When Gov. Terry Branstad wanted someone to turn the state’s old economic development department into a private-public partnership, he turned to Debi Durham.

Durham is a longtime economic development worker and onetime candidate for lieutenant governor who led the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce for more than 15 years.

She played a large part in creating a department that has helped land a couple of big fertilizer plants, countless small and medium-sized developments and a new set of tools to help expand Iowa’s hallmark biofuels industry. 

“All my life I’ve pretty much been brought in to be a change agent for my organization. That’s what I do, but I do it by investing in people and building a team and aligning purpose.” 

She sees herself as a top cheerleader for Iowa. 

“I can tell the story,” she said. “I am able to sell. I am your chief salesperson for Iowa. I believe passionately for this place. I am an eternal optimist. I see potential, even in the darkest times.”

The optimism helped when Durham accepted the nomination the day before Thanksgiving 2010. She found out when the weekend was over the governor wanted the legislation that would re-create the department to be ready by January. After a quick pause, Durham thought, “How hard can it be?”

It wasn’t easy, but the department has been her creation and her life since. Durham spends her days thinking strategically, making speeches and negotiating behind the scenes. She has developed a strong partnership with transportation chief Paul Trombino as the two of them look to make transportation cheaper and more efficient for shipments, employing high-tech data analysis. 

Durham prides herself on building coalitions, supporting new ventures and adding value to the state’s top industries.

Take biofuels, for example. She pushed for two years for a new tax credit for companies interested in producing valuable chemicals — such as perfume ingredients or solvents — from the byproducts of biofuel production. Durham and many others see this as a huge opportunity to add value to the nation’s top ethanol-producing area. 

“We have built an industry around biofuels, and we can be satisfied with that. But if we are, we are never going to see future growth,” Durham said. “Or we can look at the future, and the future is biochemicals.”

It was an example of her approach to managing tasks. “You break it down into small pieces,” Durham said. “What’s the universe? What are the possibilities? You begin to break it down just as we have with the energy plan.”

“It’s the same thing we’ve done with the whole innovation ecosystem, it’s breaking it down into manageable pieces,” she added.

Durham navigates political waters while trying to stay out of the fray, priding herself on having the ear of both parties. “I can get things from Point A to Point B,” she said.

The fun part is imagining what Point B is.

Three areas of influence:

  1. She believes in empowering others, including her staff, but tapping into their strengths to come up with the best team for each task.
  2. Durham is known for building coalitions, noting that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers will hear her out. They know she will not mislead them.
  3. She’s a problem solver who believes in breaking a task into manageable chunks, then devising a plan to get it done.

Words to live by:

“How hard can it be?”