In case you missed it yesterday, Courier-Journal reporter Matt Frassica had a story with this tantalizing title: “Who is the most powerful person in Louisville?”

Here’s the explanation for this interesting exercise, which Frassica tied to Greg Fischer being sworn in as Louisville’s new mayor:

Every city has its power players — dealmakers, cigar-chompers and networkers — who make it run. For more than 20 years, former Mayor Jerry Abramson has been at the top of the power pyramid in Louisville. But with a new mayor in office, we wondered what the current landscape of the city’s power elite looked like. We asked 10 influential Louisvillians whom they would consider the most powerful person in the city. Then we asked that person the same question, and so on. For the results, follow the arrows.

We did follow the arrows, but we’re still not certain we’re following them correctly. The handy chart seems to indicate that David Jones, co-founder of Humana Inc., and Fischer is/are the most powerful person in Louisville.

But we don’t understand how those “influential” people Frassica queried were selected. (Sue Speed, former director of the Coalition for the Homeless?)

Sometimes we’re slow on the uptake. But if the goal of the CJ staff was to tell people something they didn’t know, like who the most powerful person is, they failed miserably.

If, as we suspect, the idea is to start a conversation with the “Most Powerful” graphic, then they succeeded.

If the goal was to perplex people, they succeeded at that as well.

The comments on the CJ site spoke volumes. 3Bourbons posted this: How about: Papa John, The CEO of YUM, The head of Southeast Christian Church, Tom Jurich, or Chief White. I can see the head of Brown Forman and FBT, and of course our New Mayor, but some of these people are a stretch.

If the Internet is about anything, it’s about creating a noisy public square. So we decided to query our insiders (whose identities are closely guarded), and as a prelude to our little list, here are their observations:

Insider 1I thought of Dr. Ramsey immediately because of  … Nucleus and this merger with Jewish and CHI. I think he wields more influence than we realize. Definitely David Jones and David Jones, Jr., but I don’t see how you can leave out senior because he is behind the scenes with the park system and other causes. People listen to what he has to say. And how can one not recognize McConnell? Come on whether you like him or not he has REAL POWER and even Yarmuth has more power than Charlie Johnson. Also Host with the new arena … and definitely the mayor. And yes Ed G because he is like a Timex watch. He just keeps going … these are my initial reactions.

Insider 2A better (method) is to define “powerful.” Is it people with political clout? Money to influence political clout or fund things on a whim? And who do they have power or influence over? I’m fairly well informed about Louisville and recognized six faces and nine names on the C-J’s graphic. Real people (not wealthy, politically connected or media darlings) could give a shit less what any of the folks the C-J singled out think or say. Most people in Louisville – and I would venture to say most in the business scene in Louisville – would recognize fewer faces and names than I did. Still, if you’re trying to move issues through political channels, Fischer, McConnell, Yarmuth. I would think that in the business world you’ve got to put Schnatter, Novak, Jones Jr., Host and more on the list. The definition begets the results.

Insider 3Who else would I suggest? Harold Workman, president of the Kentucky State Fair Board. In addition to the Fairgrounds, they also run the convention center and I believe all of the U of L athletics venues. How about the president of GLI and the president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau? Unless I’m overlooking it on the list, shouldn’t the CEO of Humana be on there?
There don’t seem to be any telecom folks and we do have some firms (maybe they’re too small). Were there any bankers on there?

Insider 4 –  I’m not sure you could pick just one person. It is clear to me that Frost Brown Todd wields considerable power in Louisville. Nothing gets done unless it goes through them, it seems. But the police chief, mayor or some community activist guy don’t even come close to who is actually pulling the strings around here. The fact that those people are mentioned at all puts into question the integrity of those who were asked to participate. Glasscock is a good start. He’d be my vote. The real power, however, lies with people whose names we do not recognize.

Insider 5 –  I haven’t seen the (CJ) list, but (angel investors/private equity fund managers) Kent Oyler and Dale Boden should be very close to the top of it.  “Powerful” is what they are, but hardly the word they would think in terms of (themselves.) Influential.  Important. The power that comes from their signature or hand shake or nod of the head is unmistakable, but not because of in-your-face visibility. Then, too, there are young people who are “powerful” by virtue of their engagement in “the scene”:  Sundar Sridharagopal (founding partner at Techneek and database administrator at SHPS) would be at the top of that list.

Insider 6 I think “power” is the ability to influence lives. By that standard, the most powerful person in Louisville may well be Mitch McConnell, the longest-serving U.S. senator in Kentucky history with more Washington clout than any Kentuckian since perhaps Henry Clay and more power than any Louisvillian since perhaps Louis Brandeis.

Here’s my take: The whole idea of “Louisville’s most powerful person” is laughable. Or as one of our insiders noted, “Tell me what you want to do, and I’ll tell you who’s powerful. Power without a vision of what you want to accomplish is an abstraction.”

Power has limits, especially in a town such as Louisville, so painfully divided between Old Money and Nouveau Riche. But money flows from power, and power is a by-product of money, especially if there is vision and courage behind the money.

Here’s our quick and dirty Insider list, and why these people are “powerful.”

Jim Allen, chairman and CEO of Hillard Lyons. Nothing happens in any community without financial savvy, and Allen leads the largest investment firm in Kentucky in a partnership with Bowling Green-based Houchens Industries Inc. Allen’s firm minds the money of Louisville’s wealthiest. Hilliard Lyons also has the technical/market expertise to place the arena bonds during a recession that no one else could place. Allen never forgets a name, and is genuinely respected as a class act.

Ken Berryman, director of Charlotte, N.C.-based CapitalSouth Partners LLC’s Kentucky office, and founder of the Kentucky chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth. Berryman, an alumnus of Humana as well as Genscape Inc., knows everyone worth knowing. And he’s got CapSouth’s $500 million in investment/mezzanine fund capital behind him. A good guy to know.

Jonathan Blue, Blue Equity LLC. It’s the vision thing. Blue runs his own private equity company and has the autonomy to do things like buy the Spanish Yellow Pages, then sell a chunk to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Or to start Blue Entertainment Sports Television, then turn around and sell it to Paris-based Lagardere SCA. Blue is one of the smartest people in Louisville in terms of business savvy, analysis and recall. He’s one of the few people who can walk into a room of the hundred-plus most influential people in Louisville and dazzle that audience while speaking without notes. Seen him do it.

Owsley Brown, retired Brown Forman Corp. CEO and chairman. As a Brown and a major BF shareholder, Brown is at the nexus where Louisville’s business, arts and social worlds intersect.

Chuck Denny, a real power in commercial lending when he was at the now-defunct National City Bank. Now Denny is Kentucky market president for Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group Inc. which has an insurmountable lead in Louisville deposits over the next largest bank, Chase. A U.S. Marine Corps officer (you’re never a former Marine), the unassuming Denny rarely puts a foot wrong.

Mark Hebert, The former top WHAS reporter now is the gatekeeper at the University of Louisville. Hebert may not be a Ph.D, but if Dr. Ramsey doesn’t listen to advice from one of the smartest people around, he should. U of L has too many problems – from Pitino to Felner to the war between U of L docs and Humana – for Ramsey not to.

Ed Glasscock, the retired managing partner of Frost Brown Todd, Louisville’s largest law firm, now is a contract consultant for Nucleus, the University of Louisville’s ambitious plan to build a research center. Glasscock either knows about, or touches, nearly every important deal.

Gill Holland, The Group Entertainment LLC. It’s not often that someone comes to a town with a vision to reshape it and the ability to do so. In three short years, Holland and Augusta Brown Holland have helped transform the way Louisville thinks about Green technology and transformed East Market Street from Skid Row to a new retail and restaurant hub. And please. Who else in Louisville beside Gill Holland can walk unrecognized down East Market, but be mobbed at Sundance?

Henry Heuser, Jr., president of the Henry Vogt Foundation and Henry Vogt Machine Co. The forward looking Heuser is well connected socially, and has interests ranging from art to education to philanthropy that make him a force.

David Jones, Jr., chairman of Chrysalis Ventures. One of the few people in Louisville with the clout and courage to get away with advocating more immigration for Louisville, or with saying:
“If I could wave a wand, education would be absolutely No. 1. It’s a community problem that only 45 percent of the people who start at U of L get their degree within six years. That’s a huge waste of effort. The time for excuses is over. It’s ridiculous that the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky both think of themselves as sports franchises rather than educational institutions.”

Michael McCallister, CEO of Humana Inc. McCallister makes the list by virtue of being the top officer at the largest Louisville-based, publicly traded company ranked by gross annual revenue, which should be somewhere north of $32 billion for 2010.

Mary Moseley, president of the A. J. Schneider Companies, which owns the Galt House and the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Moseley has invested millions to make the Galt an invaluable key to Louisville’s convention business.

David Novak, president and CEO of Yum Brands Inc. Novak isn’t terribly visible, but he’s the top officer at the largest restaurant empire on the planet. How can you not include him?

Jim Patterson II, president of Pattco Inc. No one, including Insider Louisville, understands the scope of Patterson’s wealth, holdings and influence. This from his profile when he was U of L’s 2007 Alumnus of the Year:
Gulfstream Petroleum in Houston; AmeriCall and First Phone, which provided telecommunications services to 13 states; Resource American, a national company which sells software systems for the medical industry; Rally’s Hamburgers, a drive-through restaurant chain; and Chi-Chi’s Restaurants.
Arguably the guy with the greatest influence, but the most discrete public profile. Adds to his mystique. Patterson has made generous contributions to Bellarmine University and to U of L.

Joe Reagan, president and CEO of Greater Louisville Inc., the Metro Chamber of Commerce. Makes the list by virtue of overseeing what’s supposed to be the major economic-development organization.

John Schnatter, founder and CEO of Papa John’s International, or at least we think he is this week. Despite an erratic few years, Schnatter shows occasional signs of greatness, such as his push into the digital future with aggressive online ordering and marketing.

Charles Venable, director of the Speed Art Museum. With his vision to turn the Speed into a first-rate museum and a national brand, he presides over a collection that gives him social entree and the cache even money or political power can’t buy. Recent purchases of local art by Stephen Irwin and Sarah Lyon further burnish his star.


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Terry Boyd
Terry Boyd has seven years experience as a business/finance journalist, and eight years a military reporter with European Stars and Stripes. As a banking and finance reporter at Business First, Boyd dealt directly with the most influential executives and financiers in Louisville.

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