Visitors strolling through the large main office area of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber see a constellation of cubicles, with a library-level hum of activity. What soon catches their eye is the large corner office that is totally visible through panes of clear glass — not the opaque kind you see in executive suites these days, the glass that says about its occupant "I'm open"¦but not that open."

Anyone passing by can see what Ellen van der Horst is up to in that office: chatting on the phone, typing at her computer or conversing with guests or employees at a small, round conference table. And it says much about her inviting, inclusive method of managing the fifth largest Chamber in the country.

In March, van der Horst completed her first year as president and CEO of the Cincinnati Chamber. Upon meeting her, one is impressed by what her personality and appearance project: a warmth and ease of confidence blended with a slight sense of having hardened edges "” a sharpness she can bring to bear to get things done.

She would be the first to tell you the Queen City has much work to do to open more business and leadership opportunities for women. Just for a moment, though, one thinks of what George F. Babbitt would make of this. Back in 1922, Cincinnatians wanted to claim their city was the model for Zenith, the fictional location of Sinclair Lewis' novel named after this proud Chamber of Commerce member. George F. Babbitt proclaims "Standardized American Citizens" as the new generation of American business leaders: "fellows with hair on their chests and smiles in their eyes and adding-machines in their offices."

Van der Horst had much on her mind during the process leading to her hiring at the Chamber, but had you asked her about the prospect of becoming the first woman CEO since it was founded in 1839, she says she would have replied, "What's the big deal?

"And then I came to realize it is a big deal."

The Chamber conducted a national search to replace Michael Fisher when he decided to move on to other ventures. Van der Horst's resume seemed almost too good to be true. She had deep roots in Cincinnati, beginning in 1978 with five years as a brand manager with Procter & Gamble, followed by 22 years at PNC Bank. When the Chamber came calling, she was executive vice president and chief marketing officer of The Retail Bank, PNC's largest business with 3 million customers. The Chamber board saw a track record in strategic planning, marketing and team-building with proven results — and much of her work involved small and medium-sized businesses, which compose about 85 percent of the Chamber's 6,000-plus membership.

Just as impressive is van der Horst's level of community involvement, including board service for more than a dozen organizations and schools, from The Fine Arts Fund to the United Way and Community Chest. Patty Beggs, CEO of the Cincinnati Opera, credits van der Horst with helping the opera company become more fiscally responsible and developing new initiatives during her term as opera board chair.

'A Perfect Blend'
"I'm having a terrific time," van der Horst says, looking back on her first year. The Chamber conducted a national search and zeroed in on her, persistently. She realized this could be a "dream job," combining the variety of work she likes: marketing, management, customer relations, business skills "and making use of connections I had made." She saw opportunity "to drive change" at the highest community levels.

Besides, she adds, "I saw this as something to give back to the community that's been so great to me."

People working with her seem especially enthusiastic in their praise. John W. Hayden, CEO of Midland Co., took over as the Chamber board chair from Charlotte Otto this year. "I think the world of Ellen," he says. "She's the right person at the right time. She's keenly qualified, a quick study, she's passionate about the city and the region, and she's easy to work with."

Melvin Gravely, author and founder of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Thinking, has two perspectives: watching van der Horst last year from his perch on the Chamber board, then seeing her in action as an insider since January, when he was appointed director of the Chamber's Minority Business Accelerator. "She has a huge capacity to understand the issues we're dealing with," Gravely says, "but not in an overbearing way. She's not micromanaging. And she's always informed. It's a perfect blend for a leadership role."

Gravely believes van der Horst can produce results. "Ellen is a very outcome-driven leader," he notes with enthusiasm. "I wouldn't have come here if I wasn't confident we could see transformational changes within two to three years."
 
Ambitious Agenda
Asked about her agenda priorities, van der Horst first mentions transportation access, from the Brent Spence Bridge to major highways and airports. Regarding Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport and Delta Airlines, she talks about the Chamber's Regional Air Service Committee, and how her people are working closely with the Northern Kentucky Chamber. She also says major corporations, such as Fidelity and Toyota, wouldn't be here without CVG's "unbelievable access" to national and international routes.

Her level of enthusiasm rises with other priorities: retaining young professional talent in Greater Cincinnati (as with the Chamber's YP, or Young Professionals, programs), doing more in support of small and medium businesses, and forging more Chamber partnerships across a broad spectrum.

Asked to cite rookie-year success stories, van der Horst points to the Women Excel ("WE") initiative, which was inaugurated just before she came on board. It features four main components: leadership, mentoring. communications and recognition of achievement. WE was strongly motivated by the ongoing Pulse study, an ongoing, comprehensive examination of the status of women and girls in the region. The 2007 Pulse report concludes there are still far too many obstacles standing in their way to reasonably fulfilling lives and careers "” and the number of women in top leadership positions is still more like 1977 than 2007.

On the economic development front, van der Horst is positive about progress made by the Chamber's Minority Business Accelerator and CincyTech USA, which partners with research institutions such as the University of Cincinnati and Children's Hospital to attract more state and private investment capital.

She's also keeping an eye on other measures of progress, such as The Banks riverfront project. "It's simply the most critical development project in this community," she declares. "If we don't get that down, it will overshadow all the rest."

For an executive who stresses the importance of "outcome indicators," the ultimate measure of Ellen van der Horst as an exceptional Chamber leader may be the results of GO Cincinnati. That's the comprehensive effort to forge an economic growth strategy for Cincinnati, with special emphasis on job creation, workforce development and neighborhood revitalization. When Mayor Mark Mallory announced GO Cincinnati ("G' stands for "Growth" and "Opportunity") last September, he named van der Horst and city Councilman Chris Bortz as co-chairs.

Van der Horst's deep belief in the power of regionalism attracted her to leading GO Cincinnati "” along with her equally strong conviction that the Tristate region cannot prosper without a strong central city. "I never understood how people could see this river as a divider," she remarks. "But if the region is to ultimately succeed, it needs a healthy core, a healthy heart."

Regional partnerships are essential for economic competitiveness, she emphasizes, noting that area businesses must expand their focus. "We're all competing with China and India, with Charlotte and San Antonio."

The strategic part of GO Cincinnati is developing a forward-looking action plan. Bortz and others say there's no need to start from scratch. United Way's "Success by Six" program, for example, has laid the groundwork for early childhood intervention.Moreover, van der Horst

and GO Cincinnati set Cincy pride aside and are making use of "Vision 2015" "” Northern Kentucky's 10-year strategic plan and call to action on economic and social challenges "” as a starting blueprint. "It's not a vision," she cautions, smiling as she describes how "some people's eyes glaze over" when they hear such terms. "It's more of a way to knit it all together, an über agenda. We're taking a look at all of it: what's working, what's not and what's missing "” and adding momentum."

Action materialized last year when the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky chambers joined to lead a delegation of 60 community and business leaders to Boston, where they learned a lot about strategies that work, or don't. The after-effects of that mission trip are still being felt here, from the new STRIVE! regional education initiative to the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV), a program based on the successful "Boston Plan" that was just approved and funded by City Council.

GO Cincinnati's first major proposals probably won't be ready until late summer or early fall, van der Horst says. The preparation work is taking longer, she says, because the committee is going beyond generalities to concrete specifics, such as methods to stabilize the city's tax base.

With all of this before her, don't presume that Ellen van der Horst is neglecting the other sides of her life. She's convincing when she says she's a "believer in balance," giving time and attention to her home, family and community.

Her husband of 26 years, Ray, has his own high-level career. "But I was uniquely fortunate," she says of her marriage. Speaking fondly of all those hours spent at her sons' baseball games, van der Horst tells how she and her husband somehow work it out.

"We always understood that we'd share equally in all family matters. That means that it's unequal at any given time, but over time it becomes equal." In other words, it's the outcomes that count.