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Group of powerful CEOs gradually increasing profile


Relatively low key for most of its nearly two decades of existence, a group of Iowa’s most powerful CEOs is stepping up its public profile.

Perhaps the best example of the more aggressive posture of the Iowa Business Council, an exclusive, invitation-only group of the top decision-makers at 23 of Iowa’s largest employers, occurred last fall when the group helped nudge Republican and Democratic legislative leaders out of a stalemate over how to best restore funding for the Grow Iowa Values Fund. Urging the two parties to not only work though their differences, but also provide permanent funding for the fund, the Business Council’s current chairman, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield CEO John Forsyth said that for “Iowa to leverage its bioscience platform strengths, we can’t sit on the sidelines and watch.”

The Business Council, formed in 1986 as Iowa languished due to a slump in agriculture, isn’t merely an interested third party. The Values Fund itself is the fruition of an idea discussed at its early stages by the CEOs, who invited Gov. Tom Vilsack and legislative leaders to review the findings of a 2000 research paper, “A Case for Change,” which provided part of the basis for Vilsack’s call for the economic development program in his 2003 Condition of the State address. The paper tracked Iowa’s shift from an agriculture-based economy and advocated public policy that does not merely treat the symptoms of population loss and other disturbing demographic trends, but attacks their root causes.

Though it plays a behind-the-scenes role in the formulation of public policy, the Business Council doesn’t try to dictate specifics. “We never got into details about the funding source” for the Values Fund, Forsyth said. He and his peers were patient through the first two years of the legislation’s life, though it faced “rough sledding” in a sharply divided Legislature, he said. When an impasse was reached over the Value Fund’s restoration last summer, the Business Council was silent on the issues of workers’ compensation and tort reform that divided lawmakers, but adamant that the Values Fund “is a really good idea that deserves to be put into law and given permanent funding,” Forsyth said.

As Iowa continues the struggle to be competitive with other states, Forsyth and the group’s 2005 chairman, MidAmerican Energy Co. President Todd Raba, expect the Business Council to amplify its voice around principles members agree are in the state’s best interests. Also, Business Council Executive Director Alexa Heffernan said, much of the research into problems plaguing Iowa’s economic development efforts has been done.

“The focus is changing to become more proactive and more involved,” she said.

The Business Council’s next big focus will be on early childhood development, a part of the state’s economic development push that has been embraced by business groups, such as the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

Throughout its life, the Business Council has served as a resource for Iowa businesses and government agencies and that emphasis won’t change.

The Iowa Coalition for Innovation & Growth, co-administered with the Iowa Chamber Alliance, has formed specific teams focusing on key issues facing Iowa. The Health-Care Lean Hot Team aims to introduce the Lean Enterprise concept into health-care facilities across Iowa; the Capital Formation Hot Team assists business growth in Iowa, working with companies in the start-up and early phases of development; the Business Development and Processes Hot Team identifies and improves on processes viewed as barriers to businesses’ ability to develop and grow in Iowa; and the Advanced Manufacturing Research and Commercialization Consortium’s goal is to make Iowa a leader in engineering and advanced manufacturing.

The Coalition’s Business Development and Processes Hot Team recently worked with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to implement Kaizen, a business-improvement technique originally developed by Japanese companies, to shave 1½ months off the time the time the agency’s Air Quality Bureau needs to review companies’ air-quality permit applications. More collaborations are possible in the future.

Other states have business roundtable groups like the Iowa Business Council, but Iowa’s organization is unique in that its membership includes the presidents of the three state Regents institutions. “Most of our counterparts don’t have that,” Heffernan said.

More information on the group can be found at www.iowabusinesscouncil.com.

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