It’s possible Bernie Moreno is the right man for the right time in Cleveland. He wants to reinvent the city, just as he has reinvented himself.
Moreno, whose Bernie Moreno Cos. operates seven luxury car dealerships in Northeast Ohio, launched a campaign in 2018 to make Cleveland a global center for blockchain, an emerging technology that uses cryptography to connect electronic records and transactions and keep them safe from hacking.
Blockchain doesn’t sound too exciting, and it isn’t an easy concept to grasp. Yet, in less than a year Moreno has rallied more than 1,000 leaders in business, government, higher education, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector around the technology. They are studying how to make Cleveland a hub for blockchain businesses and research — an effort called BlockLand.
“You wouldn’t expect a car dealer to get involved in a cutting-edge technology, but Bernie gave other leaders confidence that they could join this campaign,” says Chantel Moody, director of corporate partnerships for health at Plug and Play Cleveland, who co-chairs one of BlockLand’s committees.
For his rise from car dealer to a leader among leaders, Cleveland Magazine’s Community Leader has named Bernie Moreno, who turns 52 Feb. 14, the most powerful person in Cleveland for 2019.
Moreno bristled when told he was even being considered for the most-powerful list. He points back at BlockLand’s committee co-chairs and members, saying they did the heavy lifting.
“I don’t think I’ve achieved any level of influence,” Moreno says. “I saw a need for Cleveland to pivot and embrace technology as a way to grow prosperity and keep young people from leaving.”
But Lee Fisher, dean of CSU’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and another BlockLand co-chair, says what Moreno has accomplished is rare.
“What he has been able to do in a relatively short period of time is bring leaders from all sectors around a common agenda — in the nonprofit world it’s called ‘collective impact,’” Fisher says. “When you have people from the public, private, nonprofit, philanthropic and academic sectors at one table, you can get more done.”
Fitting the pieces
The pieces of what would become BlockLand existed prior to 2018. It simply took someone like Moreno to notice those pieces and fit them together.
Moreno didn’t pull blockchain out of his hat. Some Cleveland leaders were already taking a good look at the technology. Moreno himself, weighing new business opportunities, had invested in blockchain companies, including Votem, a Cleveland-based mobile-voting program.
But blockchain is a few years away from entering the mainstream, and Moreno saw a chance for Cleveland to plant a flag on the technology. More importantly, Cleveland leaders were searching for something or someone to provide a new direction.
“BlockLand is an effort to reinvigorate the region and create a new industry,” says Steven Santamaria, CEO of Folio Photonics Inc. and a BlockLand committee co-chair. “If’s it successful, it can bring all kinds of businesses in.”
Meanwhile, Moreno had positioned himself to be that leader. Since moving here from Boston and buying his first Cleveland car dealership in 2005, Moreno has served on the boards of several local nonprofits and educational institutions. By doing so, he learned about the city and its needs and built relationships. Ultimately, he leveraged his involvement to gain support for BlockLand.
For example, Moreno for a time was chairman of Cleveland State University’s Board of Trustees. He took the position seriously, using his own money to establish the school’s Center for Sales Excellence, which introduces salesmanship to the business curriculum.
Moreno also led the president search that brought Harlan Sands to CSU. So, when Moreno needed leaders in higher education to establish a blockchain research institute here, he turned to Sands, along with Barbara Snyder, president of Case Western Reserve University, and Alex Johnson, president of Cuyahoga Community College.
Moreno also has been a board member at the Cleveland Foundation, which was behind BlockLand from the beginning. He knew the Cleveland Foundation had already been supporting tech innovation.
“Bernie is not a quiet board member, and that’s a good thing,” says Leon Wilson, chief of information and digital innovation at the Cleveland Foundation. “He’s not afraid to challenge us to think differently, to think of ways to get the private sector more engaged and promote entrepreneurism.”
In addition, Moreno sits on the board of Destination Cleveland with Jon Pinney, managing partner of the Kohrman Jackson & Krantz law firm. Pinney helped organize a sold-out BlockLand conference downtown in December.
“Without Destination Cleveland’s help, the blockchain conference would never have happened,” Pinney says.
Fisher says Moreno has demonstrated energy, integrity and business acumen while working on these boards. He has proven himself.
“I’ve often said that change happens at the speed of trust,” Fisher says. “Leaders who can get the trust of other leaders on a variety of issues can get quick responses.”
All together now
Moreno’s personality is another piece of the BlockLand puzzle. Those who know Moreno say he’s charismatic, engaging and motivational, yet self-deprecating. They describe him as a natural servant-leader who prefers shining the spotlight on others, as well as an effective communicator. And his energy knows no bounds.
“Bernie didn’t just wake up one morning, have too much coffee and organize BlockLand,” says Ned Hill, economic development professor at The Ohio State University and former dean of CSU’s Levin College of Urban Affairs. “He has that energy level all the time.”
Another key to BlockLand’s quick progress is Moreno’s decentralized and inclusive approach. In addition to top city leaders, he recruited those who had not yet been empowered outside of their own businesses and organizations — people of all races, religions and age groups.
“Bernie has a very welcoming and open process,” says Ray Leach, co-founding CEO of JumpStart Inc., who co-chairs a BlockLand committee. “Anyone who wants to be part of the solution is welcome. It’s top-down, across the middle and bottom-up, all at the same time.”
BlockLand meetings have been open to the public. A newcomer attending just to find out what’s happening can suddenly find themselves co-chairing a committee. That’s exactly what happened to Santamaria.
“I made the fatal mistake of making eye contact with Bernie Moreno,” Santamaria says in an oft-repeated joke among BlockLand participants.
Moreno’s inclusion of university leaders, who were not always invited to the table, is another vital element of BlockLand, says Suzanne Rivera, vice president for research and technology management at CWRU’s School of Medicine.
“Yes, we can attract talent from the coasts, and that’s part of Bernie’s message,” Rivera says. “But he also understands that universities and colleges can help us develop our own pool of talent, and it’s important to keep them here.”
State Sen. Matt Dolan, who helped introduce and pass legislation that will pave the way for blockchain in Ohio, says Moreno hasn’t necessarily broken new ground in leadership, but he’s challenging the notion that Cleveland can’t.
“It’s not silly to say Cleveland can become the next Silicon Valley when it comes to blockchain,” Dolan says. “Bernie’s pushing through the people who would laugh at that.”
A new Cleveland
Longtime Cleveland leader Dick Pogue, of the Jones Day law firm, calls BlockLand a “great promotional effort” but says it’s too early to tell whether the campaign will succeed.
“It’s certainly worth trying to seize upon an opportunity,” Pogue says. “Even if it’s a longshot, everyone is excited about making the effort.”
Hill says the chances of BlockLand succeeding are “south of 60 percent” because other regions around the world have similar blockchain goals. However, he adds that, even if just a few blockchain companies emerge in Cleveland, that could be a win.
BlockLanders argue the campaign is already a success because it has drawn community leaders together in a way that — although maybe not unprecedented, given the work done to bring the Republic National Convention to Cleveland in 2016 — has certainly been thorough.
“We’re creating a methodology and practice around how to go after something big and ambitious,” Leach says.
Meanwhile, BlockLand has nurtured new leaders. Moody says that until now, Clevelanders believed they had to be anointed from above to attain leadership or wait 10 years before proceeding with an idea.
“Bernie broke that mold,” Moody says. “He said he’s not going to wait. I really think he’s blown open the doors for other leaders to do good things and not have to ask permission.”