When people talk about Cincinnati's top CEOs, the name Neil Tilow may not pop up. To those in the know, however, few executives can match Tilow's combination of business acumen, his strategic vision and relationship skills, or his heartfelt commitment to a mission and his record of success.

Tilow is president and CEO of Talbert House. The non-profit social services agency"”named after former University of Cincinnati sociology professor Ernest Talbert"”delivers programs throughout the Tristate for mental health, community corrections, substance abuse, and welfare-to-work transitions.

The cause began 40 years ago, when a few citizens raised $10,000 to open a halfway house in the West End for 16 parolees. Today, Talbert House and its affiliates serve nearly 21,000 clients annually"”ranging from infants to the elderly. Mike McCartt, the first executive director, set precedence for sound management and professional development of staff members.

In 1974, an idealistic sociology major at Xavier University began working for Talbert House as a night counselor. By age 23, Neil Tilow was a program manager. At 27, he left to become executive director for a Northern Kentucky agency. In 1982, at age 30, the idealist who never saw himself as a businessman was hired to lead Talbert House.

Times were tough. Federal programs were being shifted to state and local governments. Talbert House's $1.2 million budget was sliced in half. Tilow, aided by a strong Board of Trustees and dedicated staff, charted a path of success by implementing best business practices.

Today, Talbert House and its affiliates manage annual budgets approaching $50 million total, with more than 800 employees.

"It's been a hell of a rise," comments Richard "Dick" Weiland, the well-connected lobbyist who joined the Board of Trustees the year Tilow took the leadership reins. Weiland, who chaired the Talbert House 40th anniversary celebration in March, says that without the organization, many more people would roam the streets with no hope for the future.


"Neil's an unparalleled leader in the non-profit world and an outstanding executive. He understands the business aspects of non-profits as well as anyone I know," Weiland observes.

Tilow credits the board, consisting of 25 trustees and 9 ex-officio members. Some have more than 30 years of service logged, but the board is refreshed with four new members annually. The CEO also points to a devoted staff, including three operating vice presidents with 75 years of combined Talbot House service.

"Early on I thought a lot about the numbers and metrics, that sort of thing," he recalls. "Then I realized you've got to think first about human resources. What counts the most is how you treat people." That's why Talbot House began employee recognition breakfasts, and launched its own Training Institute, where each year employees get 40 hours of renewal and skill-sharpening time. "Every Sunday, [Procter & Gamble CEO] A.G. Lafley chats with his top HR exec, about wh'™s doing well, wh'™s not and why," Tilow adds. "P&G has done incredibly well under his leadership. I don't think those two things are coincidental."

Pamela Popp, who chairs the board, is an example of how Talbert House management is supported by professional expertise: she's an attorney, a registered nurse, has experience in health systems administration, and once worked for a Talbert House adolescent facility. Popp says Neil Tilow's strength comes from key sets of skills. He's a "social entrepreneur" whose "heart and mind are into the mission of delivering a valuable services, first and foremost." He knows what it's like to work in the trenches, and doesn't isolate himself, she says.

Another skill Popp calls "the affiliation model." Tilow works at developing and expanding the scope of services, constantly looking strategically at the metro region and forging partnerships. He gets around so much that "we accuse him of having cloned himself," Popp chuckles.

P&G retiree Fred Joffe joined the Talbert board 38 years ago. He helped Tilow learn and implement business practices, especially strategic planning, quality control, and staff development and policies. The result? "We became a low-cost producer of high-quality services," Joffe says.

One of those "best practices" is the P&G model called OGSM: objectives, goals, strategies, measures. "We work off of that every day," Tilow says. But successful strategies require good leadership. "Neil Tilow is one of the best chief executives I've ever seen," Joffe comments. "He has a tremendous ability to listen and learn."

Robert Reifsnyder, president of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, got to know Tilow when they went through the same Leadership Cincinnati class, in 1984. Reifsnyder describes Tilow as a "very strong" community leader, an excellent business executive and a great advocate for the clients he serves. He points out that Talbert House is competing for private sector support with non-profits that naturally attract more sympathy. In other words, donors readily respond to helping people with diseases. Drug addicts and criminal offenders are less attractive causes.

Tilow overcomes this disadvantage by making sure his funders are tied into and understand the work of Talbert House, Reifsnyder says. He also excels at integrating smaller partners under the Talbert House umbrella, achieving efficiencies through economies of scale and eliminating duplication. "The services Talbert House delivers to youths and adults are absolutely critical to our community," Reifsnyder asserts.


That responsibility, to put it mildly, is a heavy burden to shoulder.

Tall and lanky, with streaks of gray in his hair and beard, Neil Tilow seems calmly confident. He exudes the affable demeanor of a genial college professor, not a CEO who has every reason to look stressed to the max.

His organization is monitored and audited by numerous private and public overseers, and must meet strict criteria to maintain accreditations and licenses. The financial pressures are unrelenting, too. The cost per-unit or service that Talbert House is reimbursed has remained flat or even declined in recent years. "We cannot raise our prices 3 to 5 percent annually," he admits. "We have to do more with less."

That's not easy when as many as one-third of your clients fail to show up for scheduled appointments, he adds. "Imagine if a hair salon had that."

So, Tilow and his staff hold operational costs under 11%, when 15-20% or higher is typical. More than 400 outcome measures are applied to ensure results are satisfactory or exceptional, for everyone involved.

And then there's competition. One large federal grant was designated to help parolees re-enter the job market. Talbert House was one of 549 applicants"”and was one of only 30 that won grants.

Tilow says a study coming out soon will detail how much the organization and its affiliates save the Tristate community every year. Consider, for example, every Talbert House "graduate" of a drug-alcohol rehab program who stays sober and resumes being a productive employee and taxpayer. The treatment investment results in a net gain for area employers and taxpayers.

Or as Joffe puts it: "I believe in the philosophy that people can be rehabilitated when they're willing to work with you, and it's far better than incarceration, for the individual and society...and for the business community, we reduce costs when we reduce crime."
The needs extend way beyond the inner city, and Talbert House has expanded accordingly, with services now reaching Hamilton, Warren, Brown, Butler, Clermont and Kenton counties.

The organization is focusing more on children and adolescents, and is now the leading social services provider at 15 area schools. In a recent pilot program in Cincinnati Public Schools, 257 students received intervention for behavior problems"”and 93 percent improved their grade-point averages. School Superintendent Rosa Blackwell "was blown away" by the outcome, Tilow says.

The total experience has given Tilow more faith in people. "I learned never to be surprised," he reflects. "You see clients and think they'll never make it. Then they make a decision to change their lives, and we give a little help. The impact on people's lives in this community is just awesome. There's no other word for it. It really does give me the goosebumps." 

Name: Neil Tilow

Age: 53

Home: Hyde Park

Family: Wife (Sally, Outreach Coordinator for The Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati), and four sons, three in college.

Hometown: Lakewood, Ohio

Fun and relaxation: Xavier U. basketball (a "huge" fan) and Bengals games, family vacations, reading (political mysteries and business magazines) and movies.

Big influence: his father, now 84, a representative for a machine tool manufacturer who was still selling well into his 70s. "He told me, 'Have a great product and everything will take care of itself'...and also, 'All I have is my reputation.' I got so sick of hearing that growing up, but it's true."

Quote: "God bless my wife. Her father was a golfer and basketball player at Notre Dame, and he made her love sports. She's always the first one there for the kids."