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Posted on Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 6 a.m.

Behind the boardroom: Rick Snyder's 'steady' leadership style offers political preview

By Nathan Bomey

When crisis looms, Rick Snyder’s calm demeanor doesn’t falter.

That’s an attribute Ted Dacko says he knows well as the former CEO of Ann Arbor-based venture capital firm HealthMedia, which Snyder co-founded, funded and chaired until it was sold in 2008 to Johnson & Johnson.

“He’s about the most even-keeled person I’ve ever met in my life,” Dacko said. “He never let us get too high, and he never let us get too low.”


Rick Snyder and his wife, Sue, celebrate his victory in Tuesday night's election.

Lon Horwedel |

Snyder’s even-tempered approach will be tested. The Ann Arbor venture capitalist and former president of computer-maker Gateway Inc. catapulted from political obscurity to Lansing’s doorstep by winning Michigan’s gubernatorial election Tuesday.

Snyder, a Republican and co-founder of economic development group Ann Arbor SPARK, defeated Democratic opponent Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero with 58 percent of the vote. Bernero got 39 percent.

How Snyder’s leadership style as a corporate executive and startup investor translates to politics has yet to be seen.

But his colleagues in the Ann Arbor business community - people who have served with him on corporate boards and worked with him for years before he launched his campaign - say the state can expect Snyder to make tough decisions in a collaborative fashion.

“Rick is very steady in the storm,” said Tim Petersen, managing director of Ann Arbor-based VC firm Arboretum Ventures, who served with Snyder on the board of HealthMedia. “Rick, in the boardroom, never feels obligated to dominate the conversation. He’s very thoughtful and chooses his words carefully.” Snyder, who succeeds Jennifer Granholm as Michigan’s 48th governor on Jan. 1, faces enormous challenges. The polarized political environment in Lansing has slowed legislative progress to a standstill. Meanwhile, Michigan faces a $1.4 billion budget deficit for the 2011-12 fiscal year, and the federal stimulus dollars that sustained the state over the last two years are gone.

Snyder, alluding to those challenges, called on lawmakers to work together and “drop the labels.”

“To be successful, to be collaborative, the hard work’s going to start in January and go on into the foreseeable future,” he told hundreds of cheering supporters Tuesday night at a rally in Detroit. “To make this work, there is only one label that matters. And that label is ‘Michigander.’”

Convincing disparate political factions, legislators, interest groups and voters to agree on a singular path for Michigan’s future is a tall order.

But Snyder’s experience co-founding SPARK in 2005 provides a framework for understanding his leadership style. He personally lobbied leaders from the University of Michigan, the city of Ann Arbor, the business community and other groups to fund and launch SPARK.

Five years later, the economic development group houses about 40 startup companies in its three business incubators and provides business services to hundreds of entrepreneurs and existing companies.

The idea for SPARK was spawned when Snyder was serving on U-M’s Technology Transfer Advisory Board.

“I actually accompanied him on a couple of funding trips to convince people” to fund SPARK, said Ken Nisbet, executive director of U-M’s Tech Transfer Office. “He has both top-down vision but also isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and do the work.”

David Parsigian, managing partner of the Ann Arbor office of law firm Honigman, Miller, Schwartz & Cohn, served on SPARK’s board with Snyder.

In a corporate board setting, Snyder listens first and speaks last, several colleagues recall.

“He is a guy that is perceived to be extremely bright and leads by both example and consensus,” Parsigian said. “What I mean by that is he wants to persuade people very well, he wants them to understand his point of view and he wants them to buy into it based upon being appropriately convinced.

“He doesn’t brow-beat people, he doesn’t manhandle people. I think he builds relationships and he manages based on the goodwill he builds in those relationships.”

Adaptive Materials co-founder and chief business officer Michelle Crumm, who considers Snyder a professional mentor, said she believes Snyder can translate his business expertise into governance.

“He’s quiet but powerful. He really is the smartest guy in the room,” Crumm said. “I think he will run it like a business, and if there’s tough financial decisions to be made for the betterment of the whole state of Michigan, he won’t shy away from those decisions. I just have great respect for him.”

Bernero, for his part, said as mayor of Lansing, he’s ready to work with Snyder — as long as Snyder isn’t too conservative.

“He has promised as governor as a moderate to be like Bill Milliken, not like John Engler,” Bernero told supporters Tuesday night. “If he does, and he creates policies good for all Michiganders, not just the few at the top, I promise I will partner with Rick Snyder and work with him hand-in-hand, and I’ll call on you to support him as well.

"But if that doesn’t happen, you and I will be watching, won’t we?"

Snyder, 52, has pledged to institute a new "value for money" budgeting system that identifies and eliminates wasteful spending. He has also called for the controversial Michigan Business Tax to be replaced with a 6 percent corporate income tax, a proposal that would result in $1 billion less revenue for the state, thus requiring more cuts.

“We’re going to hit the ground running hard,” Snyder told reporters while awaiting the election results Tuesday. “I want to bring in an attitude of crisis to Lansing. Not a crisis of panic, but a crisis of determination, because we’ve been in a crisis so long in this state we don’t act that way. And we are in a crisis.”

Snyder, who launched his campaign in July 2009, called himself “one tough nerd” during the campaign, and described himself as a “job creator” who could “reinvent Michigan.”

He spent about $6 million of his own money during the Republican primary, outpacing four experienced political opponents to win by 9 points. In the general election, he stopped spending his own cash, but that didn't leave him at a disadvantage. Bernero had little luck on the fundraising front, and most advertisements aired on his behalf were paid for by Michigan Democrats. Snyder, for his part, benefited from ads the Republican Governors Association aired attacking Bernero's record in Lansing.

Snyder largely avoided attacking Bernero during the campaign, and that resonated with voters like former Barry County Sheriff Steve DeBoer, a Hastings resident who came to Detroit for Snyder's rally.

"We need to change the way Michigan is going, and this is our chance to do that," DeBoer said. "The way we've been doing things is strictly partisan. That's broken, and we need to change."

Contact's Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's newsletters.



Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 8:14 p.m.

leaguebus: I missed hearing Fareed Zakaria who I respect for his knowledge, his inquisitiveness and his fairness. Even if we could develop new technologies how many of the 640,000 unemployed could be trained to use them and over what period of time? Rapid re-employment of this size of a work pool will require a FDR-type "CCC" effort similar to that which was introduced in 1933. Everybody could be put to work building bridges, repairing roads, cleaning contaminated sites, replacing the national power grid and laying natural gas pipelines to fuel CNG-powered cars. Such an effort will require $30 to $40 billion federal dollars but 80% of the money will enter the Michigan economy and up to half could be returned to the government as taxes. While full employment may be possible temporarily, workers will have to participate in re-training for more permanent 21st century jobs. If practical alternatives to this plan exist please post them.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 12:30 p.m.

Rick Snyder sounds like he's unusually reasonable and thoughtful as a boss and colleague around the office. If accurate, that will offer a sizeable benefit for the individuals who will work under him in Lansing. However, Michigan's reactionary-dominated legislature in 2011 will be another matter altogether. A hypothetically moderate Snyder must soon attempt rational collaboration with an elected asylum that's run the its most delusional and angry inmates. The last time we heard a lot about collaboration with a legislature, it was when Obama made ill-fated overtures of mutual cooperation to the GOP minority in Congress after his election victory. Snyder has to be too smart to think that he can succeed where Obama encountered only obstructionist rage and a crusading advocacy for elite corporate interests at all costs. The fact that he belongs to the same political party will not matter if he really attempts to govern as a moderate. Influential GOP factions, as represented by outfits like the fundamentalist GLEP in Grand Rapids and the hard-right Mackinac Center (John Engler was their man) will begin to turn on him, as they have previously done in regard to the legacy of former Republican governor Bill Milliken, someone arguably more liberal than moderate. Snyder's best leverage for promoting relatively moderate legislation would have been continued Democratic control of the state House. If the Dems still maintained one means to block reactionary legislation, he could always call for compromise and greater moderation in order to get bills passed. Soon, however, the GOP will have full control, including even the high court, and at their leisure they can pursue any troglodyte legislation they can conceive. Moderation on Snyder's part may require use of his veto power early and often.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 11:17 a.m.

@Veracity Fareed Zakaria said exactly the same thing last Sunday morning. All the old style manufacturing jobs have gone overseas because they take little skill and almost anyone can do them. We need DARPA like spending in R and D to develop new technologies that will require trained workers to manufacture. DARPA spending brought us new technologies like semiconductors, the internet, and GPS technology, which essentially made the USA the high tech leaders of the world. Then we trained our workers to produce these technologies. I don't know how Michigan is going to seed companies with funds to help them develop the new technologies while still blindly cutting $1.5 B in income from businesses. Also, more tax cuts means higher tuition statewide which makes it harder to train/retrain our workers to manufacture these new technologies. Hopefully Governor Snyder can figure this out early in his tenure.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 9:13 a.m.

Rick Snyder deserves congratulations for his successful bid for the governorship. Now all Michigan citizens must rally behind him because balancing the state's budget and finding work for Michigan's over 640,000 unemployed are monumental tasks. However, wishful thinking will not solve our state's problems and it remains unknown at this time how much of Rick Snyder's private business experience will assist him while governing in the state's capital. For sure entrepreneurial small businesses will not be created in numbers that will significantly reduce the state's unemployment. In fact, new jobs created in high tech and biotechnology industries will likely require skills and experience not present among our mass of unemployed. Furthermore, eliminating business tax and reducing regulations will increase private business profits and efficiency but only increased demand for products will induce private industry to hire. Meanwhile, as time passes, the recently unemployed will become the entrenched unemployed whose limited knowledge and skills will deteriorate posing further barriers to re-employment. Rick Snyder and the legislature will face having to fund safety nets for once proud workers or do nothing for them and accept the ignominy for their poverty and suffering.