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COLUMN

City's void in corporate leadership has been filled by Packnett and others

Parkview CEO has embraced role once played by Lincoln's Ian Rolland

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 12:01 am

During most of his 23 years as leader of Lincoln National Life Insurance Co., Ian Rolland was widely acknowledged as the city's leading business executive. If something big needed to be done, he was usually involved.

Rolland's retirement in 1998 just four years after banking titans Richard T. Doermer and Paul Shaffer stepped down created void in corporate leadership that has only recently been filled, in large part by the man who has assumed Rolland's role as the city's corporate kingpin: Parkview Health CEO Mike Packnett.

Who says so? Rolland himself.

“With the decline in headquarters in Fort Wayne, there was a low point (in business leadership). But we're coming back, and Packnett is probably paramount,” Rolland said. “He cares about people, has good judgment, can inspire others, attracts trust, doesn't come on too strong and has a passion for the community.”

But it's a community Packnett couldn't find without a map when a corporate recruiter called in 2005 to ask whether he'd be interested in a job in someplace called Fort Wayne, Ind.

“I said, 'Forget it. I'm never going north,' ” said the 58-year-old Packnett, an Oklahoma native who worked in the oil and gas industry for 10 years before entering the health-care field in 1988 through an acquaintance of his wife, Donna. To his surprise, Packnett found the work intellectually stimulating and a perfect fit for his “servant-leadership” style of management.

Perhaps even more to his surprise, Packnett took the Parkview job in 2006, having been selected over at least 11 other applicants and won over by the professionalism of the hospital's board and the upbeat friendliness of the city's residents.

And even though he arrived at the very time Parkview was beginning to plan the state-of-the-art $536 million regional medical center that opened last year near Dupont Road and Interstate 69, Packnett quickly immersed himself in attempts to achieve in Fort Wayne what he had witnessed in Oklahoma City: the transformation of a community through improvements downtown and elsewhere.

The year after he arrived, Packnett was a member of the task force charged with studying the city's possible purchase and development of 29 acres north of the St. Marys River near downtown. That land remains undeveloped, but in 2008 Packnett boosted downtown revitalization by announcing a $3 million, 10-year deal with what became known as Parkview Field. Parkview also gave its money and name to the city's to volleyball fieldhouse.

In 2009, he and Steel Dynamics Inc. founder Keith Busse – surely Packnett's rival as Rolland's heir apparent -- laid the foundation for what became the Vision 2020 community planning initiative that drew more than 1,000 people to its initial event in 2010 and is now working to make northeast Indiana a “top global competitor” by developing, attracting and retaining talent.

Also in 2010, when it became apparent that traffic generated by Parkview's new Dupont Road campus would render existing roads inadequate, Parkview did something Packnett believes was unprecedented: It paid about $10 million of the cost of a new Interstate interchange and $4 million for improvements to nearby Diebold Road.

And when government leaders wanted to improve the effectives of local job-creation efforts, they put Packnett in charge of a review he said will soon recommend the consolidation of the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Alliance and the Downtown Improvement District.

Packnett's consensus-building leadership rebukes both the top-down style he saw in the oil business and the elitism he experienced while working his first job as a housekeeper in a hospital. “A guy in a suit gave me that look, didn't even acknowledge my existence. I try to remember what it feels like to be a 'non-person.'

“There needs to be a CEO, but I'm chief among equals,” he said.

Perhaps fittingly, his commitment to the community is paying unexpected dividends. Parkview had already intended to maintain a strong presence at its old Randallia Drive campus, but the fact that its new hospital is already bursting at the seams means Parkview may have to keep even more activity on Randallia than it thought – at least until the new hospital can be expanded.

And that doesn't include the $6 million or so the not-for-profit Parkview donated to the community last year, Packnett said. In addition to its regional campus, Parkview Health also operates four regional hospitals and the original hospital, employing about 8,350 people.

“In my experience, the corporate community drives every community in partnership with elected officials,” Packnett said. “I'm sure some would say I have too much (clout), but I try to be collaborative. I love diversity.”

He has also come to love Fort Wayne, which he is pleased to say has changed dramatically in seven years, perhaps with even better days ahead thanks to millions of dollars in Legacy and Capital Improvements funds that could help develop the rivers and fund other projects. Packnett plans to make Fort Wayne his long-term home – as reflected in his two children's decision to move into the new apartments at Harrison Square.

“I can't imagine wanting to live anyplace else,” he said. Packnett's on the Capital Improvement Board, too.

That's good news to Mayor Tom Henry, who at one point was worried who would replace Rolland – then was worried Packnett might not stay.

“He's a top-shelf guy, no head games. One thing (Packnett) always told me was, 'I won't join a board then just sit there,' ” said Henry, who numbers Packnett among his advisers.

As Packnett and Rolland acknowledge, a person's individual talents are enhanced by corporate wealth. And with annual personal benefits of more than $1 million and corporate revenues exceeding $1 billion, Packnett has plenty of that. But wealth alone does not make Packnett the leader he is, nor does it appear to motivate his civic commitment.

Happily, other leaders have begun to emerge. In addition to Busse, Packnett and Rolland -- whose former company moved its headquarters to Philadelphia after he retired -- mentioned home-grown Sweetwater Sounds' Chuck Surack and Fort Wayne Metals Research products' Scott Glaze. But there is always room and need for more, even if you don't make a million bucks or run a huge company.

Packnett, once a "nonperson," has shown the way.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.