He takes a businessman’s pleasure in the metrics of our city. But the CEO of Louisville also has a passion for the individual and the vision and creativity to coin the term “bourbonism.” Meet Mayor Fischer.
He smiles readily and laughs often. Why not? The mayor of Louisville really enjoys what he does for a living.
Before he was mayor, he was an inventor (of an ice-dispensing system), a CEO (of SerVend International) and an entrepreneur (co-founder of bCatalyst, the first business accelerator in Louisville). So he’s comfortable in the public eye. And he’s familiar with success.
Whether it’s at a conference table, behind a podium at a press conference or at one of the innumerable ribbon-cuttings he attends, he is a confident, capable presence in our city’s landscape. Greg Fischer’s willingness to be everywhere we need him to be — from the opening season Bats game to the University of Louisville graduations — has made him a virtual political “Where’s Waldo?”
A couple of weeks ago, he was sitting in front of a backdrop in the Metro Hall press room with photographer Clay Cook. While his Director of Communications, Jean Porter, wryly commented that our ten-minute cover shoot was “the longest he’s ever sat for a photo,” he was a good sport— folding and unfolding arms, smiling and not smiling at Cook’s request.
With that accomplished, he and I sat down across a table from one another in the Mayor’s Office on the other side of the large rotunda. The room, on the fourth floor, is spacious and paneled. Artifacts of the city he runs, like bourbon bottles and U of L sports items, are in view everywhere, on bookshelves, in cabinets, on tabletops. It was just a week since he had earned voters’ Democratic nomination for a third term.
Like most big-city mayors, Fischer sees The Big Picture. But as we talk about his vision, his overview quickly focuses in, like the zoom function on a Google Satellite Map, for a Louisville closeup of the man walking his dog on the street; of the woman waiting for a bus to take her to work; of the children going off to school.
He sees this city as a collection of individuals who have chosen to live in Louisville, in the hopes of a better life. “I think about cities in terms of people willingly coming together because they think something better will happen in their lives,” he says.
“People come to cities to put themselves in a situation where they can achieve their potential. So how can the city be the platform for them to flourish? That’s how I see my obligation to the people of Louisville.”
One might attribute such lofty and inspirational ideals to an office-holder in a reelection year, of course. But then there’s the record. And it speaks for itself.
After Fischer took office in 2010, he initiated the Office of Performance Improvement (OPI) to define goals, progress and improvement. One of the programs’ OPI administers is called LouieStat, a set of metrics and data analyses (or Key Performance Indicators) that provide a snapshot of how the various metro departments are doing. As part of a transparent administration, these metrics are online and available to the public.
So, for example, you can log onto louiestat.louisvilleky.gov and see that Metro Animal Services surpassed its goal of a 90 percent “live release rate” (the percentage of animals leaving shelters). You can see that the Office of Sustainability just missed its community air quality goal of .073 PPM (parts per million). You can see that the Office of Public Works and Assets just missed its goal of 21,210 feet of sidewalk repairs. (It completed 20,416 feet.) This kind of thinking – establish goals, create metrics, chart progress – is what Fischer brought from the corporate world when he ran for mayor in 2010. (In a 2008 run for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, he gained nearly 210,000 votes, but lost to attorney and businessman Bruce Lunsford, who lost the election to Mitch McConnell.) “When I was sworn in, I looked at my inaugural address as a businessperson being introduced to a new company he was acquiring,” he says. “Part of how I think is shaped by my business career and my entrepreneurial background. Great companies are very clear about the values that drive their decisions, and I wanted to apply that same approach to governance.”
The metrics that most bothered him when he took office were a $40 million budget deficit, a product of the just-ending Great Recession; and discovering that, according to Brookings Institute data, Louisville’s median wage, compared to the national average, had been declining for 30 years.
“That medium-wage statistic was under the radar,” he says. “I’d never heard any discussion about that beforehand.” Both issues have been addressed and dealt with, by a man who had spent his professional life dealing with vexing budget issues and maximizing employee productivity.
“I found that the employee training that companies do in the private sector was lacking in the public sector,” he says. “We weren’t really asking much from city employees, except to ‘use their hands’ – in other words, just do the job. Great organizations get the hands, but they also get the heads – the innovations, the improvement ideas, the strategies, the vision, the heart, the commitment, the progress.”
The metric he currently loves to talk about is the $13 billion of capital construction taking place in Louisville: the bridges project, the new Omni Hotel, other hotels, the convention center renovation, the new soccer stadium, and more.
Fischer also has a vision for what he calls “the under-resourced parts of town, where people aren’t accustomed to getting attention. There’s a historical legacy of unkept promises.” So, while downtown, NuLu, Butchertown, Germantown and other neighborhoods have grown and thrived during the Fischer administration, “in West Louisville, we have about $1 billion of investment going into Beecher Terrace, the Russell neighborhood, 18th and Broadway. We’re getting ready for an explosion there that hasn’t been seen since the flood of 1937 devastated the area,” he says. “I feel really good about that.”
“Our city is going through a renaissance,” he says. “We’ve never had this level of investment going on, either from within the city or from people outside of the city.”
The view from outside
The “outside of the city” portion of investment is particularly meaningful to Fischer. It’s another one of his yardsticks: “It shows how people are viewing and evaluating us.”
He says one of the problems he has had to overcome here is the historical mindset. “Louisville had always compared itself to Louisville. The objective was just ‘we’re doing better.’ But any great organization doesn’t compare itself only to itself, it compares itself to whoever or whatever is the best in class.”
“When I went to college in Nashville [he’s a 1980 Economics graduate of Vanderbilt University], Louisville was actually bigger than Nashville. Why is that not the case anymore? Because we were too inward-looking. You have to be outward-looking, to understand the bigger marketplace… I wanted to establish some credibility in terms of how key groups around the country looked at our city.”
For that reason, he has associated himself and Louisville with Bloomberg Philanthropies, and was rewarded earlier this year with being chosen for Bloomberg’s “What Works Cities” initiative, one of eight cities that will share a $42 million grant.
“Louisville has had dramatic success in finding ways to leverage their current data to drive better results for their residents,” Bloomberg said in announcing the selection. And, about the mayor: “Fischer took office . . . with a goal to use data to drive resource-allocation and focus on evidence-based improvement. He . . . engaged Louisville residents, agencies and community partners in a strategic planning process.”
Inspiration to Serve
ischer says he has taken inspiration from a number of sources, starting with what he calls “a family of service.” His father, George Fischer, was an Air Force pilot and Louisville businessman who served as Secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet during the governorship of John Y. Brown in the 1980s. The mayor’s mother raised five children while still managing to deliver Meals on Wheels. He says his parents’ message to him and his siblings was: “If you can help someone, do it.”
His outlook on governing this city has also been inspired by Thomas Merton’s famous epiphany. Merton, a Trappist monk at the time, at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown, wrote about his downtown Louisville experience one March day in 1958:
“At the corner of Fourth and Walnut . . . I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . . [I]f only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
“I believe we’re all here as part of a bigger picture,” says Fischer, himself a product of Catholic school education (Trinity High School, class of 1976), “So how can we together make the world a better place? And a more compassionate, more inclusive, city?” He believes Merton’s “shining like the sun” is the light that’s inside of everybody. “I don’t believe leaders talk enough about, and anchor our conversations with, human values like kindness, love and compassion. We should start there, before we get into tactical or political differences.”
Land of Opportunity
t’s about creating opportunity, and Fischer has an “America, land of opportunity” story right under his roof. His wife’s parents, both with sixth-grade educations, fled Greece during the Civil War of the late 1940s. Their oldest child, his wife, Alex Gerassimides, M.D., is now a quintuple-boarded physician, and perinatal pathologist for Norton Hospital.
“That, to me, is the story of American opportunity,” he said.
They met in 1982 at a Valentine’s Day party. Today, they live near Cherokee Park and have four grown children.
As for the mayor’s private life: “You have no private life when you’re the mayor. My job is 7 a.m.-11 p.m. during the week, and two-thirds of that on weekends,” he says. “Everything is always coming at you.”
When he can, he finds solitude outdoors – on his bike, on the river, or walking through the woods of Cherokee Park. Privacy? “Maybe on my bike, with sunglasses and a helmet, or on a kayak out in the middle of the river.” But he doesn’t seem to mind. “One of the great things is that everyone feels like you’re their neighbor, no matter where you go, which is actually fun for me. People always want to talk, and that makes me closer to the city.”
Shining City on the Hill
is hometown is a place he loves just as much from the vantage point of the mayor’s office. “We have a fascinating city,” he insists. “There’s such diversity here, in terms of knobs and lowlands and the river and the parks. There’s a great deal of physical beauty, and I’m constantly seeing that beauty, and the complexity of this great city.”
What would make it an even greater city? Says Fischer, “There’s a vision of any city as larger than any one person could achieve by himself, but with everybody aspiring to contribute to it.”
“I want to be a change agent,” he says. “I want people here to experience winning so much that we all begin to think that winning is the default culture. Winning is greatness. And, before I leave office, I want Louisville to know what it takes to win. And how good it feels.”
“Because,” he says, “it feels great.”