Nassetta transforms ‘sleeping giant’ into the world’s largest hotel company
2014 Virginia Business Person of the Year Christopher J. Nassetta President and CEO Hilton Worldwide, McLean
Gerald L. “Jerry” Gordon, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority has been an avid — some say rabid — baseball fan all his life. He played shortstop on a local softball team for 36 years before his knees forced him to quit.
His love of the game is obvious at his Tysons Corner office where visitors are greeted by a Leroy Neiman portrait of Whitey Ford — signed by the Hall of Fame Yankee pitcher.
So, it’s hardly surprising that Gordon would describe his job in terms of the national pastime. “It’s like playing for the Yankees,” he says. By that, he means that just like the fabled ball club, Fairfax is a valuable franchise with a very deep bench.
For starters, it offers a prime location, just miles from the nation’s capital. Easy access to two major airports, Washington Dulles International and Reagan National, helps it draw national and multinational companies.
In the past three years, Fairfax has landed five major corporate headquarters — CSC, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), Volkswagen Group of America, Hilton Worldwide and Northrop Grumman.
Many local and state business officials credit Gordon’s leadership and vision in the economic development of Fairfax County. Because of the role he has played, Virginia Business has named Gordon its 2010 Business Person of the Year. The annual award recognizes a leader whose work has transformed a company, an industry or a sector of the commonwealth’s economy.
Now in its third year, this is the first time the award has gone to an official in economic development. While Gordon may not run a company, the work he does is significant to Virginia’s economy, because economic development boosts jobs and tax revenues. In addition, Fairfax’s big wins came at a good time as the county diversified its tax base amid a recession.
For years, fat federal contracts with Uncle Sam served as an economic driver for the county, drawing defense contractors and related businesses. Lately, however, the federal government has begun to rein in defense spending, proposing 10 percent cuts in contracts in each of the next three years.
That turn of events hasn’t dampened Gordon’s enthusiasm, though, nor does he see it as a big threat. Sit and chat with him for a while about Fairfax, and he’ll inevitably ask, “What’s not to like?”
Fairfax enjoys one of the state’s lowest unemployment rates — 4.6 percent in September, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. The county claims one of the most highly rated public-school systems in the country and the lowest crime rate of any comparable U.S. jurisdiction.
Add to the mix a demographic of residents who are well-educated, handsomely paid and comfortably multicultural, and Gordon is not being modest when he says, “If you can’t sell Fairfax County, you’re in the wrong business.”
Still, it takes a coach to lead a team. Under Gordon’s 27-year tenure, Fairfax has morphed from a bedroom community for Washington, D.C., into a prime business destination. “Where the world does business” is the slogan on the authority’s website. At last count, the county had 366 foreign-owned firms, as well as a slew of technology companies, defense contractors and professional associations.
Since 1983, when Gordon arrived, office space has grown from 32 million square feet to more than 111 million, making Fairfax second only to Orange County, Calif., in the size of its suburban office market. Meanwhile, the number of payroll jobs went from 243,000 to nearly 600,000. As a result of the massive business growth during Gordon’s tenure, the county’s real estate tax rate per $100 of assessed value fell from $1.47 to a low point of 89 cents in fiscal years 2006 and 2007. Since then, the rate has inched up to $1.09.
Fairfax County is second only to Silicon Valley in its population of high-tech companies; altogether it has more than 6,150 of them, including 22 of the region’s biggest. “In a quiet but forceful manner, Jerry got officials to understand the tech sector as an economic engine,” says Doug Koelemay, vice president for community relations for SAIC. “Jerry understands the larger trends and not just the here and now.”
SAIC’s presence in Fairfax is a testament to that — it now has 6,000 employees in the county with 1,200 more expected in association with its corporate relocation and general expansion.
Such impressive statistics haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2007, a U.S. Department of Labor study called Fairfax the private-sector jobs leader of the Washington area. That same year, Time magazine acknowledged the county’s economic muscle. “That it is also a strip-malled, traffic-clogged mess does not take away from the fact that it is one of the great economic success stories of our time. With Fairfax County leading the way, the Washington area is becoming a job machine,” the story said.
This year saw the county earn more accolades. In March, the FCEDA accepted a 2010 Community Economic Development Award from the Virginia Economic Development Associatiion for its success in attracting business. Then in August, a regional body, the Southern Economic Development Council, gave Fairfax its economic development award for communities with more than 100,000 residents.
In the competitive world of corporate recruiting, Gordon is consistently described as gracious and generous. He is considered a bridge builder rather than a burner. Even a sometimes-rival, Terry Holzheimer, Gordon’s counterpart in Arlington County, calls him “good, honest and straightforward.”
Gordon’s trademark is his sense of humor. Described as “wry and biting,” he is often the butt of his own jokes, but he’s not above making others the victims as well. It helps him engage everyone from politicians to academics to corporate honchos to minority leaders. “He could have been a standup comedian,” says Jeff McKay, a Democrat who represents the Lee District on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
After his introduction at a recent business meeting, Gordon immediately launched into a joke. He told the audience that, after a meeting of the Fairfax Symphony board, a woman came up to him to chat about the chairmanship that Gordon had just vacated. “I’m sure the next person will do even better,” he said with all appropriate humility. “Oh, I don’t think so,” the woman said. “That’s what they said the last time.”
Gordon, 60, and his wife, Barbara, have lived in Fairfax County since the 1970s, and they raised their two sons there. Before coming to Fairfax, Gordon worked in Arlington County for a decade as the director of employment and training as well as overseeing other state and federal grant programs.
While being a professional cheerleader is his job, Gordon has been a civic-minded citizen, as well. The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra gave him an award this year for his six years of service on its board, two as chairman. “He is one of my most reliable board members, always available,” says Elizabeth Murphy, the symphony’s executive director. “He’s a dedicated, thoughtful person who wants to do the right thing.”
Making the rounds
On a recent workday, Gordon’s professional philosophy and personal style were on display as he made several stops around Fairfax to promote his agenda for the county.
First up: Teqcorner, a business incubator in McLean.
At 7:30 a.m. 70 government contractors and would-be contractors pack a meeting room and are networking hard, handing out business cards and eyeballing nametags. They are on hand for the first session of the economic development authority’s Procurement Academy. It’s one of 10 free workshops designed to help minority business owners get a foothold in the federal market. Gordon will introduce three minority contractors who will tell how they built their businesses in Fairfax.
“Jerry truly believes in the contributions that immigrants bring to Fairfax County,” says Michel Zajur, president of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “He understands the importance of minority businesses as much as the big corporations.”
That understanding has paid economic dividends. According to Hispanic Business magazine, 11 of the country’s top 500 Hispanic companies are located in Fairfax. Black Enterprise magazine says that five of the top 100 black-owned companies are in the county, too. For Gordon’s work in promoting minority businesses, Zajur’s organization recently gave him its highest honor, the Bridge Builder Award.
“We encourage people to come here,” Gordon says. “Small businesses are where job growth comes from.”
Shortly after 8 a.m. the crowd settles, and Gordon is introduced by Karen Smaw, director of the authority’s division for small, minority and women-owned businesses. Smaw has worked for Gordon for 15 years, making her something of a short-timer among the senior staff, where the average tenure is about 17 years.
“My job is to assemble a strong team and stay out of their way,” Gordon says. Still, as Smaw observes, “You don’t keep good people unless you have phenomenal leadership.”
The next stop is the Dulles Hilton for a luncheon meeting of the Committee for Dulles, at which Gordon is one of the speakers. Gordon seems to know almost everyone, hobnobbing with, among others, Martin J. Briley, executive director for the Prince William County Department of Economic Development, and Tony Howard, president of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. These local rivals have a “gentleman’s agreement not to poach,” Gordon says.
“No marketing is done in adjacent communities,” concurs Briley. “That’s in no one’s interest.”
Instead, the NoVa jurisdictions focus on differentiating their “product”— e.g., Fairfax’s suburban vibe versus Arlington’s urban one. And rather than lose a company to another region, the jurisdictions have and will work together.
Nevertheless, competition can be intense. “As we were walking out of a meeting with Northrop Grumman, Jerry was walking in,” Arlington’s Holzheimer says. “That happens. We wished each other luck.”
One of Gordon’s often-cited strengths is his ability to build coalitions, not just across jurisdictional lines but also within his community. He is a fervent believer in the importance of good schools, and he works frequently with educators, such as Bob Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College. “He’s a boundary crosser,” Templin says of Gordon. “He knows who to call, when to act and what not to say.”
Twelve years ago, Gordon teamed with George Mason University (GMU) to host the World Congress on Informational Technology. The gathering of more than 1,900 “told the world about Northern Virginia technology,” recalls Alan Merten, GMU’s longtime president. The 1998 event also helped brand GMU as a leader in high-tech education, with enrollment burgeoning from 23,000 students then to 33,000 today. “When they were marketing Fairfax County, they were marketing George Mason,” Merten says.
He recently returned the favor when Gordon asked for help in putting together a team to convince Northrop Grumman that Fairfax was the place to be, even though the county does not offer tax incentives, cash incentives or cash to relocating companies, only infrastructure to match state offerings.
“Jerry understands that economic development is based on human capital,” says Koelemay at SAIC. “Sophisticated companies value a cornucopia of cultural opportunities.”
Gordon uses his platform at the luncheon as a bully pulpit, making sharp observations about the threat to the region represented by “insourcing,” the federal initiative to take back some of the jobs that contractors are doing.
The last stop of the day is Reston, where Gordon meets with Fairfax County Times editor Steve Cahill and members of the staff. Fairfax “has been consistently aggressive about being pro-business for 30 years,” he tells them. “Businesses feel appreciated and wanted here. It doesn’t matter if they are Republicans or Democrats — the supervisors think like business people.”
It also doesn’t matter to Gordon whether the supervisors are Republicans or Democrats. “He is a pretty good politician who has been able to survive through lots of conflicting pressures,” says Steve Pearlstein, a business columnist for The Washington Post.
Gordon uses the Times meeting to return to his diversity theme. “Even when you are strong, you have to diversify,” he says, and he sees biotech as the next great opportunity for Fairfax. He also does not limit his quest for new business to the region. The county maintains offices in California, London, Tel Aviv, Bangalore and Seoul. In January, it plans to move its German office from Frankfurt to Munich.
The independent economic development authority, overseen by a seven-member board of Fairfax County business leaders, is amply funded; its budget for 2010: $6.7 million, all of which comes from the county’s general fund. Gordon credits Fairfax’s elected officials with not cutting back on marketing during the recent recession; proof, he says, that they understand that economic development is not an expense but an investment that reaps a return.
“Jerry and his superb staff realize that being on the right track is not enough,” says James W. Dyke Jr., chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “You have to move forward or be run over.”
There’s little chance that Gordon will be run over — or in parlance he might like better — called out on a play. Instead, expect him to be out there pitching for Fairfax. As McKay, the Lee District supervisor, says, “Jerry is focused on his work and he loves it. And you sure can’t argue with his record.”