Miller also had power. This was influence in the community as its leading citizen, but also responsibility to run his family’s business concerns, including a major, publicly traded corporation. This makes him very different from a trust funder that merely receives wealth without either power or responsibility. The latter condition is quite dangerous, as Tocqueville noted, saying: “There is nothing more miserably corrupt than an aristocracy that preserves its wealth while losing its power and which, though reduced to vulgar enjoyments, still possesses immense leisure. The energetic passions and great thoughts that formerly animated it then disappear, and one encounters scarcely more than a multitude of gnawing little vices that attach themselves like worms to a cadaver.” This is something which Miller was spared.

Also, as a child of privilege, he was fortunate to receive an elite education from an early age. I grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and went to a Big Ten school where I studied the practical art of business. Miller was raised in a highly enriched environment, attended Yale, then studied philosophy and other subjects at Oxford. I’m not sure where he acquired his interest in architecture, but I presume a thorough artistic education was part of his upbringing. (He later served on the board of the Museum of Modern Art). Clearly he would not have been able to select the architects he did if he lacked the education and discernment to do so. His education was similar to what the child of an aristocrat would have received.

Another attribute of the aristocrat that showed itself in Miller was an ability to think long term. As Tocqueville again noted, “Aristocracy is infinitely more skillful in the science of the legislator than democracy can be. Master of itself, it is not subject to getting carried away in passing distractions; it has long designs that it knows how to ripen until a favorable occasion presents itself. Aristocracy proceeds wisely; it knows the art of making the collective force of all its laws converge at the same time toward the same point.” While this was specifically legislative, we see that Miller stayed the course with his architectural commissions and plans for civic improvement in Columbus over the long term. This wasn’t a flash in the pan or a phase he went through. It was a lifelong pattern of behavior.

Lastly, and this one is not specifically related to aristocracy, he came from a strong religious tradition and was strongly influenced by his personal faith. Two of his grandfathers were pastors and he was a lifelong adherent to the Disciples of Christ denomination they hailed from. (Both First Christian Church and North Christian Church in Columbus, both National Historic Landmarks, were churches Miller attended). It’s clear this affected his views on the world. I can’t speak authoritatively on this, but he appears to have been very influenced by mainline protestant type social justice concerns around the greater public good. He welcomed the formation of a union at Cummins Engine. He was active in the civil rights movement. He was also a key leader in the ecumenical movement and the establishment of the National Council of Churches. He was obviously a very active philanthropist, and in addition to his own giving sat on the board of the Ford Foundation. He didn’t abandon Columbus. As the recent article “Welcome to Cummins, USA” in Forbes shows, his values still have a hold at Cummins the company.

Put these together had we have:

– Inherited security of position and wealth – secure from birth
– Actual power in the community combined with major management responsibilities
– Top level education cultivated from an early age
– Long term thinking and consistency
– Faith-based commitment to the greater civic good

When looking at who the potential positive change agents in a community are, it would be helpful I think to do a scan of those who have several of those criteria. It’s not clear that they can all be combined – and in the case of larger cities no one person is likely to have political clout in the way Miller had it in Columbus – but the more of them that are present, the more likely it is that someone has the potential for making a major positive impact on a community.

It’s easy to see how the lack of any of them can potentially sabotage a candidate. People without gut level security in their position are likely to be boat rockers. This implies political or business scions are potential candidates. But someone who has already had a major exit out of a huge startup might fit the bill as well. Tony Hsieh in Las Vegas immediately comes to mind.

Without some serious level of intellectual cultivation or gettitude, it’s unlikely a person would be able to chose the right course of action or even the right advisors to help find it. (As Machiavelli rightly pointed out, “This is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice…Good counsels, whencesoever they come, are born of the wisdom of the prince, and not the wisdom of the prince from good counsels.”) Similarly someone without a long term vision or plan will likely grow tired of the long term change game. We see the toll daily in our communities from people without real responsibilities and/or a moral compass and civic mindedness (faith-based or otherwise). They are the billionaires that bleed the public treasury dry. Unlike Miller, they’re not putting money in, they’re taking it out.

Nevertheless, even if you can’t get all five, at least getting part of the way there might suggest people who have the potential for major positive change in a community. I’m not claiming this is the only template of the change agent. It’s only one possibility. But it’s clearly an important case study. I’ll perhaps circle back and look at other models in a future post.

Topics: Strategic Planning, Urban Culture
Cities: Columbus (Indiana)

21 Responses to “Portrait of a Change Agent”

  1. John Morris says:

    His position at Cummins Engine may have been very secure, but Cummins itself had to face marketplace realities. What planet does the author of this post live on?

    For every person that fits that profile in terms of power who effected positive change one can probably name 5-10 who did did damage.

    R.K. Mellon in Pittsburgh probably had far more security and wealth and and was the key figure in the destruction of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

  2. John Morris says:

    I would argue that Miller had good grasp of his reality and the limits of his company’s money and power. The architectural program didn’t require huge amounts of cash.

  3. wkg in bham says:

    I think this is related in some way – but I’ll have to think on it some more. I feel like there’s only so much social mobility built into a person. I was born into a working class family. I’ve managed to migrate solidly into middle class ways on living (income, etc.) and thinking. The income aspect was the easy part. Very difficult time with the social part. Even at my advanced age, my working class roots betray (reveal) me at times.

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    John, keep in mind that in Miller’s day, Columbus’ population grew from just about 20,000 to about 30,000. He was a really big fish in a really small pond. Miller came from an era when the county-seat banker was THE leading citizen…and on top of being chairman of the bank, he was chairman of the county’s largest corporation (though in his day, Columbus had two Fortune 500 headquarters; Arvin Industries was the other, and it had similarly patrician management–Indiana-born DePauw, Wabash, and Harvard B-school execs).

    At the same time, in his era Cummins, as most major US manufacturers, didn’t really face significant low-cost international competition. Cummins was the IBM or AT&T of diesel engines: In the post WWII U.S. road building boom Cummins, with their N Series engines, became the leader in heavy duty truck engines, from 1952 to 1959 they had more than half the market. (From Wikipedia)

    It’s an exceptional story, maybe without equal in the modern era.

    Also, Aaron doesn’t note that Miller was famously on Nixon’s “Enemies list”, probably for supporting Rockefeller in 1968.

  5. John Morris says:

    You may have a good point about his power in that area but nobody said stuff like “we are bigger than U.S. Steel” or whats good for GM is good for America about Cummins.

    The main thing I get from Miller is how relatively low key many of his programs were. The architecture program just offered to pay the fees for hiring out of a list of top modern architects. It didn’t grab land or plan some transformation in how and where people would live. Many of the buildings are modest in scale.

  6. George V says:

    On the topic of corporate responsibility and architectural greatness, I think it’s a crime how we allowed big industrial companies in the Midwest to litter our major cities with big abandoned factories. If GM cared about Detroit, for example, the company would tear down the abandoned Fisher Body plant you can see from the freeways and do some remediation work.

    Oh, I know – GM probably sold the buildings off to some small-time company decades ago, magically absolving itself of all responsibility. That’s always the trick. In the meantime, the EPA is cleaning up the contamination from the factory operations (which can traced back to GM), and taxpayers will probably fund the eventual demolition. How do you like them apples?

    But Detroiters still treat GM like its some benevolent overlord, even when it begs for money from the public treasury, cuts jobs, and leaves toxic abandoned factories in its wake. I know other Midwest cities have equivalents of this abusive situation.

    When will we demand better?

  7. John Morris says:

    Yes, and no. In many cities similar plants have become valuable spaces.

    During the model T era, Ford built around 25 plants for final assembly across the US. The former plant in Pittsburgh is now used for medical offices. In Atlanta, the plant is next to the 1,1 million square foot. former Sears catalog warehouse being turned into a huge office, residential & retail complex.

    Google’s office in Pittsburgh is in a former Nabisco manufacturing plant. The office in Chicago is in an old cold storage warehouse. Their office in NYC is also in an old warehouse building.

    The incredible survival of the Packard complex in Detroit after 60 years of abandonment shows how well many of these buildings were made.

    Still, I know what you mean.

  8. George V says:

    I understand wanting to preserve our heritage. I love that. But we really need to get on our major companies for not maintaining old properties. Basically, either demolish the building or maintain it. The loft craze has been great for urban cores, but I’m sure having hulking abandoned factories in the middle of neighborhoods for sometimes decades was a very bad thing. It’s telling that nobody considers restoration or even demolition a priority until upper class people are interested in renting or living in the area.

  9. John Morris says:

    Not really true. Former industrial plants were coveted by artists and small manufacturers in NY and many other cities and used for years illegally.

    I’m not a history buff. These were useful, almost indestructible buildings.

    If zoning had been more open to reuse sooner, many more buildings would likely have been saved.

    More about the Ford plant in Atlanta.

    I don’t know all the details with Cummins, but it really looks like they didn’t assume the town would always revolve around them.

  10. John Morris says:

    In cities like Cleveland, Philadelphia & Detroit, industrial buildings comprised many of the best made buildings in town. The average worker house is throw away junk.

  11. George V says:

    Well, there you have it folks. John is a perfect example of a corporate worshiper. I guess all those abandoned factories in Detroit and Cleveland have done wonders for the local population over the decades! The people in the “average worker houses” should just put up with the blight and contamination until a hipster decides it should be a loft or hip industrial studio. If the rabble is lucky, they’ll get gentrified right out of the neighborhood. Problem solved, and everyone pat big industry on the back!

  12. John Morris says:

    About as big a misrepresentation of my ideas possible.

    Long before their were “hipsters” people saw use in many of these buildings.

    Even if, all the sites had been town down, would miles of abandoned fields have been a better solution?

    BTW, Cleveland did rush to tear down whole areas like The warehouse district near the dowtown. Most now see that as a huge mistake. Old industrial buildings make up a big part of the character of revived areas like Ohio City & Tremont.

  13. Let’s please try to stay on the topic of the characteristics of civic change agents and/or Columbus and Miller.

  14. Chris Barnett says:

    John, I am a biased commenter. I am a fan of MCM architecture largely because of living in Columbus during my childhood. You are exactly right about the scale of the masterpiece buildings there. They are everyday buildings used for everyday purposes, but they are also usable sculpture, as good architecture is.

    Miller knew how to leave a lasting legacy of something other than greed and fortune-seeking, both in a major corporation and in a small city.

  15. Derek Rutherford says:

    Miller sounds like a fantastic civic leader, in the best sense of big business paternalism (I don’t mean that ironically). The challenge is using him as an example that can be imitated. After all, for every rich, dedicated, farsighted civic leader like him, there are 10 others who try to be the same way, but are mediocrities, and 5 more on top of those who are actually unintentionally destructive.

    Trust me, for every urban fad of the past century that is currently regretted, there were dozens of rich people who tried very hard to be civic-minded visionaries in their communities. Very, very few of them rivaled Miller.

    He makes a fine case study, but not as an example to be imitated; rather, we should recognize how rare such a person is. For most cities, hoping for a rich guy to come along and pay for initiatives that enrich their community is a delusional strategy.

  16. John Morris says:

    This case is a pretty extreme outlier in many ways.

    First, one needs a very rich, wise & powerful person to come along which is rare but possible. But, even people like that are not all knowing and can make huge well meaning mistakes.

    I wish we knew more about him and how decisions were made. Did people just do everything he said or was a gradual consensus built?

    His most famous legacy of buildings possibly didn’t cost that much. (10% of the building’s cost paid by the Cummins foundation))

    “Before J. Irwin started his program, a school had gone up that was built on the cheap — and it showed. Why would prospective Cummins engineers from MIT, say, who could work anywhere, want to raise families in a small town they’d never heard of with bad-looking schools? J. Irwin Miller had a business problem and a community problem

    To solve them, he and his Cummins Foundation made the school board an offer they couldn’t refuse: If the school system picked an architect from a list of five provided by the foundation, then the foundation would pay that architect’s fees. Ten percent of the cost would be paid by Cummins, not taxpayers; there would be quality buildings and the decision would be made by public officials. The first school designed under the Cummins plan turned out so well that the school board wanted the deal again and so did other public authorities. Will says they still keep coming. It’s an ongoing process and completely voluntary”

    Aaron’s representation that the program was product of bullet proof security doesn’t wash.

    Miller and others faced a big problem as a company in a small, little known city. Probably, GE or GM wouldn’t have seen the need or might have come up with more expensive heavy handed solutions.

  17. Chris Barnett says:

    Miller didn’t just come along. He went to school and came home to run the family businesses.

    That may be the thing that seems the most unusual in today’s world to some.

  18. George Mattei says:

    There is an opposite side to this-the tyrant ruler that doesn’t have the civic mindset that Miller had. They can destroy places, or at least hold them back. That has happened in many communities as well.

  19. John Morris says:

    Absolutely. Aaron came up with a really weird and naive model.

    Probably the most common type is the misguided do-gooder. R.K. Mellon in Pittsburgh in attempting to fix the city’s substandard housing and pollution problems damaged the social fabric for generations of people.

  20. Bob Cook says:

    Certainly, what Miller did ensured that the talent would come to Columbus to keep Cummins a going concern there, and thus help the town stay strong when just about every city of its size in Indiana has hit the skids. He’s an example of what many cities are trying to do now, which is ensure a quality of life that will attract young, talented people.

    However, a part of me still thinks that Columbus is always going to be at risk for losing Cummins, whether because of shareholder pressure for a larger city as headquarters, or because it feels the environment in Indiana as a state isn’t conducive to hiring talent (Cummins was prominent in opposing a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.)

  21. chuck says:

    R.A. Long–founder of Longview, WA near my old home in Vancouver–is similar personality. In his case, he created a town ex nihilo and personally financed a number of civic buildings.

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