King of nonprofit turn-around takes on Patterson for Oakland County seat

By Crystal Proxmire

Between The Lines readers will recognize Kevin Howley as the energetic whiz Interim Executive Director of Affirmations, Ruth Ellis Center and Friends Schools of Detroit when those organizations needed transitional leadership. But he's also a seasoned private sector business administrator who, among other successes, was the second-in-command of the largest envelope producer in the world. But one thing that Kevin Howley is not, is a politician
Yet at 52 years old, he is jumping in with both feet and executing a full-time campaign against the man who has been running Oakland County for the past 20 years. L. Brooks Patterson was about Howley's age when he gave up being Oakland County Prosecutor to run for the top Oakland County Executive job two decades ago, and Howley thinks it's time for a change.
"What really struck me was this matter of redistricting," he said referring to PA 280 which, unless it is overturned by the courts, will have Oakland County reduced from 25 districts to 21 and gives the body as a whole authority to draw its own districts. "The redistricting situation just floored me. We've gone through a process that we have done for years. The court system said the plan is fine, let's move on. But instead Brooks (Patterson) decides he doesn't like the plan and they have a lobbyist that is paid for by the taxpayers up in Lansing lobbying for this partisan bill for partisan purposes. This kind of partisan politics is appalling."
Howley said the spirit of politics in general is changing in Michigan and at the County level. "Until recently we have had a reputation for trying to encourage people to vote and for working together. And out in the private sector, in the factories and on the job, you couldn't tell the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. At the end of the day we are not a partisan county. I don't want politics. I want good government."
Apart from the political impetus that motivated Howley to run for County Executive, he believes he has what it takes to run Oakland County with the same skills and tools he's used to help nonprofits and major corporations fortify themselves in times of transition.
Before devoting himself to nonprofit management, he steered an envelope company towards diversification and efficiency just as the market was on the verge of change. "Talk about a business that was affected by outside circumstances," he said. "Times changed and people just weren't using envelopes as much as they used to be. We were able to spot that trend coming and to prepare the company for it so they could run more efficiently and focus on growth by capturing market share, minimize losses and remain viable."
He left the private sector in 2003 when his son Langston was four. He and his partner Jason are now fathers of two; thirteen-year-old Langston, and Lily who is almost six. "I was traveling a lot for work and I thought that my family was more important. I also wanted to do the kind of work I was doing in a way that had more impact in helping people."
Howley has consulted for, or come on board with, over a dozen nonprofits in the past eight years including Affirmations, Ruth Ellis Center, Friends School of Detroit, Prevention Point Philadelphia and Centro Nuevo Creacion in Philadelphia. For most projects he came on for a matter of months and gave the organizations a fresh look at their budgets and other circumstances, while also giving them peace of mind that someone experienced was at the helm while they took the time to search for longer-term leadership.
Howley said that every situation is different, and more complicated than can be explained in a quick talking point. Though, essentially, there are three things he does when he assumes leadership of an organization:
1. Realign the organization's operating budget to make sure expenses match revenues.
2. Evaluate the organization's ongoing business model by program to address issues of sustainability.
3. Strengthen the organization's balance sheet.
These same principles can be applied to Oakland County to give a fresh look at where taxpayer's money is being spent. "It's easy to balance the budget, but how do you do it? That's the question. Effectiveness is not being evaluated. It's not just about cutting programs, but about making strategic investments that work. Whatever we've been doing for 20 years is not working. Maybe we need to look at things like Automation Alley, and move beyond the automotive industry."
Another aspect of investment he thinks he can improve upon is the way Oakland County is viewed by outside investors and potential residents.
"Look at what is happening in Troy. One of the largest cities in our county is in the national news, with the mayor making anti-gay remarks and their challenges with the transit center. Why was the county not more engaged in these conversations? These issues affect the entire county. But where was Brooks?"

Topics: News

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