To hear city councilman Ron Natinsky describe Tom Leppert, you’d think the mayor of Dallas was George S. Patton incarnate.
“He’s got an almost take-no-prisoners attitude,” Natinsky says, perhaps not aware of Leppert’s weakness for bran muffins and light Christian rock. “He certainly brings the private sector to City Hall. Working with him is like a breath of fresh air.”
Natinsky credits Leppert, for example, with allowing him to phone me at 2:30 p.m. on a council meeting day. BT—Before Tom—meetings spilled into the night, and such calls would languish.
Leppert’s burst onto the political scene has earned him the title CEO of the Year as voted by his peers, part of the CEO Sentiment Survey 2008 conducted by the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University (see page 39). Five other Dallas-Fort Worth executives also were cited as outstanding leaders by respondents.
When CEO-turned mayoral candidate Leppert ran for office in 2007, he vowed he would bring the efficiencies of the private sector to the City Council.
First off, he said, the meetings will start on time.
And they have.
The council meetings run like an atomic clock under Leppert’s gavel. And when they’re in meetings, council members say, they’re getting things done. In that precious time, council member Sheffie Kadane contends, council members work on solutions; they don’t dwell on problems.
That sentiment isn’t universal, though. As far as Anne Raymond is concerned, Leppert’s quick handling of the debate over a city-backed convention-center hotel for Dallas shows a lack of deliberation, rather than a decisive leader at work.
Raymond, a spokeswoman for Crow Holdings, a private firm that makes investments on behalf of the Trammell Crow family, says that a year ago, when she tried to explain that the city shouldn’t get into the hotel business, Leppert was quickly dismissive.
“The thing that was a little disappointing is that there wasn’t more intellectual curiosity on his part, as to why we have such differing views,” Raymond, who is director of Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel, says. “I think he just doesn’t want to hear different views.”
Since then, Crow Holdings has backed a petition drive to let voters decide whether the city should build a convention-center hotel with nearly $500 million primarily in revenue bonds.
Leppert says efforts to place the matter on the ballot are rooted in Crow Holdings’ ownership of the Hilton Anatole.
“You’ve got a small group of people that have a financial interest in it,” Leppert says. “You look at the hotel industry in total, and the key hotels are all in support of it. You know, [general manager] Tom Garcia over at the Adolphus will tell you that this is an important project that needs to move forward.”
Leppert says that on such issues, it’s his job as mayor to keep the big picture in mind. “I need to take—as I think a CEO should—a much broader perspective [of] what’s important for the city or, in this case, what’s important for the organization. To not only get through the day, but to make sure that it’s left in a way where it’s fundamentally stronger than when I came in.”
In Leppert, Natinsky says he feels a kinship with a fellow businessman—one who gladly shows up early and stays through the bitter end of countless rubber-chicken dinners, taking no prisoners. (In his 37 years in business, the now-retired Natinsky started several companies, including a Panasonic distributorship.)
Anyone who knows of Leppert’s professional trajectory before he entered politics probably isn’t surprised by his gung-ho attempt to master Dallas City Hall.
Leppert was raised by his mother, who he says kept his feet on the ground as she did clerical work to keep the family fed, with a roof over their heads. He put himself through Claremont McKenna College in California and got his MBA at Harvard. He then served as a White House Fellow under Ronald Reagan. White House Fellows basically get to hang around some of the country’s smartest policy wonks; alums include former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Leppert’s star continued to rise from there: he went into real estate, including a stint at Trammell Crow in Dallas, and then moved to Hawaii, where he worked for Castle & Cooke Inc., a real estate development subsidiary of Dole Food Co. Inc.
In 1996 and 1997, he served as vice chairman of Pacific Century Corp., a real-estate services firm. Then he became trustee of the $2 bil–lion Estate of James Campbell, a Hawaiian land trust. After that he left to be chairman and CEO of Turner Corp., where he helped engineer the sale of the firm to Germany’s Hochtief AG for about $100 million above the original offer price.
Turner is one of the largest construction firms in the world. Yet Leppert says that he insisted that Turner move its headquarters from New York to Dallas before he would take the company’s reins. (He and his wife, Laura, fell in love with Dallas when he came here to work at Trammell Crow Co., he says.)
He sees the job of mayor as being very similar to that of a CEO. “You are still working through, trying to accomplish things through people,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re CEO of a large company, or the mayor of a city; you’re still trying to define a direction, a vision, that broad perspective, and engage them so that their actions will lead to the accomplishment of that.”
City Council members interviewed for this article say that Leppert has never attempted to force them to take his side on an issue.
“Everything we do here, he works with you on it,” says Kadane. “It’s not, ‘Here’s what we need to do and that’s it.’ He’s got the wisdom to work it out with everyone. Whatever we need to get done, we get it done together.”
Leppert says forcing the issue might work once or twice, as either CEO or mayor, but that eventually, that tack stops working. “When you do that, you lose your position and your influence, and that will come back and hit you,” Leppert says.
For those who were big fans of the Wed–nesday daylong soap opera that used to be Dallas City Council, all this makes for rather dull fare. Leppert’s predecessor as mayor, Laura Miller, was never shy about attacking projects or people with whom she disagreed during open (or closed) sessions.
Early Mornings, Late Nights
When he’s not keeping council members apprised of matters such as the landmark Trinity River Project, which he vigorously supports, Leppert is just short of a whirling dervish. One moment he’s wearing a fluorescent T-shirt on the steps of North Dallas High School urging dropouts to return to get their diplomas; the next, he’s in his trademark dark striped suit congratulating the winners at the Dallas All-Sports Awards banquet.
His administrative assistant isn’t a secretary—she’s a master planner. Leppert’s Outlook calendar looks like a Technicolor checkerboard that’s been minced and stirred. Various interns and staffers prod him along to keep him moving. And largely, they succeed. On one of only a few occasions that I know of, he failed to honor an appointment. It turns out that city employees held a surprise 53rd birthday party for him in front of City Hall, complete with a live band.
On one particular day, he breezes in at 8:30 a.m. after having been on a local news-talk radio station, pausing to get an update on his schedule, then reloads with information and another T-shirt for a back-to-school fair video shoot at City Hall.
He looks like he’s having the time of his life.
Clearly, Leppert’s mayoral salary isn’t a motivating factor; he donates most of it ($50,000 out of $60,000) to a Dallas Independent School District scholarship fund.
Leppert attributes his work ethic to his upbringing and a philosophy of leading by example. “I continue to believe that service is important, and the concept of ‘servant leader’ is real,” he says. “It’s not just a phrase. And if we take that perspective, our communities will be stronger, and when the communities are stronger, that will improve the business environment.”
He’s used the mayor’s office as a bully pulpit on behalf of the beleaguered Dallas school district, which has been caught in a budget shortfall two years in a row.
“We have conveyed to the DISD that whatever I personally or whatever we can do as a city to help them, we will do it,” Leppert says. “I think clearly with the challenges they’ve got, there’s clearly been a hurt to their credibility. I think that that they’re going to need to make, as with any organization in this situation, with some structural fundamental changes. That’s the only way you’ll regain the credibility.”
Leppert wasn’t specific in describing what fundamental changes he thought would have to occur. But he hasn’t been afraid to throw his weight around when he determines someone is out of bounds.
When the Dallas Housing Authority miserably flunked an audit—it found multiple embarrassments, including paying rent for dead people—Leppert reminded the authority that he has the power to reappoint members to the housing board if they didn’t get their figurative house in order within several months. Eventually, Housing Authority director Ann Lott left.
When the city’s code-compliance office asked Leppert to stand up to the owners of vacant, abandoned, and neglected properties in downtown Dallas, Leppert gladly did so. And again, another deadline was issued, according to media reports: This time, if building owners did nothing with their beat-up structures within 30 days, they would be fined $1,000 for each code infraction.
Each of the aforementioned mayoral actions might sound like someone who’s trying desperately to land at least one story in The Dallas Morning News metro section each week. But Leppert says each action is geared toward one goal: making Dallas a safe, clean, financially sound place that will be the envy of all other cities, including New York.
This might make him out to be Dallas’ very own Sisyphus, the mythic Greek character who was punished by being made to push a boulder uphill—only to have it tumble back down—every day for eternity.
In October, Leppert wouldn’t even say whether he intends to run for office again (though he filed papers indicating he’s formed a committee called “Re-elect Tom Leppert”). Instead, he said he would only run for re-election if he thinks he’s helping Dallas reach the aforementioned goal.
One recent morning, he stopped just short of saying he’s going to re-apply for the job of servant-leader of Dallas. “We’ve made significant progress,” Leppert said. “But we’re not there yet.”
Meantime, SMU political science professor Cal Jillson likens Leppert to Dallas mayors from the halcyon days of the 1950s, when Robert L. Thornton ruled over the city with the promise of “as efficient and business-like government” as was humanly possible.
As long as Leppert continues to steamroll the opposition—and votes continue to head his way—Leppert will continue to succeed, Jillson says. But if he starts to lose, the professor added, a coalition could form to undermine him.
Then, Dallas’ Sisyphus might end up being flattened by his boulder.
And the Runners-Up After Leppert Are…
Five esteemed execs as chosen by their peers in the SMU Cox survery—in order, according to the number of votes they received.
Gary C. Kelly
CEO, president, chairman of the board, Southwest Airlines
It’s not easy to keep on top in the airline industry, but Southwest Airlines has continued to do so. Executives surveyed are giving the airline’s Gary C. Kelly props accordingly.
Kelly has been with Southwest since before Troy Aikman took his first snap as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. And it could be argued that Kelly has done a pretty good job as quarterback in his own right, serving as understudy to Southwest co-founder Herb Kelleher and former president Colleen Barrett before taking the lead job. Southwest is one of the largest airlines in the country, brags it’s the industry’s cost leader, and doesn’t discourage its flight stewards from being overtly folksy.
For 12 years in a row, Dallas-based Southwest has landed on Fortune magazine’s list of the country’s most-admired corporations. And, until October, the airline reported 17 years of consecutive quarterly profits (the string was broken by a drop in fuel prices).
Owner and general manager, Dallas Cowboys
Construction of the $1.1 billion Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington has likely cemented Jerry Jones’ place in the NFL history books, if his three Super Bowl rings hadn’t already done so.
Jones has become as much a fixture in Cowboys fans’ living rooms as the Blue Star itself. Maybe that’s why surveyed execs wrote his name down as a top leader.
Forbes magazine puts the value of the Cowboys’ franchise at $1.6 billion, tops on the Forbes NFL team-value listings.
Construction of the new stadium—one of the largest football stadiums in the United States, with arches exceeding the St. Louis Arch in span—remains on schedule. While the city of Arlington has committed $300 million toward the project, Jones (through the Cowboys) is picking up the rest of the tab, forging ahead with the football-spaceship that continues to arise within earshot of the Texas Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
From a team perspective, Jones has been willing to take chances and throw money where other owners might have been reluctant. Some of his chances have panned out (Terrell Owens and Tony Romo) while others have not (Adam “Pacman” Jones).
In any case, Jerry Jones certainly makes Dallas Sunday afternoons more interesting.
Former CEO, The Staubach Co.; board member, Jones Lang LaSalle
Roger Staubach says he isn’t fading from the North Texas business picture just yet, despite selling The Staubach Co. to Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle earlier this year “I’m going to stay active,” Staubach says, adding that for the next four or five years, he’ll work to help mesh Staubach’s enterprise with the global Jones Lang LaSalle real estate team.
He’s easy to believe; in fact, the ex-Dallas Cowboys QB looks like he could still fill in for Tony Romo, who’d just been sidelined with a broken pinkie when Staubach spoke with us.
In June, Staubach and Jones Lang announced that JLL would pay $613 million for Dallas’ Staubach Holdings Inc., which Staubach founded in 1977. The sale, and Staubach’s continued involvement in the North Texas business and charity scene, have placed Staubach’s name at the top of North Texas execs’ minds.
Staubach now serves on the Jones Lang LaSalle board of directors, while also helping lead efforts to prep for Super Bowl XLV. Last year, Staubach sat with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and pitched North Texas as the site for the 2011 Super Bowl, narrowly defeating Indianapolis.
T. Boone Pickens
Founder, BP Capital
Maybe executives surveyed in this year’s SMU Cox School Sentiment Survey wrote Pickens’ name down because it was on the top of their minds. Since May, Pickens has waged a one-man campaign to move the country away from an oil-driven economy toward alternative energy. Now he’s putting his money where his mouth (and turbines) are, building the world’s largest wind farm.
Ironically, it was oil that earned Pickens his fortune. He started out drilling speculative wells, and eventually built Mesa Petroleum into the largest independent oil company in the United States. Then, in his 70s, he shifted careers to found Dallas-based BP Capital, which managed $4 billion in wealth as of the summer of 2008 (BP’s value had been reduced as of press time, but an exact figure was unavailable).
As of August 2008, he’d donated roughly half a billion dollars to various causes, including neuroscience at The University of Texas at Dallas. Pickens’ mother died of a brain tumor; he’s said that’s one reason he is supporting that research.
Bob R. Simpson
Chairman of the board and CEO of XTO Energy Inc.
Simpson’s biography is sparse on XTO’s investor relations page, but the numbers speak for themselves: The company’s stock price more than tripled between October 2003 and October 2008.
In an interview on the PBS-TV-aired Small Business School with host Hattie Bryant, Simpson said that his drive to seek his fortune stretched back to his earliest childhood memories.
“When I was a little boy, my father was a cotton farmer in West Texas,” Simpson told Bryant. “We would drive up and down the road and he would point to pump jacks. He said, ‘Son, if I would have bought that land, we would have been wealthy as a royalty owner.’ ”