Soon after I was named local business editor at The Washington Post, I asked my colleagues whom I should meet to get a lay of the land in order to understand the dynamics of the regional economy.
To a person, they urged me to meet Bill Couper. In those days, Couper was a prominent member of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and, more importantly, Bank of America’s president for the Mid-Atlantic region.
I received plenty of other names, but Couper was the first to open his door to me, bringing me up for lunch in his airy office with a spectacular view of Pennsylvania Avenue, and patiently answering all my stupid questions.
So it was particularly fitting to me that Couper was one of the inductees at last week’s Washington Business Hall of Fame, an annual event that raises money for Junior Achievement of Greater Washington. Couper personified a characteristic shared by all of the newest inductees: They are people who have been exceptionally generous with their time, who see their roles as larger than their industries.
Few business leaders have been more supportive of Capital Business than Bobbie Greene Kilberg, president and chief executive of the Northern Virginia Technology Council. Linda P. Hudson, president and chief executive of BAE Systems, the U.S. branch of the U.K. defense firm, and Mark Ordan, the former chief executive of Sunrise Senior Living, among other jobs, remained approachable, even when their businesses hit rough patches. In an age when many executives hide behind PR staff and canned statements, they stood out for their candor and forthrightness.
The introductions recognizing the honorees affirmed their importance.
Greater Washington Board of Trade chief executive James Dinegar said Couper’s penthouse office could be “distractingly impressive,” but it didn’t stop the bank executive from being down to earth in his dealings with people.
“He understands the value of relationships,” Dinegar said.
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell reminded us that Kilberg had a knack for rallying the Northern Virginia business community to solve difficult problems, whether it was winning support for transportation funding or sorting out record-keeping problems at Arlington National Cemetery.
Former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff called Hudson the “First lady of defense,” and recounted her climb through an industry dominated by men, blazing a trail for women to get top roles at other defense firms.
“Being first isn’t her legacy,” Chertoff said. “Linda delivers results.”
Federal Realty CEO Donald C. Wood called Ordan, the food purveyor turned workout specialist, a mentor. Ordan built homegrown Fresh Fields into an organic food powerhouse that became part of Whole Foods, and then he took on challenging roles to restructure Mills Corp., after the giant shopping mall operator overreached and found itself overwhelmed by debt. Ordan did the same thing for Sunrise Senior Living, putting it back on a steady course.
Their stories might be different, but they are the sort of roll-up-your-sleeves leaders that bring stability to the region.