From CEO to City Hall

Cumberland: The new mayor, a former Kelly-Springfield CEO, intends to run the city like a business, and his goal is satisfied customers.

July 25, 2000|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND - Lee Fiedler used to jet around the world, sealing multimillion-dollar contracts as chief executive officer of Kelly-Springfield, the giant tire manufacturer.

Last week, in his new job, he held his first meeting of the day on a wooden bench in downtown Cumberland, where he discussed pedestrian traffic.

On July 5, in a stunning leap off the corporate ladder he had spent more than 35 years ascending, Fiedler was sworn in as mayor of Cumberland, a city with a proud revolutionary and industrial history, and chronic economic troubles.

Judging by his resume, it is not immediately apparent why Fiedler, 58, would take a pay cut of many hundreds of thousands of dollars to run Cumberland for $7,200 a year. Or why he would abandon the responsibility of running one of the world's biggest tire companies to sit in spare conference rooms learning the definition of "ordinance."

Fiedler's new job is thin on glamour. Unemployment among the city's roughly 23,500 residents is about twice the state average, and property taxes are among the highest in the state. Excessive goose excrement closes a few lakeside beaches every year, and the population has been fighting for decades over fluoride.

But Fiedler, accustomed to rising at 4:45 a.m., was not looking for a golden twilight when he retired from Kelly-Springfield in 1998. He was looking for what appears to be his obsession: unsatisfied customers.

His plan is not just to run Cumberland as if it were a business. He thinks it is a business, and badly run at that.

When it was suggested to him in an interview that Cumberland was not a business, he was incredulous. "What do you mean?" he asked.

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction in Cumberland. Although the economy has picked up in recent years, everyone old enough to vote remembers the days when the city was home to major industrial factories that paid $18 an hour.

As they watched huge employers such as Celanese, a fiber plant, Pittsburgh Plate Glass and, finally, Kelly-Springfield pull out of town, residents got used to being the have-nots.

But with Fiedler's landslide election, people have cheered up.

"There's a sense of optimism and a level of energy that hasn't been here in a long time," said City Council member Butch Hendershot. "There's a strut. People here, they're walking around with their chests out a little farther."

Voters described Fiedler as everything from a go-getter to the Second Coming. They noted his business experience, his sophistication and the important names they are sure fill his Rolodex.

One of those names is that of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who drafted Fiedler, a Republican, to chair the Western Maryland Economic Task Force and then nudged him to run for mayor.

"There are very, very few major corporate CEOs who are willing to serve in elective office, anywhere. That's just a fact of life," he said.

Union leaders in this staunchly labor town have endorsed Fiedler, a management man through and through.

"There's managers and then there's managers," said James Bestpitch, spokesman for AFSCME Local 553, which represents the city's 140 workers. "Mr. Fiedler's willing to give the unions an opportunity to show what they can do, not just take the adversarial role. He's willing to help develop a direction rather than force it down your throat."

Fiedler's challenge, as he sees it, is to attract companies to Cumberland and to expand the ones already here. His mission is to make the city the economic powerhouse of Allegany County and thereby lift all of Western Maryland, which has been steadily losing population and prestige.

During golf games at the nearby Rocky Gap resort, Fiedler has been coaxing local business owners to expand downtown rather than move. At fancy breakfasts and lunches, he has been extolling Cumberland's natural beauty and kindly population to CEOs looking to relocate their companies.

But Fiedler cannot do it alone, he says. He wants everyone in town - and he means everyone - to focus on economic development. The Cumberland newspaper is filled with letters and editorials about long-standing fights over school consolidation and whether to fluoridate the water, and Fiedler is trying to convince his new constituents that those issues are embarrassments that scare off out-of-town executives.

He wants the city to become so enticing to consumers as to be irresistible. Within City Hall, that point is referred to as improving worker attitudes; externally, Fiedler has sold it as improving customer relations.

He has banned the answering machine in City Hall that sometimes picked up calls during business hours, replacing it with a human being. And when the Chamber of Commerce president mentioned that he needed volunteers to serve breakfast from 7:30 to 9:30 at a chamber event, Fiedler offered up 10 people on the spot.

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