The fourth chapter of Dennis Mullen's professional career, as a startup consultant, comes with perhaps the most uncertainty, he said this week.
The recently replaced head of the Empire State Development Corp. launched the Mullen Group LLC on March 1, bringing two ESDC colleagues with him to offices on the first floor at Harro East on Andrews Street.
Mullen will make his first public appearance since leaving the ESDC when he moderates a Repositioning Rochester Series panel discussion sponsored by the Rochester Downtown Development Corp. on Tuesday at the Radisson Hotel Rochester Riverside on East Main Street.
"I'm really pleased that I can come back and people still remember who the heck I am," he said.
The Mullen Group is in the same building as the ESDC's Finger Lakes regional offices and is where Mullen was based as top executive of the state agency.
"This is probably one of the most challenging initiatives I've taken on," he said. "It's entrepreneurship. When you wake up in the morning, you're it."
Mullen, 57, was an executive with New York's economic development agency for 21/2 years, first as upstate president and then as statewide chairman and CEO.
Before that he was president and CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc. from 2005 to 2008. He previously was president and CEO of Birds Eye Foods Inc., culminating some 35 years in the private-sector food industry.
The Mullen Group lacks the infrastructure of Birds Eye, the board oversight and community support of GRE, and the resources of the ESDC, Mullen said.
"The challenge here is different," he said. "I'm just embracing it and want to see if, in fact, we can be successful here. The jury is still out."
The Mullen Group has three clients, which he declined to name, and is pursuing six others. The firm offers support for marketing and mergers and acquisitions strategies.
"The goal is to be more of a boutique and not have 1,000 accounts," he said. "We've made terrific progress in a very short period of time."
Mullen's partner is Jennifer Sanfilippo, who joined Mullen at the ESDC in 2009 as a senior adviser with 20 years of public policy experience. His executive assistant is Bridget Loyde.
"It's just the three of us, but we're hoping we'll be able to grow it and have a meaningful point of differentiation with the experience we have," Mullen said.
In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Kenneth Adams, former president and CEO of the Business Council of New York State Inc., as president and CEO of the ESDC. Last month he nominated former Welch Allyn Inc. president and CEO Julie Shimer as its chairman. Adams' appointment was approved this week by the state Senate.
Mullen, a Pittsford resident, is neither bitter nor disappointed at being passed over, he said.
"I think just the opposite," he said. "I chose not to continue. My almost three years were very rewarding. I've chosen to go into a new direction and start a new career. I'm four weeks in and, I'm happy to say, doing pretty well."
Mullen had no conversation with Cuomo about continuing with the ESDC, he said.
"I sent a note to his (transition) team, saying that I did not want to continue but I very much appreciated the time that I had," Mullen said. "I don't think the governor wanted me to continue. I don't know that definitively.
"The governor wanted to make sure he had the people that he was most comfortable with in the positions of leadership, in all areas. In the private sector, I felt the same way when I took over businesses. I wanted people that I knew, that I had confidence in."
Mullen is encouraged by Cuomo's plan to create 10 regional economic development councils headed by Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy.
"First of all, the governor needs to be congratulated on getting the budget done on time," Mullen said. "Part of that budget is an economic development initiative that he believes is going to be very powerful and will incorporate the communities and regions as part of the solution and not part of the problem.
"For him to have a program that brings together the best and the brightest from each of the regions from throughout the state is very positive. There's not a lot of meat on those bones yet, so I'm anxious to see exactly how he's going to go about doing that. But directionally, it's very hard to disagree with where he's at."
Cuomo's plan is significantly different from the regional blueprint sessions devised in 2007 by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Mullen said.
"The governor has talked, first and foremost, about Lt. Gov. Duffy having oversight," he said. "To have that level of oversight on these regional councils is different, for sure. To have that kind of proactivity is different, for sure.
"Second, the governor has put this in the context of a one-stop shop. What I believe he means by that is not only will Empire State Development Corp. and the Department of Economic Development be sitting with these councils, many other of the state resources will be sitting at the councils."
Those resources likely will include the Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation, Mullen said.
"I think he has worked real hard to make it all-inclusive," Mullen said. "I think his intention is to have a lot of participants and a lot of feedback, to prioritize each of the region's core competencies."
The Repositioning Rochester event, called "Voice of the Next Generation," includes Rochester City Council president Lovely Warren, We Live New York chairman Jeremy Cooney, Flaum Management Co. president Asher Flaum, Rochester school board member Melisza Campos and Live Work Realty president Patrick Dutton.
"We are featuring a handful of up-and-coming leaders," RDDC president Heidi Zimmer-Meyer said. "They represent X and Y generation people. Each one of them has taken on something different, and all of them are having an impact on what's happening here in Rochester.
"Dennis' role is to emcee that. Because of where he's coming from, he's going to be able to poke at certain issues, to ask provocative questions, and maybe even to make a few statements about what he's seen statewide."
Younger professionals have taken a more collaborative approach to their careers than previous generations, who have been more isolated, Zimmer-Meyer said.
"This is a much more collective mind-think approach, and we're very interested in that," she said. "Downtowns tend to be sparked heavily, but not entirely, by young professionals. For us, it's a very real issue.
"It's also where the creative class pieces start to come together, in how people set up their companies and where they locate, and where they live and how they engage in the community."
The forum will focus on what young professionals think of the Rochester area, personally and in the workplace, said Mullen, a New Jersey native who has lived here for 20 years.
"I don't think there's any question, from a personal perspective, that Rochester gives anybody all the ingredients to not only flourish but to be able to raise a family with a value system and with the surrounding areas that contribute to that," he said. "Certainly, I've experienced that since 1991 when we moved here."
The professional aspect is more complex, Mullen said.
"Is there the availability, in this particular job market, to establish yourself, create a career and create personal wealth?" he said. "We'll be talking to them about those particular issues and get their perspective on how they feel about those things. Hopefully, it will be a learning experience, and then we move forward from there."
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