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Broad-based team to get Collins rolling Group guiding takeover as county executive may include CEO of National Fuel Gas

County Executive-elect Christopher C. Collins will announce a transition team next week that will set the stage for whom he hires, what he does his first year in office and how he navigates the politics of county government.

The Clarence business owner stopped short of mentioning any names but said his transition committee will be a diverse and broad-based collection of business, government and community leaders.

One of the names frequently mentioned as a potential leader is Philip C. Ackerman, National Fuel Gas chief executive officer and an early Collins supporter.

"I'm taking a common-sense approach," said Collins. "For people who try to turn government into rocket science, I don't buy that."

Collins said one of his first priorities will be hiring a deputy county executive, and he repeated his promise of a national search.

"That's clearly Number One," said the Republican. "We said we're going to do a national search, and we're going to do that."

When asked what he will look for in the people he hires, Collins emphasized the need for a common vision. More than anything else, he wants people who share his desire for a results-oriented, business approach to managing and reforming county government.

"I'll surround myself with optimists," he said. "I want people who say, 'Yeah, we can implement this.' "

Over the past two days, Collins' phone has been ringing off the hook with congratulations from a wide spectrum of government leaders, many of them former critics.

They range from Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Brian Higgins to County Legislators Lynn M. Marinelli and Timothy M. Kennedy. All four are Democrats.

Collins also received a call from Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.

Even more important, perhaps, are his recent conversations with County Executive Joel A. Giambra. The two men have agreed to work toward a smooth transition, and Giambra has offered Collins office space on the 16th floor of the Rath County Office Building.

Giambra described their talks as "fabulous conversations" and noted that he and Collins know each other well, in part because his son and Collins' daughter are friends.

"I am prepared to work with him as closely as he would like, because it's important that he be successful," Giambra said. "I will also be very candid with him."

Collins also reached out to Erie County's control board and plans to do the same with the county's municipal union leaders.

As an owner or investor in 11 companies, Collins is no stranger to challenges. But even a self-made millionaire with a reputation for results can admit the task ahead is daunting.

He acknowledges some sleepless nights, most notably three weeks ago when polls for the first time showed him beating Democrat James P. Keane.

"My first reaction was, 'How am I going to do this?' " he said Thursday. "But it only took me a few days to realize that it wasn't just me. I may be the quarterback, but I'll have a huge team behind me."

When asked if this was the biggest challenge he ever faced, he quickly answered, "No." He recalled his purchase of the Westinghouse gear division in Cheektowaga in 1983 at age 32.

It wasn't until after the deal was closed that Collins and his partners realized all their money had gone into the acquisition of what is now Nuttall Gear.

"I said to my partners, 'You realize we're opening our doors tomorrow without a single penny in the bank?' " he said. "Those were sleepless nights."

Nevertheless, Collins is "planning, planning, planning" for his first year in office. He wants to form a transition team that includes a core executive committee and several subcommittees.

News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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