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Candidates court constituencies Collins plays up record as businessman, pledges to make government efficient

Chris Collins has been settling in with small groups of voters in Erie County's living rooms.

"I'm not running as a Republican, I'm running as a business person," he often tells them, easing into their upholstery and crossing his tasseled loafers on their carpets.

His listeners seem to like him but question whether he really can tame the monster of government bureaucracy, at least as swiftly as he might think with his arsenal of business principles: "total quality management," "benchmarking," "Six Sigma."

Unionized public employees have work rules and rights seldom found in the private sector. County legislators -- Collins sees them as the "part-time board of directors" -- have their own ideas.

But Christopher Carl Collins leads in the polls, his campaign for county executive has energy, people around the county want to meet him, and he says he feels confident about Election Day.

"You realize, those who are entrenched in power want you to fail even if you are right," a voter told him days ago, when Collins fielded questions from eight tax-minded citizens in a Cheektowaga living room.

Then he launched into a spiel about the need for accurate job descriptions and performance measurements that make it possible to fire workers who fall short.

"There are those," Collins agreed. "They may have to go."

Then he launched into a spiel that had more to do with rank-and-file employees than power brokers. He talked about the need for accurate job descriptions and performance measures that make it possible to fire workers who fall short.

"In business, we have a saying," he mentioned later. "In God we trust. All others bring data."

Collins is one of those high achievers -- an Eagle Scout at 13 -- who find business and campaigning fun. He's a quick study. In deciding whether to enter the race, he read the County Charter to learn the county executive's role and how the government works.

He appears comfortable wearing the mantle of authority. Speaking to his managers, he's friendly but clear about what he expects. When the campaign aide driving him missed a street and pulled a three-point turn in a blind spot on a country road, Collins voiced worries that, while playful, left a chill.

>Family moved often

The second of seven children of a General Electric executive, he was born in Schenectady 57 years ago, when the sprawling GE plant there was humming with 50,000 employees.

The family moved frequently as his father climbed GE's management ladder. As a boy, Collins never spent more than 4 1/2 years in the same town. The family landed in Stamford, Conn.; Glens Falls; Hendersonville, N.C.; Durham, N.H.; and finally, when Collins was already in college, Rochester, where his father had joined General Railway Signal Co.

"I would not wish that on anybody," he said about his transient youth, during which he came to realize that friendships would be fleeting.

"I think it took a long time for him to accept that he could call one place his home," said Mary Collins, 47, the local woman he met in Cole's on Elmwood Avenue and married 20 years ago. "Finally, after 31 years being here, he felt he could call Buffalo his home."

He likes to ski and play golf. He's certain Mark Twain was wrong in describing golf as "a pleasant walk spoiled."

Collins also likes to talk about his children, a 14-year-old son who is a competitive gymnast and attained the rank of Eagle Scout even faster than his father did, and a 16-year-old daughter who's a competitive dancer. Collins' first marriage, which produced a daughter, ended in divorce, and he has a grandchild.

>Led buyout of division

He says he didn't start his career expecting to own businesses, intending simply to work in management for someone else. Following his father's advice, he felt he could make more of a mark with Westinghouse rather than getting lost in talent-rich GE.

At 29, he became the youngest-ever division manager at the Westinghouse Gear Division in Cheektowaga. Three years later, he faced the decision that would shape his future. In 1983, he led a management group that bought the division's assets when Westinghouse was itching to sell.

They renamed it Nuttall Gear, moved it to Niagara County and, 14 years later, sold the business, of which Collins owned 60 percent. The sale gave him a windfall to acquire stakes in other companies, such as a woodworking firm, a cabinetmaker, an electrical contractor, a maker of oxygen systems and ZeptoMetrix, a company that makes medical supplies.

Each morning, Collins guides his Lexus or his Chevrolet Equinox to check on one of the companies, then turns his focus to the campaign. One morning last week he stopped at ZeptoMetrix, housed in a 1920s structure at 872 Main St. in Buffalo that was built as a car dealership and now sits on a ho-hum block.

Inside, about 60 employees busily make diagnostic kits and grow viruses in sealed rooms. Samples of HIV and the bird flu, for example, are sold to researchers and used to confirm that the test kits work properly. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a major customer.

>Sharing clothing costs

ZeptoMetrix needs more room, and Collins wanted to know the status of a project to place the office and support staff in a historic building next door, with the state Office of Historic Preservation's blessing. Within minutes, he decided that the search for a construction manager has ended and, in the middle of the meeting, calls a contractor already hired and says he wants him to serve as construction manager, too.

Workers at ZeptoMetrix do not wear uniforms, but nearly every employee's shirt bears the company's name.

"I'm a 50-50 kind of guy," Collins said, explaining that he likes people showing pride in their company, so he's willing to buy items of clothing, place the company name on them, and share the garment's cost equally with the employee.

"Chris is one of the most fair people I have ever met," said Dr. James Hengst, the ZeptoMetrix president who was with the company when it was struggling and, through an intermediary, piqued Collins' interest to buy in. "When he sits down to negotiate contracts or whatever, he's not looking for the best deal for himself," Hengst said. "He's looking for something that's fair for everybody."

>Views on labor unions

From the voters' viewpoint, Collins and James P. Keane, his Democratic opponent, appear to differ most in their stances toward organized labor.

Collins, for example, says he wants to repeal the county law requiring contractors on county jobs to offer an apprentice-training program. Keane says he would protect it zealously. But the larger task for the next county executive will be to negotiate new contracts with the county unions.

Collins explains his strategy at nearly every campaign stop. He would start, he says, with a "a blank piece of paper" because he won't continue with what he describes as the same unaffordable template. Employees, he contends, would rather have more money in their paychecks than certain perks, such as a paid day off on Election Day. So half of the savings from union concessions will go to the workers, half to the taxpayers.

He said he would ask Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and the State Legislature to exempt the county from the state law that keeps the terms of public employee contracts in effect even after the pacts expire.

>Urges 'empowerment'

The unions already have voted, contributing $115,000 to Keane's campaign but nothing to Collins'.

Collins, nonetheless, speaks approvingly of county workers in general.

"They need more money. They deserve more money to live their lives," he said.

Further, he wants to give them a bigger role in figuring how they can do their jobs more effectively.

He calls it "empowerment" or "Six Sigma," the data-driven pursuit of an error-free work place.

On the campaign trail, Collins picks up energy as the day wears on. He feeds off the enthusiasm of others. After meeting with eight people in Ted and Chris Morton's Cheektowaga home, Collins and a campaign aide were off to go door to door through the Williamsville business district with a big-name Republican from the village: State Sen. Mary Lou Rath.

Rumor has it that Collins can become testy when hit with life's disappointments. He says he hasn't grown angry in years, not since he and Mary learned at a couples' seminar to frame unpleasant surprises in a "guess what, now what" approach.

Guess what: The washing machine blew when no one was home, flooding the wood floors and collapsing the ceiling below. (This really happened in their Clarence home a few weeks ago.)

Now what? Quickly hire the companies that will pump out the water, protect against mold and, over the coming weeks and months, make sense of their home again.

"He has the ability to devote a lot of attention to the business task at hand," said Guy J. Agostinelli, Collins' lawyer who also is a golf partner and friend. "He provides all of his talent to being able to run the business the right way. Does he have to take tough stands on issues in those settings? Sure he does."

A lot of the questions thrown his way reveal the voters' concerns that he might not be able to change government as quickly, or as radically, as he says.

In a Marilla living room, he acknowledged certainty about the glacial pace of government reform.

Maybe, "I'm not sure what I'm going into," he said.



Chris Collins

*He's not taking on the job of county executive so he can help "manage the decline" of Erie County. He wants to foster a business- friendly environment that encourages companies to create jobs and expands the community. "Grow or die," he says.

*He doesn't care about party labels and will frame every debate with other county legislators by asking them to do what best serves the taxpayers over the long term.

*He'd like local companies to let their up-and-comers work for county government for two years, in a sort of fellowship program. He'd plug them into upper-level jobs where they could instill a business acumen into the bureaucracy

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