Eric Kearney Is Cincinnati’s Connector in Chief

When one door closes in business, politics, or life, Eric Kearney opens another. And holds it open for everyone else.
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Eric Kearney isn’t shy. In a well-tailored suit offset with a snazzy pocket square, he is alight in a room full of people, introducing each to someone else, making connections like a magnet charged with positive energy. He spins from one conversation to the next, prompting strangers to get acquainted.

On this evening, at a social function for the local African-American and Hispanic chambers of commerce, he greets the crowd in Spanish. “Somos uno,” he says, we are one. He is lively and entertaining, but his message is serious. “In some places, black and brown people don’t get along. But I don’t want any division between us.”

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Kearney, 55, is known for uniting and connecting. It’s his basic job description as president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African-American Chamber of Commerce, and a role he’s been comfortable playing as a former State Senator, an attorney, and a small business owner. He’s surprisingly mischievous one minute, completely serious the next. He walks from Cleveland to Cincinnati to promote a worthy cause, and gets rid of his car to rely on public transportation day to day. His office soundtrack is opera, but he plays the Isley Brothers R&B classic “Work to Do” on his weekly chamber-sponsored talk show on WDBZ-FM. His wife wants him to run for office again, but he doesn’t think he will. “There are so many things to do here,” he says with the Zen-like calm of a man who has it all under control.

The chamber that Kearney leads has roughly 400 member companies and hosts more than 100 classes and events each year to provide them with opportunities to learn, lean in, and collaborate. It serves an 18-county region that extends to Appalachia, with a second office in Piketon. Since Kearney became president and CEO in 2016, membership has grown by 40 percent. Mel Gravely, CEO of TriVersity Construction Company, manages one of the largest African-American–owned businesses in Cincinnati and serves on the chamber’s board of directors. He cites the organization’s unique role in convening, advocating for, and promoting African-American businesses of all sizes. “Eric has a confluence of experience, skills, and credibility across racial and socioeconomic lines,” Gravely says. “He understands the political landscape. He is just what the chamber needs.”

Eric Ruffin of ABEL Building Systems is more direct about how Kearney’s visibility helps small business owners like him gain access to Cincinnati’s older, established, and majority white corporate networks. “There are a lot of rooms I would not be invited to if not for the chamber,” Ruffin says. “Eric is good at relating to other people, understanding that barriers exist, and, without pointing fingers, finding ways to cross those barriers. He’s been ‘the black guy in the room’ many, many times.”


 

The African-American Chamber of Commerce is one of many such organizations in the area, most of which serve a geographic purpose—from the umbrella Cincinnati USA and Northern Kentucky chambers to more targeted ones like the Over-the-Rhine Chamber, the Anderson Area Chamber, and the Clermont Chamber. The African-American Chamber focuses on business development within a racial or ethnic affinity group, as do the local Hispanic, Chinese, and Indian-American chambers.

“Most cities don’t have an African-American chamber at the scale of ours,” says Gravely, who credits the chamber with creating an environment throughout Cincinnati that supports black-owned businesses of all sizes. “There are challenges unique to African-American–owned businesses. Frankly, there’s a perception that black businesses are smaller, weaker, and less capable. Why? Well, for one, there’s a lack of longevity. If you think about it, few African-Americans were in a position to own businesses 70 or 80 years ago.”

As a result, less wealth has been created in the black community over the years, meaning friends and family are less able to provide capital to help start a business. Forbes writer Brian Thompson has called the racial wealth gap “America’s most pressing epidemic.” According to 2016 Federal Reserve data, median wealth for white families in the U.S. is $171,000, while black families have a median wealth of $17,600.

And so Kearney insists that one of the chamber’s major objectives be wealth creation in the African-American community. It’s not a political goal, per se, but a practical one. Without family wealth, it’s more difficult for black businesses to flourish. He works to connect entrepreneurs to capital through “big connections” that are flexible, social, and dynamic. “Lack of access to capital and marketing are our biggest stumbling blocks,” Kearney says. “People who have passion but need knowledge can benefit from what we do.”

Eric is smart off the charts, kind, and humble. When he calls, companies listen. That’s one less hurdle for us to get over.

As a tactic to meet that objective, the chamber launched a real estate investment fund in April 2018 to help small investors pool funds to invest in real estate in order to maximize returns over a seven-year period. It’s the type of deal that middle-class investors usually aren’t invited to participate in. Any gains distributed to the fund can be re-invested in the local African-American community.

In a city whose population is 45 percent black, I ask Kearney, why aren’t 45 percent of local businesses black-owned? In an emerging neighborhood like Over-the-Rhine, why don’t the business owners reflect the residential demographics?

The chamber is tackling those questions by partnering with the MORTAR entrepreneurial lab, Findlay Market, and developers 3CDC, Model Group, and Urban Sites on a new initiative called Represent, with the goal of increasing the number of minority-owned businesses in Over-the-Rhine specifically. The neighborhood, whose population is more than 60 percent black, has less than 6 percent black-owned businesses and no roadmap for closing that gap. William Thomas, cofounder of MORTAR, says the coalition has been doing research, hosting focus groups, and digging into data to explore options since Represent’s launch in October.

Kearney thinks the time is right to get Cincinnati’s business community to be more proactive than reactive when it comes to economic development. “I disagree with people who think that the economic pie is small and that all of the development groups who work with different minorities don’t get along,” he says. “The pie is growing bigger.”

Like Gravely and Ruffin, a variety of black business owners across Cincinnati credit Kearney with making connections that eventually could help them earn a larger slice of the economic pie. “Eric is smart off the charts, kind, and humble,” says Ruffin. “When he calls, companies listen. That’s one less hurdle for us to get over.”

Mel Gravely (left) and Eric Kearney (right) at Memorial Hall, which Gravely’s company renovated.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Calista Smith, owner of CH Smith & Associates, a Springdale-based consulting firm, says the chamber helped her apply for and receive Minority Business Enterprise certification and state minority business support. “I’ve had clients call because Eric has made connections for me,” she says. “Thanks to the chamber, I was able to hire a new full-time employee. Now I’m not a one-person shop. I’ve improved my business processes, and I’m positioned for growth.”

That makes Smith’s company exceptional. Of 2.6 million black-owned businesses in the U.S. in 2012, fewer than 110,000 had more than one employee. Single-person businesses are inherently harder to sustain. You get the flu, and your entire company is closed; but if you have employees, you can realistically consider long-term goals. Of the black-owned businesses with paid employees, nationally, most are clustered in the areas of health care and social assistance. In Cincinnati, Kearney says, most successful minority businesses with multiple employees are construction-related and consulting firms.

The chamber’s Sudduth Society, an entrepreneurship incubator, focuses on helping smaller member companies grow from $250,000 in annual revenue to $500,000. The difference between those numbers, Kearney says, is the difference between merely surviving and thriving. He points to Sudduth participant MDI, a Springdale-based direct marketing company that more than doubled its revenue through the program’s networking and knowledge-sharing opportunities.

He has a gentle firmness with the way he pursues goals. When you see him out, he talks like a regular dude, but he talks about business. He listens. And he hears.

Seeing a few small businesses double in size might not constitute an economic earthquake in Cincinnati, but Kearney is determined to help where and how he can. His calm demeanor and quiet passion come up again and again in conversations with business owners. “He has a gentle firmness with the way he pursues goals,” Smith says. Jesse Roley, who with his wife Iris owns RoSho Awards and Graphics, calls Kearney approachable, accessible, and personable. “When you see him out, he talks like a regular dude, but he talks about business. He listens. And he hears.”

I ask business owners if Kearney’s political background has opened certain doors for them. Ron DeLyons of Creekwood Energy Partners says yes, but not in terms of favors owed—perhaps more like lessons learned. “Eric is one of the few genuine people in the area of politics,” DeLyons says. “He underpromised and overdelivered. He has a good scope of the agenda, a realistic view, and he surprises people.”

When Kearney was in the Ohio Senate, he sponsored legislation to start Minority Business Assistance Centers across the state to help business owners navigate the MBE certification process. The services these centers provide, at no cost, help businesses get through the procurement process to attain state government contracts. Creekwood worked with the chamber to get MBE certification at the state and city levels, and DeLyons says as a result he’s consulting in both Columbus and Cincinnati to develop infrastructure and sources for renewable energy.


 

Before Kearney became a chamber executive, he and his wife, Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, were charter members from its founding in 1996. The couple started Sesh Communications, which produces The Cincinnati Herald and other publications. Eric is no longer involved with Sesh but remains a partner with Jan-Michele in their law firm, Kearney and Kearney. He knows personally how chamber membership benefited his own businesses over time, especially The Herald, whose stories, subscriptions, and advertisers are connected throughout Cincinnati’s African-American community.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Kearney sees his chamber work as a continuation of, rather than a contrast to, his previous stint as an elected official. He’s still a public servant, he says, devoted to making Cincinnati “even better.” “I’m active on nonprofit boards. Jan-Michele carries on our work at The Herald, which is our gift to the people of Cincinnati. I served in state government, and now my role at the chamber is to continue to add to the vibrancy of life here.”

He represented Ohio’s Ninth Senate District from 2005 to 2014, appointed to the seat when Mark Mallory resigned to run for mayor of Cincinnati, and elected twice on his own. While in office, Kearney wasn’t afraid to reach across the aisle, leading a bipartisan effort with Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus to reform and bolster employee pensions. He established the Saturday before Thanksgiving as Adoption Day across the state and set up funding to make adoptions more financially accessible. He led the effort to make February Black History Month in Ohio. And then the English major—he holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College—established Ohio’s first Poet Laureate position.

The Kearneys sold their second car several years ago, and Eric now relies primarily on public transportation. He’s also an avid walker. “Buses don’t run frequently enough, and they don’t go to all areas,” he says from first-person knowledge. “Cincinnati needs to wake up to the lack of opportunity its residents have to get around. It’s holding our people and our city back.” Asked why that’s not happening, Kearney allows himself to get political for a moment. “It’s clear that there’s a mentality that buses are for poor people, so why bother? We need a big change, and new modes for new generations.”

Eric Kearney served on the National Finance Committee of Obama’s campaigns for Senate and President and, through his work in the Ohio statehouse, was seen as a similar sort of “uniter.”

He might have moved on from government, but politics still run through his veins. Kearney was discussed as a possible head of the Hamilton County Democratic Party last year, a position he declined to consider and calls “thankless.” He praises the first women to be elected as county party cochairs, former State Rep. Connie Pillich (who has since left for Washington, D.C.) and Springfield Township Trustee Gwen McFarlin, and says that when it comes to political office more people should “give it a shot.” “You see a new generation, a core group of people who are younger and energized around the party, collectively leading the party,” he says. When asked which action results in more lasting change, voting or marching, he answers without hesitation. “Voting. Economics. Voting their self-interest. That’s the future.”

Kearney’s future, not long ago, was thought to be the U.S. Senate. Jan-Michele had been a Harvard Law School classmate of Barack Obama, who at one point was a State Senator in Illinois before bursting onto the national scene by winning a Senate race. Eric served on the National Finance Committee of Obama’s campaigns for Senate and President and, through his work in the Ohio statehouse, was seen as a similar sort of “uniter.”

Kearney dipped his toe into big-time politics in 2014, running what’s probably the briefest campaign for Lieutenant Governor in Ohio history. He was selected to run with Ed FitzGerald, but his candidacy was quickly derailed by accusations surrounding tax issues related to The Herald. “People misunderstood what it was all about,” says Kearney. “We did nothing wrong.”

When the Kearneys purchased the newspaper, its taxes were in arrears. During the sale, a payment plan was established for Sesh Communications to catch up on the back payments. When Kearney’s candidacy was announced, though, news stories implied that he personally owed back taxes. The FitzGerald candidacy didn’t seem like much of a threat to Gov. John Kasich’s reelection bid, but Kearney says his connections to President Obama had the potential to bring the Democratic National Committee’s weight and deep pockets into the race. That kind of threat scared the GOP, says Kearney, and suddenly negative campaign ads tied The Herald’s business finances to his own. He chose to withdraw, and the Democratic ticket went on to a crushing defeat.

Jan-Michele says her husband was bowed by the experience but has persevered because he knows what it takes to be successful and to make a positive difference. Kearney’s father, Jasper, worked as a chemist at the EPA during the day and as a waiter at Camargo Country Club in the evenings, while his mother, Rose, taught school. Their goal was to make sure that Eric, their only child, got the best education.

“Nothing is easy, everything is a struggle,” says Jan-Michele of life lessons he might have gained from his parents. “You use the opportunities you have to create opportunities for others.”

Their daughter, Celeste, is a student at Dartmouth, her father’s alma mater. Son Asher is 14 but, Kearney jokes, “going on 21.” When the kids were younger, he commuted from Cincinnati during his years in the State Senate rather than keeping an apartment in Columbus. Once a year, Kearney and a few brave staff members and friends walked up Montgomery Road, State Route 22, from Cincinnati to Columbus. In his final year in office, he walked from Lake Erie through Columbus and all the way to the Ohio River. He loved it.

“The walks were related to children’s health,” he says. “Raising awareness for diabetes, heart disease, hunger, asthma, and other causes. People who supported that cause would walk with us, usually not all four days, but just to show that they appreciated our support.”

“Maybe that’s why I’m not going to run for office again,” he says, laughing. “Maybe I can’t face the walk.” When told that Jan-Michele says she’d like to see him hold office again some day, he keeps laughing. “Maybe she wants to get me out of the house.”

If so, Kearney knows how to find the door.

 

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