Jack Schron was hunting for a place to move his company when he stopped by the old Collinwood rail yards, a 50-acre vision of dumped refrigerators, decrepit buildings and stray dogs — Cleveland's worst abandoned industrial site.
"I pulled up here with our team," he recalls, "and said, 'Guys, this where we're going to plant our flag. We're going to be part of reclaiming Northeast Ohio.' "
Fourteen years later, Schron's company, Jergens Inc., has transformed that former wasteland. Its plant churns out clamps, fasteners and pins for Humvees, speaker rigs and unmanned Army scouting planes. From his office looking out on I-90, Schron, Jergens' president and CEO, oversees 300 employees located here and in Chicago, Mumbai and Shanghai.
Last year, Schron says with a savvy self-awareness about metaphor and personal narrative, "I saw that our political landscape had become a dumping ground for graft and corruption." So he ran for a seat on the new Cuyahoga County Council, and won. He's one of three Republicans elected to the 11-member body — the county government's first Republican officials since the 1990s. As the county reforms to become more efficient, he thinks he can contribute a new voice.
"I think a businessperson is going to bring the kind of questions and discipline we would ask in our own for-profit business," he says: "Do we need to have multiple departments or multiple administrators to do this function? Can we consolidate?"
Schron has been named the chair of the council's economic development committee and the council's representative on a new commission made up of government and business leaders and charged with writing a single economic development strategy for Cuyahoga County by June. Those two jobs give Schron a chance to play a role he's warmed to ever since Jergens redeveloped the Collinwood Yards. At a time when voters and civic leaders expect county government to do more to create jobs, Schron can talk from experience about how it's done.
"The guy has loads of common sense," says Tom Waltermire, CEO of Team NEO, which recruits out-of-town businesses to expand here. Waltermire knows Schron's work with MAGNET, the local support organization for advanced manufacturing. "He's got terrific ideas and great energy, great passion for the cause that we can be doing better."
Building his headquarters convinced Schron that the county government needs a simpler system for helping companies expand. "We should create a very visible one-stop shop that says to any [business], 'The welcome mat is out for you. We welcome you to come here, stay here, to grow your jobs here.' "
Schron gestures out the window, to where a traffic light was moved so cars coming out of Jergens' parking lot could reach a ramp onto I-90. It took lots of wrangling with city, county and state officials to get it done, he says. He wants less hassle for future businesses.
"You should be able to pick up the phone and make one telephone call," he says. "One stop and it gets completely solved, whether it's the permitting process, grants to bring jobs here, [or] coordination with training and education."
The friendliest welcome of all, he says, ought to go to companies signed up for showroom space in the Medical Mart. "We need to ask every single one of those companies, 'What would it take to get you to put a call center here, an assembly process here, a manufacturing plant here?' " The idea, he says, is to link Cleveland's growing medical sector with its still-strong, evolving manufacturing community.
"I'm going to be a dog on a bone," Schron says. "I'm just going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing on these issues to make sure we get attention."