Nancy Zimpher is on the move, dashing out of her office to brew a visitor a cup of hot caffeine. It's early — too early — on a bitter, brittle Saturday morning, and the executive suite is entirely abandoned. Zimpher has barely found time to hang her coat before launching into the duty at hand. Making coffee.

Zimpher, as it happens, isn't some harried secretary. She is the chief executive officer of the largest employer in Greater Cincinnati.

"Cream or sugar?" she asks.

This is the first evidence of a major change afoot. As the president of the gigantic University of Cincinnati, Nancy Lusk Zimpher assumed command last year of an institution divided. Divided on its mission. Divided on its prospects. And perhaps most importantly, divided on its financial future.

The early word on Zimpher resonates in two- and three-word phrases: An amiable dynamo. No pretense. Gets things done. Assured but relaxed. Enthusiastic achiever. Charismatic energy. Personable visionary.

Zimpher is media savvy, and plugged into the city at large, something her predecessor, Dr. Joseph A. Steger, was not — at least, not in his public face.

Something else, too: She's a player in the business community. One of Zimpher's first moves was to finagle an invitation to join the Cincinnati Business Committee (CBC), the elite organization of two-dozen CEOs in the stratosphere of Procter, Kroger and Federated.

"There's an incredible opportunity to connect with the business community, to make a 360-degree connection," Zimpher observes of her role. "But you have got to be there to play, to be in the conversation."

The very fact she's on the CBC can't be overstated. Zimpher's predecessor, who sat in the president's chair for two decades, wasn't a member. And Zimpher also now sits on the boards of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, and — beginning this month — the United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

"I think the issue I had to deal with immediately is, what does this mean?" Zimpher says. "There is a very real expectation that this organization can make a real contribution to the Cincinnati community. It didn't take me long to figure out I would respond to that call."

She's also joined 3CDC (short for Cincinnati Center City Development Corp.), in a committee chaired by Kroger Co. boss Joseph Pichler. The group's focus is revitalizing Over-the-Rhine and uptown. "Joe Pichler and I are joined at the hip" on the 3CDC mission, she says.

Little wonder.

The Kroger high rise towers over the Rhine district, while uptown — just fifteen blocks north — is home to the university itself. The intersection of struggling neighborhoods includes Clifton Heights, Avondale and Corryville. "UC shares uptown with some major entities: Children's Hospital. The Cincinnati Zoo. And the Health Alliance and TriHealth."

This medical connection is critical. And the money to be made. More on that later.

SEVEN MINUTES

To understand Zimpher's close relationship to the business world, you have to first ask, "Who chose her?" Who picked her, out of the hundreds of educators nationwide who applied for the position?

It wasn't some blue-ribbon panel of Ohio college presidents. It wasn't Gov. Bob Taft. It wasn't a committee of rumpled, tweed-challenged academics. Nor some ivory tower bureaucracy.

Deep in the archives of the university lies the minutes of a meeting held July 22. The document, "Special Meeting of the Board of Trustees and the Presidential Search Committee," records a Tuesday morning session in the Mount Lookout Room of the posh Kingsgate Hotel. George A. Schaefer Jr., the Fifth Third Bank CEO, presided. The members present were Schaefer, business leaders such as Phillip R. Cox and Jeff Wyler, GOP stalwarts Buck Niehoff and Mike Allen, and Sandra Heimann, a key associate of Carl Lindner. It was a seven-minute meeting. The document is conspicuous in its lack of on-the-record discussion and revealing in its results. Only one name — Zimpher's — is put forward. The vote of the city's top business leaders is unanimous. Meeting over.

Seven minutes.

MESSAGE FROM MILWAUKEE

That Zimpher is the city's most notable catch in years is hard to argue. Just peruse any newsstand in the town where she worked the past five years — Milwaukee. Consult Milwaukee Magazine's most recent "Power" issue, for instance: "There are women with significant power, and they are no longer keeping quiet. God bless Brady Corp. CEO Katherine Hudson and University of Wisconsin Chancellor Nancy Zimpher."

The magazine actually polled 968 prominent city leaders for its "Who Has the Power" survey. The results — well, you don't really need to ask, do you? Zimpher got the most votes — of any woman or man. Soundly thrashing the CEO of the Brewers, the president of the United Way, the head honcho of the city's most notable corporation, the Archbishop of Milwaukee, numerous company presidents and even the publisher of Milwaukee Magazine itself. Zimpher's comment for the "Power" issue: "You have to lead until the world catches up with you."

Imagine this, Cincinnati.

It is surely a wake-up call for the Queen City power lineup. Sure, both Charlotte Otto at Procter and Karen Hoguet at Federated have held key positions for years. And, certainly, Valerie Lemmie runs Cincinnati as city manager, and Margaret Buchanan runs the Cincinnati Enquirer as publisher. But look for a female CEO at a large private employer and you'll run far down the list of firms before encountering a Kim Borcherding or Candace Kendle.

Consider, too, the Milwaukee Business Journal's editorial lamenting Zimpher's departure from that city last summer. "While Zimpher broke the glass ceiling in the chancellor's office, her groundbreaking efforts extended well beyond her office's castlelike confines on East Hartford Avenue. Probably her greatest success, in fact, was breaking down the barriers that separated [the university] from the surrounding community and the business world." The business journal lauded Zimpher for establishing a 50-member business advisory committee. For helping found TechStar, an incubator for local tech firms. For co-chairing United Way. And for never, ever giving up.

VISIONS OF VINE STREET

Back in the president's office, Zimpher doesn't even bother to sit behind her desk (a relatively tiny and innocuous piece of furniture in an otherwise spacious room). The suite is dominated by a huge conference table, suggesting she spends more time meeting with people than sitting at her diminutive desk.

Books are the primary appointment in the office. Shelves of them. On miscellaneous topics ranging from art history to urban economics. That, and a few framed photographs, including one taken of Zimpher with then Gov. George Voinovich, snapped on the day she was inducted into the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame.

The view is expansive. Construction cranes are everywhere ("Over there," she points, "that will be a commercial corridor"). Zimpher looks to the sweeping campus vista, and speaks of a neighborhood renaissance, and of retail development on Short Vine (the stretch of Vine Street that adjoins the campus along the Corryville strip).

Zimpher pauses, then issues a promise. No, more of a guarantee. "I am going to be spending some very serious time on what is essentially economic development for uptown and downtown. The big connector is Vine Street. We may not profit per se, but the university will profit by creating a better environment for the university to thrive.

"We are in the middle of a planning process, creating an architecture. Look for a major plank in our future plan to be connected to the community, a plan we'll attack with a vengeance. Or should I say enthusiasm." Zimpher promises an unveiling of the plan in May.

QUOTING MAE WEST

Paw through Zimpher's various speeches, her academic treatises, her books — such as "A Time for Boldness: A Story of Institutional Change" (Anker Publishing Co., 2002) — and you find a presence emerges. She likens that powerful moment when teacher and learner connect, for instance, to that moment when Adam's and God's fingers touch. She speaks of benchmarks and accountable partnerships. She is, well, different from the UC leadership we have known.

"Ideas are meaningless without actions," she writes, pointing to a favorite Mae West quote: "An ounce of performance is worth a pound of promises."

Try this. Try imagining former president Dr. Joe Steger quoting Mae West. Won't/can't/would never happen.

There's a new style with this new substance, as well.

Much is made of Zimpher's trademark hosiery. Too much, perhaps.

Yes, her patterned hose, black heels and stylish suits are unsettling for some. And the president's penchant for wearing outfits that prominently advertise the school colors must play havoc with her clothing budget. At Ohio State, it was Buckeye Red. At Milwaukee, she wore all black and gold. Now it's a theme of red and black.

THE DOCTOR IS IN

The medical complex — Pill Hill as it's known to many — is unabashedly a priority for Zimpher. Both the University Medical Center, and adjoining facilities: Children's. Shriner's. Deaconess. Christ. Good Sam. "I started to recognize fairly quickly that the annual earnings, the federal grants and contracts that are largely attracted to the medical complex, largely [come] from the National Institutes of Health. Shortly thereafter, we opened the Genome Research Institute."

Gov. Taft attended the opening of the Genome Institute in October, hailing it as one of the state's most significant advances in the biotech field. Some 450 researchers at UC's 360,000-square-foot facility in Reading will hunt for better treatments for heart disease, obesity, cancer and other ills — as they likewise hunt for grant money. Partners include Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals, the Cleveland-based biotech software firm Acero and Newtown's Meridian Bioscience Inc.

"It's a walking billboard for the Third Frontier, for every element the Third Frontier proposes," Zimpher enthuses. "It is a visible partnership between university professors, researchers from Procter & Gamble, and researchers from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. It's a road map for Big Science, and serves the National Institutes of Health agenda to partner up with business and big government.

"This kind of research will not only save lives, but create jobs and take biotech to the marketplace through the development of life-saving drugs and diagnostic medical equipment."

In doing so, Zimpher theorizes, the university will create high-end jobs, and ideally produce the graduates to fill those jobs. In the College of Medicine. In the College of Business. In the College of Engineering. "It's a life cycle," Zimpher says as she lists the priorities on this slice of her agenda: "Bioengineering, tech transfer, incubating ideas, the commercialization of research. We'll create the need for physicists, chemists, mathematicians, ethicists ..."

That's in addition to the economic impact of traditional hospital care. Through "medical tourists" — that is, out-of-town patients visiting here for medical treatment — Cincinnati's hospitals injected $363 million last year into the local economy. (By comparison, out-of-towners dropped a mere $75 million at the Reds ballpark, and $19 million at the zoo.)

BUSINESS AT HAND

Executives should also take note: Nancy Zimpher has a deal for you. "We're working on more partnerships, more co-ops. The College of Business is really ramping up the recruitment program and extending its partnership with businesses for the co-op experience."

A co-op program that places students in the real world in exchange for academic credit is a win-win. "It's a litany of possibilities and opportunities. When a student co-ops in an Ohio business, there's a 90 percent chance he or she will stay in Ohio, often at that very business. We need to broaden the base of the co-op program."

Interested human resource planners don't have to fish all over campus, looking for the right source at the right college. "We have a professional practice officer, a point person for all colleges. You don't have to shop the colleges." (Call Kettil Cedercreutz at (513) 556-4636.)

"The College of Business can only expand in its scope and outreach. We just had two of the professors work with Procter & Gamble on a business plan. We want to do more of that."

BIG WOMAN ON CAMPUS

The president's day begins early and ends late, so she safely earns her $280,000 salary. Usually there's a breakfast meeting at 7 a.m. By the time the sun sets, there's a business dinner or the inevitable basketball game. "The life of the university is 24/7, and that tends to clutter up Saturdays and Sundays, too."

All this, while serving as a full professor in the College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services.

Stamina definitely plays a role. (She's been known to personally handwrite 2,000 Christmas cards.) And paying attention. "A lot of this job is following up. I think detail is very important. If you leave a meeting and agreed to do A, B and C, that's where the rubber hits the road."

Indeed, the 57-year-old — unlike many "big picture" executives — is described as a CEO known for keeping track of tiny details. She's known for the Post-it notes covering the steering wheel and dashboard of her car. She's got a rep for knowing the name of every person who'll be in a given room, before she enters the room.

Zimpher is also recognized for making statements as a manager. At the University of Wisconsin, she sent out a call for 100 people to develop a mission for the institution in 100 days. And she launched the Milwaukee Idea, which grew into 16 major initiatives and dozens of partnerships for economic development.

The press in Milwaukee suggests Zimpher raised the low profile of the University of Wisconsin by being high-profile herself; she made sure business leaders and legislators alike knew who she was. By establishing herself as a "brand," Zimpher brought new attention to the campus.

THE COMING CRUNCH

Joe Steger gave Zimpher a welcoming gift when she came aboard last year as the school's 25th president in 184 years — a white hard hat. The retiring president suggested she'd need the protection. He was right.

UC is dealing, like every other institution of higher ed, with a challenging economy and lowered state funding (a decrease of almost $18 million since 2001). Now Zimpher has set a goal to cut $6.6 million out of the university's $800 million budget — by June.

"We really need to stabilize and right-size our budget, diversify our revenue sources and wean ourselves from heavy reliance on state support. What we need to do is what any good business does: Look at new markets. That's the total picture."

While the university doesn't issue a stockholder's report, an outsider can learn the scope of the institution's financial status through the Deloitte & Touche audit conducted for the state in January. The university's revenues last year totaled $646 million, with $154 million coming from students via tuition, $169 million flowing in thanks to grants and contracts, and $181 million contributed by the state. Operating expenses were tabulated at $737 million, for a $90 million shortfall.

This month, Zimpher raised tuition 9.9 percent, the second straight year students have been hit by the maximum increase allowed by the state. Tuition will go from $7,623 to $8,379 effective this summer.

A hint of good news: Revenues from contracts with government and private firms were up by 10 percent, or $15 million, due primarily to research by the College of Medicine.

"We need to build in the community a better understanding of the university's prominence nationally," Zimpher concludes. "In some respects, [Cincinnati] doesn't know what it has here.

"It's my responsibility to drive that point home. Not somebody else. I'm not going to lay that on anybody else's doorstep."