Sound Bites . . . A Business Journal Lunch with David Leckey
By SARWAR KASHMERI | June 25,2013
Over creamed cauliflower and broccoli soup laced with toasted cumin and coriander, the new executive director of the Orton Family Foundation talks to Sarwar Kashmeri about its Heart & Soul Community Planning program, and how lucky he is to be in Vermont.
We develop products around our unique intellectual property at the Orton Family Foundation. You might say our products are now in the pre-production stage. The research and development is done; we’ve got some good prototypes, and by next year we expect to offer definitive versions into the market. Then, we begin to test the market for our products, use the feedback to improve them, and move aggressively to build distribution networks.”
Listening to the sentences pouring out of the man who now heads up one of Vermont’s most innovative foundations, I could have closed my eyes and believed the meeting was taking place at the office of a Silicon Valley high-technology company, instead of the delightful Storm Café in Middlebury, VT.
David Leckey, the Orton Family Foundation’s executive director, barely four months into his job, is explaining how the foundation helps residents of small cities and towns discover or re-discover their communities’ unique DNA — their heart and soul — and then shows them how to use these core community values to guide their own growth and change.
Leckey’s business background is never far away as he assembles sentences to explain his new job. “The foundation has invented tools, and processes [the products] to help communities identify their core values,” he explains. “These products were invented and refined by our staff after extensive research” — meaning they were developed, tested, and improved by actually using them in selected communities such as Essex, VT; Biddeford, ME; and nearly a dozen other towns in New England and the Rocky Mountain West. “These prototypes are a year away from being rolled out to more communities,” he said, meaning that the Heart & Soul process, developed and ground tested by the foundation, will soon be available to communities around the country. “And, it is part of my job to make sure our products have national applicability and tangible value,” Leckey tells me.
“One reason our heart-and-soul process works is because we’ve become very good at convincing people in towns to start by telling each other their community’s stories: The traditions and practices that make, for instance, a small town in Vermont different from a similar-size town in Idaho.” The Orton Family Foundation’s vision and resources have helped to develop these products and bring them to fruition, “and my challenge is to figure out how to get them known and used nationally in such a way that the foundation does not have to rely only on Mr. Orton’s largesse for support.”
It is a sunny day in Middlebury, one of Vermont’s prettiest towns. We are enjoying the sunlight streaming through the windows of this charming restaurant as our poised server sells us on its unusual soup: creamed cauliflower and broccoli laced with toasted cumin and coriander, spices I grew up with in India. But, in a soup? The combination turns out to be absolutely delicious, as are our fresh salads. Leckey — dressed in the now ubiquitous modern chief-executive style of a buttoned-down shirt and dark trousers —settles in with an iced tea while I order water.
“Unlike most foundations, the Orton Family Foundation (www.orton.org) is an operating foundation, not a granting foundation, meaning it does not just give out grants: Its staff actually goes out and trains volunteers to use the tools, methods and resources we have developed,” said Leckey. The foundation has 12 people working for it: nine in Vermont and three in Denver, CO.
The foundation’s work is increasingly relevant to communities around the country, he said. “Economic development is changing America’s towns and cities. People who live there are straining to balance the need for jobs with the lifestyle of a small town that drew them to it in the first place.”
Lyman Orton, proprietor of the Vermont Country Store, whose profits sustain the foundation, puts it this way: “They live in communities.”
In a sense, Leckey has gone full circle and returned to the environment that launched his trajectory. Born in Findlay, OH, he taught special-education classes in grades K through six. “After a few years, I wanted to expand my horizons beyond a small town of 500 and experience the world.”
He’d become interested in international events and was offered jobs in Belgium, Okinawa, and Brazil. He picked Brazil (“It sounded exotic”), and still speaks Portuguese. After four years, he finished his master’s degree in education and then looked for schools that taught international development, selecting the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs (“the Midwest’s version of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard,” Leckey tells me proudly). Then, with funding from Minnesota’s McKnight Foundation, he helped establish the Southwest Initiative Foundation, which is one of six rural regional community foundations across Minnesota designed to address rural community and economic development issues.
“In a few years I got to know a lot of people, especially small-business owners, and decided to support the gubernatorial campaign of Arne Carlson, a man whose policies really appealed to me.” Leckey’s man won the 1990 election, and the new Governor appointed Leckey as deputy commissioner for trade and economic development.
Leckey was later brought into the Governor’s office to help Carlson build coalitions and sell the Governor’s progressive business ideas throughout the state. “One result of this experience was that I began to wonder whether I could be successful as a businessman myself, and it wasn’t long before I made the decision to join a start-up company.” He served as executive vice president of Dane Technologies and president of its subsidiary, LEVO USA, which today is a combined $20-million company.
I notice Leckey has barely had a chance to eat between my rapid-fire questions, so we move to a slower-paced personal conversation to let him catch up. We soon find that the “six degrees of separation principle” is alive and well in the center of Middlebury. Despite Leckey and I never having met, we discover people we’ve both known during our careers. Who knows where this might have led, but fortunately our server returned to offer dessert, which both of us passed on (it isn’t easy to ignore desserts at the Storm Café), and I finish my lunch with a steaming cappuccino. My guest orders another iced tea.
Does he have any trepidation about his move to Vermont? It turns out that all of Leckey’s wife’s family has moved to this state over the last three decades: her mother, her four brothers, two sisters, and countless nieces and nephews, “and they’re all within 1 ½ hours of South Burlington, where we live. Did you ask if I had any trepidation?” he says with his contagious laugh.
“It is a very tight family that loves open country and has an independent streak. They are carpenters and have built their own houses on mountaintops. My wife Susan was the only prodigal family member, so in a sense we’ve now moved back home to Vermont.”
As we walk back to his office, I realize Leckey’s life and his varied careers have been preparation for heading up the Orton Family Foundation. Business, community, diversity, tradition, warmth, collegiality, and determination come together in his background. It is a rare blend of skills. I make a mental note to invite him to another New England Business Journal lunch in a few months to catch up with his and the foundation’s trajectory.
Sarwar A. Kashmeri of Reading, VT is an adjunct professor at Norwich University. A specialist on relations between the U.S. and Europe, his latest book is titled, NATO 2.0: Reboot or Delete? He teaches an annual course on American foreign policy at Dartmouth College’s School of Continuing Education. v