A political appointee with a successful track record in the private sector, Don Cardon has become the face of the new and innovating Arizona Commerce Authority. While Gov. Jan Brewer is chair of the public/private economic development agency and sports mogul Jerry Colangelo serves as co-chair, it is Cardon, as president and CEO, who has his hands on the reins.
Leaders who have gotten to know Cardon better during the process of creating the Arizona Commerce Authority say he keeps his cool at all times, in good days and bad, is respectful of all points of view, is thoughtful, and someone who projects an element of stability for the state of Arizona.
But even more importantly, according to Roy Vallee, outgoing chairman and CEO of Avnet, are Cardon’s financial skills.
“Not only does he have numeric literacy, (he also has an) understanding of financing, how to pull deals together and how to interact with banks and other sources of capital,” Vallee says.
Cardon began his employment with state government in March 2009 as director of the Arizona Department of Housing, and just a couple of months later Brewer appointed him director of the Arizona Department of Commerce, predecessor of the ACA. Before joining the state, Cardon was president and CEO of Cardon Development Group, creating low-income workforce housing projects in Phoenix, Gilbert, Eloy and Winslow, and was the visionary behind the group that helped create CityScape, a mixed-use development in Downtown Phoenix.
Cardon’s stated intention was to see the ACA through its formative stage until a permanent president and CEO could be brought onboard, enabling him to return to the more lucrative private sector. But as the ACA board of directors took shape, comprising the cream of Arizona’s business and community leaders, Cardon was urged by Brewer, Colangelo and board member Michael Manson to remain.
“We sat him down and said you can’t create vision and hope with no structure or follow through,” says Manson, co-founder/executive chairman of Motor Excellence in Flagstaff. “That’s the worst kind of leadership. He realized that was true. We identified him as one of the few people in the state who had the political connections, the Commerce Department background and the business connections to make this work.”
Manson, who has founded several other companies, including PETsMART, says Cardon brings enthusiasm, energy and integrity to the ACA.
“He’s eternally optimistic and politically sensitive,” Manson says. “It takes a unique person to be politically rooted, but business oriented, and to be able to handle all of the political and business entities and very strong personalities it requires. He is truly focused on doing the right things for this organization.”
Indeed, focus is a key word in Cardon’s vocabulary. In guiding the ACA, the focus is attracting and retaining businesses in science and technology, aerospace/defense, renewable energy, and small business/entrepreneurship. He once told an interviewer: “You can’t just kind of throw a line in water and say whatever fish comes along you’ll take, which isn’t to say we won’t respond to any other opportunities. But you have to know what you’re trying to go after.”
At the Commerce Department, economic development was “a shotgun approach,” Cardon says. It was an approach he intends to avoid.
“There was no focus within the department,” he says. “Because of the lack of focus, I don’t believe the Legislature has had a great deal of confidence in our efficiency, our ability to accomplish what we set out to do. It was an agency that has really lost touch with what it’s really supposed to be about.”
Another ACA board member, Mary Peters, president of a consulting group bearing her name, touts Cardon’s private-sector background.
“Don understands what it takes to attract and retain businesses in Arizona,” says Peters, whose resume includes stints as federal highway administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation in President George W. Bush’s administration from 2006-2009, and director of the Arizona Department of Transportation from 1998 to 2001.
“He knows how to put projects together and how to manage,” Peters says. “That’s the value I see in Don and what he brings in the transition from the Commerce Department, having that continuity. Having spent most of my professional career in the public sector, it’s helpful for me to have someone with that private-sector experience to realize what businesses are looking for. I have a different perspective. I know very well the regulatory side of government. I know what it’s like to work through issues with government agencies so those issues aren’t barriers to companies that would like to come into Arizona.”
When Vallee of Avnet, also on the ACA board, heard about a move to encourage Cardon to accept the top ACA job, even after a search firm had been hired and specs of the job had been outlined, his instant reaction was, “That’s fantastic.”
The reasons: Cardon had a good track record at the Commerce Department and had been intimately involved in the creation of the Commerce Authority.
“He understands the history and the purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Vallee says. “This was a brand new entity, and if we recruit someone who had not been involved in creating it, that person would flounder for a while trying to figure out what the job is all about.”
Because the ACA is a public/private partnership, having a CEO with experience and expertise in both areas is considered a huge benefit.
“He is better able to manage that environment very, very well — better than anyone with one viewpoint or the other,” Vallee says.
Vallee mentions Cardon’s core values, especially integrity.
“We all want someone in that role we can trust,” he says. “People are going to want to do business with someone they can trust, whether it’s investment coming from within state or from outside. As people get to know Don and develop that trust, it’s going to be beneficial to economic development.”
Vallee pauses and adds, “Don is a good man and a good executive, which makes him a really great fit for this job.”
For more information about the Arizona Commerce Authority, visit www.azcommerce.com.