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Midmarket trends, insights and must-read business books for the summer

60 seconds with Thomas A. Stewart, executive director,
National Center for the Middle Market

Thomas A. Stewart
, named executive director of the National Center for the Middle Market earlier this year, is an influential thought leader on global management issues and ideas: an internationally recognized editor and publisher, authority on intellectual capital and knowledge management, and a best-selling author.

He shared his thoughts with Every Monday on several topics including middle-market trends, opportunities and what business executives should be reading this summer.

Every Monday: Tom, you’ve hit the ground running since you were named the Center’s executive director a couple of months ago. As you’ve been out talking with middle-market executives for the past 60 days, what are they telling you about the challenges they’re facing?

Tom Stewart: Actually, I hear more about opportunities than about challenges, and the challenges I hear have to do with talent, innovation, understanding how to use new tools like analytics—good challenges, associated with growth. That’s not to say everything’s peachy-keen: Scratch a middle-market executive and you will hear about health care costs, regulatory complexity, difficulty finding skilled workers, and more.

There’s almost a middle-market syndrome: “I see more opportunities than I have resources, so that I always have to choose one or the other but not both; I worry about navigating my ship in an ocean filled with Fortune 500 supertankers; I worry that I’m ignored by policy makers or taken for granted. But how’s business? Great.”

EM: The National Center for the Middle Market is gaining traction as a trusted resource for middle market executives across America. How do you keep building on the existing resources and assets to support the middle market?

TS: The National Center for the Middle Market, too, has a vast landscape of opportunities, and we’re a small team, so it’s crucial for us to get the leverage and trust that come from working with groups like the Greater Cleveland Partnership.

We’re also lucky in our partnership with GE Capital, which has been both generous and demanding—just what they should be. We’ve spent some time in the last couple of months putting together a framework about the topic areas that matter most to middle market companies and about the communities we want to inform and activate. That’s helping us make choices and set priorities—and we have an exciting set of new studies underway on innovation, talent management, promoting exports, and strengthening operations.

We’re also about to fund a next set of academic studies, which will deepen the knowledge base. And—a small but important thing—in a month or so you’ll see that our website is optimized for tablets and mobile devices, which will help us better reach middle market leaders.

EM: Government policy at the federal level impacts the middle market in a number of ways from regulatory compliance to corporate taxation. What is the NCMM doing to capture the attention of members of Congress to ensure the middle market’s voice is heard on Capitol Hill?

TS: We’re pretty excited by what’s happening in Washington. (When’s the last time anybody said that?) The reason is the formation, just last month, of a Congressional Caucus on Middle Market Growth, sponsored by Jared Polis (D-CO), Tom Rice (R-SC), Brad Schneider (D-IL), and Steve Stivers (R-OH). We joined our friends from the Association for Corporate Growth at a kick-off briefing for Congressional staffers and hope that this caucus will give mid-sized companies a way to be heard in Washington. Pretty is as pretty does, of course—but this is an excellent development.

EM: What’s your assessment of the state of the middle market in Northeast Ohio?

TS: We are in midstream on a major research project to assess the state of the middle market across the state, working with the state and local chambers of commerce and other groups to learn what companies say about what’s going right and what could be better. When that study is complete (in late summer) we’ll be able to say a lot. So, let’s come back in August or September and talk in depth.

We do know Cleveland is a significant hub for the middle market – approximately 2,000 companies generating over $107 billion in revenue and employing close to one million workers. As with other parts of the country, these companies are pillars of the community and resilient through good times and bad. The average firm age is 37 years.

EM: You’ve had a distinguished career in business and publishing. If you could recommend one book middle-market executives should read this summer, what would it be?

TS: My own, of course! But, seriously, I think business leaders should read fewer business books and more history. And more classics: There is no better material on leadership than Shakespeare’s history plays, no better example of managing a growing organization than Paul’s epistles, and no better analysis of the use of power (for good and ill) than Machiavelli’s The Prince.

But if you limit me to business writing, again, I’d pick classics: Peter Drucker on the work of executives, Mike Porter on strategy, Warren Bennis on leadership, Frederick Herzberg on motivation. A lot of the rest is useful, but those four are essential.

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The National Center for the Middle Market, the leading source for knowledge, leadership and research on mid-sized companies, is based at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University. It is a strategic partner of the Greater Cleveland Partnership's Middle Market Initiative.