Leaders change, but goals remain

March 31, 2019

As Greater Fort Wayne Inc. enters its sixth year, a third CEO is settling into the role, a grant-funded initiative is getting off the ground and officials are refining their membership pitch.

Its leaders say the economic development organization’s goals are largely the same, but the staff roster has a few changes.

Among those who have left the nonprofit since last fall are Eric Doden, former CEO; Cheri Becker, former vice president of investor services and programs, including Leadership Fort Wayne; and Justin Clupper, former director of signature programs.

There’s no one reason for the exits. Doden wanted to pursue business opportunities after two years as chief executive. Becker retired and has joined her husband, former Deputy Mayor Mark Becker, to launch Becker Consulting in addition to doing local philanthropic work. And Clupper was named executive director of Community Transportation Network. He began the job March 1.

John Urbahns, who became Greater Fort Wayne’s third CEO on Jan. 1 after five years with the organization, said turnover is a natural evolution in the life of the organization : and the professionals who work there.

“I love that we have groomed someone who can step up and be executive director of another organization in town,” he said, referring to Clupper.

“I’m not worried about any turnover,” he said of his 20-member staff. “The team that we have here is solid and stable.” 

Fort Wayne City Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, is among those who believe Urbahns is the right person to lead that team. Greater Fort Wayne signed a $250,000 annual consulting contract with the city in early March.

During that meeting, Urbahns agreed to a clause that prohibits the organization and its employees from engaging in local political campaign advocacy while in their official capacities.

“That was a wonderful gesture of good faith, and I was happy to support it,” Jehl said. “I am confident that John Urbahns and his new team will take advantage of this fresh start and point us in the right direction.”

Urbahns was previously executive vice president of economic development. Before that, he was Fort Wayne’s community development director for seven years. 

New perspective

The organization’s vice president of community and corporate impact is new. Brenda Gerber Vincent stepped into the position Jan. 25, replacing Becker.

Ellen Cutter, former director of strategy and research, was appointed to replace Urbahns as vice president of economic development. She once oversaw communication and marketing, too, but that duty has been assigned to Gerber Vincent.

Greater Fort Wayne’s four-member executive team comprises Urbahns, Cutter, Gerber Vincent and Susan Wesner, the chief financial officer.

Urbahns noted that even though his and Cutter’s duties have changed, three of the four leaders have been with the organization for at least 21/2 years : half its life span.

Greater Fort Wayne was created in 2014 with the merger of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance and is the area’s sole point of contact for economic development projects.

Jehl and some others assert that combining economic development and business advocacy in one organization, such as Greater Fort Wayne, creates the potential for conflicts of interest.

“But that’s the way it’s set up,” he added.

Urbahns acknowledged some growing pains.

“At the beginning of the organization, we had to prove ourselves and show that the merger was a good idea,” he said.

Doden, who followed founding CEO Mark Becker, described himself as a leader who dreams big. Urbahns sees himself as more of a tactician, someone with the patience to make dreams become reality. That means keeping the team’s energy and activity level high while focusing on collaboration, he said.

“We’re not on cruise control,” Urbahns added. “We’re pushing into new horizons with the organization.”

One of those was winning a three-year grant last year allowing Greater Fort Wayne to hire a disability employment services coordinator. AWS Foundation approved the $245,000 award to support a local initiative designed to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Kevin Morse filled the position in April 2018.

“We’re going to continue to pivot and make sure we’re doing the rights things moving forward,” Urbahns said. “But I think we’re on the right track.”

‘A perfect fit’

Part of that right track, he said, is adding Gerber Vincent to the mix. The former chief development officer for Lasting Change, a local nonprofit, has experience at the Indiana statehouse and has worked in a fundraising capacity, résumé lines that caught Urbhan’s attention.

The Fort Wayne native also co-founded the Carriage House, a local nonprofit that “helps people recovering from mental illness reintegrate into the community.”

Gerber Vincent serves on the boards of the Carriage House, Parkview Regional Medical Center and the Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series, a national leadership program that prepares Republican women for public office. She has also received the Sagamore of the Wabash, Indiana’s highest civilian honor.

“She was a perfect fit” for the organization, Urbahns said.

The feeling is mutual.

“It checked every single one of the boxes I was looking at for my next career opportunity,” Gerber Vincent said. “I can honestly say I’ve loved our community since I was a little girl.”

“I can tell you there’s no better product to sell than the city of Fort Wayne and Allen County,” she added. “We don’t have mountains, and we don’t have oceans. But what we do have is very generous people.”

Gerber Vincent hopes that generosity will extend to the commitment Leadership Fort Wayne graduates feel toward the organization. She wants to re-engage the program’s 1,300 alumni.

Her enthusiasm also extends to current participants.

“I get really excited about the group projects ... to solve actual problems in the community,” she said.

Gaining strength

In Gerber Vincent’s mind, the equation is simple: The stronger Greater Fort Wayne Inc. is, the stronger the community is, she said.

Urbahns said that philosophy is gaining strength among the member companies the organization refers to as investors. Local business leaders previously joined the chamber of commerce expecting to receive direct benefits, he said.

Greater Fort Wayne shifted its message in the last few years to emphasize that the return on investment comes when the broader community thrives instead of an individual business.

“I believe that people are more receptive and understand the value of what we’re doing for the community,” Urbahns said. “I believe it’s an easier sell than it was 51/2 years ago.”