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Can Collins get it done? To succeed, the 'lone wolf' must work well with others

Christopher C. Collins was born to be a boss.

Everything about the guy -- his obsession with statistics, his reputation as a loner, his image as a driven and demanding leader -- screams out chief executive.

He's clearly a businessman used to success, used to having his way and used to doing what he does -- managing several small companies -- in a largely solitary way.

"Somebody once called me a lone wolf," he said. "I'm not the most outgoing person in the world, but part of being a leader is being comfortable with yourself."

So, how does a supremely confident CEO, a boss who doesn't take no for an answer, transfer his leadership skills to the public sector?

And is it realistic to expect a man who helped turn around 11 companies to work that same magic on upstate New York's largest government?

One thing is certain. Chris Collins is the boss, the man in charge. He comes into office armed with a vision the public has embraced, and the leadership experience to make it work.

But can he make it work?

"He's very much his own man," said Dennis Vacco, the former state attorney general who helped recruit Collins for the campaign. "Chris, like any good CEO, is not afraid to make his own decisions."

The Clarence business owner is smart, savvy and clearly comfortable with himself and what he wants to do as county executive.

If there's a fear or worry, it's that confidence can lead to self-righteousness, even arrogance. And in some people's eyes -- they point to Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's recent popularity plunge -- arrogance is no way to lead a government.

And certainly no way to win over Collins' critics, most notably a Democratic County Legislature.

"Like it or not, he's going to have to deal with the Democrats," said Joseph E. Goodell, a member of Erie County's control board and himself a former CEO.

The hope among Collins' supporters is that his start will be more like Michael Bloomberg's debut as New York City mayor and less like Spitzer's beginning as governor.

In more ways than one, Bloomberg is viewed as a model for what Collins wants to accomplish.

While many politicians pooh-pooh the notion of a business approach to government, that's exactly what the Republican brought to America's largest city.

>'Numbers don't lie'

Like Collins, Bloomberg is a self-made man, a mogul who came from the business world to win a long-shot bid for public office. Six years later, he's known as the mayor who reformed the way City Hall is run.

More than any other other mayor, Bloomberg is credited with adopting a results-based approach to New York's municipal services and programs. He has an almost religious zeal for statistics and there's a sense that data analysis is the lifeblood of his administration.

Sound familiar?

"Numbers don't lie," said Collins' campaign manager Christopher Grant. "We had a saying during the campaign: In God we trust. Everyone else bring data."

And that's where Six Sigma comes in.

Collins admits Six Sigma is just another "flavor" in the spectrum of popular business principles like Total Quality Management, but he chose it because of its focus on using data to solve problems and make improvements.

"It's encouraging," said Goodell, former head of Outokumpu American Brass. "To me, it means making decisions based on what makes sense analytically, not what makes sense politically."

To hear Collins talk, Six Sigma is the answer to a lot of the county's problems.

He thinks enough of it to suggest that a Six Sigma Black Belt, the highest rank awarded an expert in the field, be hired as his deputy county executive. He also wants the control board to set aside state funds for Six Sigma training for county employees.

"It's all part of his common sense approach to solving problems," said Philip M. Corwin, executive vice president of the Talking Phone Book and co-chairman of Collins' transition team.

Much of what Collins wants to do hinges on the people around him, the department heads and top aides he will hire in the coming weeks.

His management philosophy is heavy on accountability and performance. He describes it as one, hiring the best people possible, and two, giving them the freedom and standards to succeed.

As county executive, he will require monthly reports from all department heads detailing their successes and failures for the month. He also plans to assign 30-, 60- and 90-day goals to all his managers.

"I won't accept 'no,' " he said. "The guy who doesn't have a long career with me is the guy who doesn't accomplish his goals."

>Partisan obstacles

Tough talk from a tough CEO. But will it play in a work environment dominated by union leaders and politicians from another party?

"This is not a business and it can't be run like a business," County Executive Joel A. Giambra said. "He will have a very difficult time implementing some of the things he talked about."

Chief among the obstacles in Collins' way is the state's Taylor Law, the labor law outlawing public employee strikes and protecting workers against unilateral changes to their contracts.

"Chris said to me he understands that all employees want a raise," Giambra said of Collins. "But I know they're not prepared to give anything up to get them. And the threat of moving jobs offshore or shutting down the company doesn't work here."

Like Giambra, Democrats have been openly critical of Collins' business approach to government. And because they control the Legislature -- they hold 12 of 15 seats -- they will have a huge say in what he can and can not do.

During this honeymoon period, for as long as it lasts, both sides are promising compromise and cooperation, not acrimony and stalemate.

"I expect we'll do good work together," said Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat. "It all comes back to shared respect."

There's a natural tension -- Democrat versus Republican, unions versus management -- in Collins' relationship with Legislature Democrats. But if he can overcome that, business associates say the county's employees may be pleasantly surprised.

Joseph McMahon has worked side by side with Collins since 2004 when they formed Audubon Machinery in North Tonawanda. He says Collins' business approach, whether it's Six Sigma or something similar, hinges on employee involvement.

"What it's not about is hitting workers with a stick and telling them to work faster," McMahon said. "What it is about is being smarter about how you do things."

>Solitary style

One of the unique traits Collins brings to the 16th floor of the Rath Building is a solitary style of decision-making. He may solicit opinion and encourage debate but, in the end, he tends to make the final decision alone.

Even now, after years in the public eye, he's known as something of a loner. He doesn't have an inner circle or "kitchen cabinet" like most politicians, and he freely admits he finds it difficult making friends and being in social situations.

"Moving as often as I moved probably created a certain something that became part and parcel of who I am today," he said. "Some good and some not so good."

As a kid growing up, his family moved every four years, following their father as he climbed the management ranks at General Electric.

"It's hard to describe what that feeling is, as a young kid being dropped off at a new school," he said.

"You create a bit of an exterior shell that says, 'I may be hurting inside but you're not going to see it,' " he added. "It can get to the point where you don't let people in easily."

The hope is that he'll let enough people in to make smart decisions as Erie County's newest leader.

Reporters Robert J. McCarthy and John F. Bonfatti contributed to this story.

-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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