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Opportunity knocks for instituting reform Collins can apply his philosophy from private sector to government.

Chris Collins, smart, driven and incredibly demanding, is not the first local politician to promise change, reform and a business approach to government.

But he may be the first to actually do it.

"Failure is not an option," said Chris Graham, one of his business partners. "Chris is driven to succeed, and he's not going to pull any punches."

Thanks to a convincing win Tuesday, the Clarence business owner will get his wish, a chance to lead and reform -- Erie County's largest government.

"I think he's going to shake people up a bit," said Michael Hook, his chief campaign strategist and media consultant. "It's not going to be the same ol', same ol'."

Ask anyone who knows Collins, and they will tell you the Republican's single biggest priority is making county government run like a bottom-line business responsible to shareholders.

Or, in this case, taxpayers.

"I'm expecting to see an entirely new approach to running county government," said Michael Powers, a Buffalo lawyer active in Republican politics. "And I think one of the first things Chris will do is throw the doors open."

The "doors" Powers speaks of are the gates to County Hall -- gates that often serve as an entry point to Democrats and Republicans whose credentials have more to do with party loyalty than competence.

Collins, who campaigned as an outsider, has promised to change all that, and whom he hires may serve as the first real test of his leadership and independence.

Friends and allies expect him to be bold.

"He's unafraid," said James P. Domagalski, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party. "One of the things that will make him successful is that he doesn't need this job."

Collins, after all, is a 57-year-old self-made millionaire, a man who can't be in it for the paycheck or pension.

Come January, when the Republican takes office, there's an expectation that more than a few fresh faces will be serving in the Collins administration, many of them from the business world.

One of his primary goals is to hire a Six Sigma Black Belt as his deputy county executive. Six Sigma is a data-driven business practice, with degrees of certification, that Collins wants to use at County Hall.

"The first question for applicants will not be, 'What's your party affiliation?' " said Hook, a Lancaster native who now works as a national political consultant.

And hiring is just the first step.

Collins' associates say he's a stickler for efficiency and predicted the other first-year priority will be a top to bottom review of each county department.

They point to Collins' record of turning around failing companies -- he's an investor or part owner of 11 businesses -- and say there's no one better equipped to analyze the good and bad in Erie County government.

"I think you'll see a government that's incredibly more efficient," said campaign manager Christopher Grant. "You've seen that in his businesses. You've seen it in his campaign. And now you'll see it in county government."

Grant reels off a laundry list of popular business principles -- Total Quality Management, Continuous Improvement and Six Sigma -- and says Collins is determined to bring each of them to County Hall.

"I know the public perception of big CEOs is that it's their way or the highway, but that's not Chris," said Grant. "He's all about value and results. He's demanding, but in a good way."

"Demanding" is a word you hear often in connection with Collins. He has gained a reputation as an aggressive, hard-nosed businessman, an entrepreneur used to having his way.

People who know him say that's only half true.

Yes, he's driven. Yes, he's demanding. And yes, he's passionate about what he thinks is right. But he's also a listener and an optimist. And a businessman who believes in empowering employees.

"He's going to listen," said Graham, president of Volland Electric, one of Collins' companies. "He calls it management by walking around."

Graham said Collins is not one of those bosses who's always right, a trait he saw firsthand last week when he asked Collins how he would deal with the heavily Democratic County Legislature.

"I'm assuming the people on the Legislature want to make Erie County a better place," Collins told Graham.

Democrats, said Domagalski, should not take that willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness. He envisions a day when Collins may take his case for reform directly to the public, much like Ronald Reagan did as president.

One thing is certain. Collins is promising big things, and, judging by Tuesday's election results, voters are buying into his promises.

"He's a plain-speaking businessman who says what he means and means what he says," said Powers.


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