Like many others, Catherine Smith came to Connecticut from somewhere else, liked it here and stuck around. After graduating from the Yale School of Management, she landed a job in the insurance industry in 1981 and got married. She and her husband, Peter Maxson, raised a family here: a daughter, who is a clinical psychologist and a son who is a landscape architect.
Life here has been good for Catherine Smith. In 2011, when Gov. Dannel Malloy came a-calling, Smith had reached the pinnacle of her career: She was CEO of ING Group's U.S. Retirement Services, responsible for assets worth more than $280 billion. To put that figure in perspective, it is seven times larger than Connecticut's biennial budget.
But the governor had a "deal" for Smith, who was 58 at the time and could have retired at the drop of a hat. If she wanted to be commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), she could continue to work extremely hard and for "way less money," according to Smith. Her state salary is $190,400.
Unsurprising to those who know her, Catherine Smith chose hard work and a new challenge over a rocking chair. She explained her reasoning this way: "I had a fabulous career in the private sector. I loved it. Helping people to save for retirement was a fantastic thing to be doing, but I was ready for something different."
Clearly, retirement never had a chance. This is a person, after all, who brings work folders along to read while she is getting her hair done, according to a longtime friend. Her idea of walking the family dog is taking it for a three-mile run at the crack of dawn. The vacations she and her husband take tend to involve hiking, biking, skiing, canoeing or dogsledding. She is on the board of Outward Bound, among other organizations, and the photos on her office walls attest to her forays into wild places such as Alaska and the Himalayas.
The challenge of Smith's new job, which she has held for six years, was to make Connecticut, circa 2017, more like the state she was drawn to 36 years ago: a growing, vibrant place where people could find good jobs.
By most accounts, as well as metrics, Smith made a successful transition from the private to the public sector, in part, by bringing her business acumen and a willingness to learn along for the ride.
Chris DiPentima, president of Pegasus, a Middletown aerospace company, sits on the Manufacturing Innovation Fund Advisory Board with Smith. He used to kid the former financial services exec that her limited knowledge of manufacturing didn't extend to being able to spell the word.
Kidding aside, Smith didn't pretend to know things she didn't know and reached out to businesspeople to find out what their concerns were, according to DiPentima. For example, she attends meetings of the Aerospace Components Manufacturers as well as those of the state's large metro chambers of commerce. These are her customers now, and she does what any sensible businessperson does: She listens to them.
"She's all about getting problems addressed right away, if there is consensus," DiPentima said. "And then she does a great job checking in on the metrics to see if a program is working or not, whether there need to be adjustments. She has a need for speed, which you don't see in government too much."
Larry McHugh has been president of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce for 34 years: "I think she's done a truly outstanding job at the DECD with limited resources; her outreach to the business community has been outstanding. She is very accessible…the most important thing is she has a positive outlook."
So what has Smith done for Connecticut lately — with a departmental budget that has shrunk 41 percent during her tenure? In the six years prior to her arrival, the DECD assisted 119 businesses in various ways. Under her leadership, the department reports helping more than 3,000 firms: 1,770 of those through the Small Business Express Program, which DECD established in 2012 to provide loans and grants to companies with 100 or fewer employees.
The First Five Plus Program, which incentivizes large Connecticut companies to expand and add employees, has resulted in 3,759 new jobs since 2011, according to state figures. So are Connecticut taxpayers getting a return for the money DECD spends to keep and grow jobs in the state?
"Absolutely," Smith said, "We're making money for the state." DECD projects that the new jobs created by First Five alone will bring in $300 million to state coffers by 2021, a return on investment of at least $48 million, she said.
Smith has her pitch down about why Connecticut is a good place to do business, especially as a location for firms in five targeted industries — aerospace, biosciences, advanced manufacturing, tourism, and insurance and financial services: "Companies move here because the talent pool is incredible, we have a highly educated work force. They move here because the location is superb, in the middle of a huge market stretching from Boston all the way down to D.C., with easy access to all of it … Plus the quality of life here is terrific, the museums, the theaters, we have an amazing array of assets."
The news that Aetna was likely to relocate its headquarters elsewhere makes her job harder, Smith admitted: "It's an unfortunate turn of events, but not entirely a surprise — and of, course it's not official yet either… it's possible they could change their minds. I'm always an optimist." She added that her department's overall strategic goals would not change and that the vast majority of Aetna employees were remaining in Connecticut. "It's really about what makes companies like this leave," she said. "I think the press actually has been quite thoughtful about some of the reasons this has happened, including the desire of one CEO to make a decision to do something — and that sometimes is the final deciding factor in these things."
In the category of you lose some, you gain some, Amazon announced in June that it would build a new distribution center in North Haven that would employ 1,800 people.
Catherine Smith doesn't seem the least bit worn down by the rigors of her job, which is likely to end in 2018 with the arrival of a new governor. If many are pessimistic about Connecticut's future, she is not, even while acknowledging that the state's well-publicized fiscal problems make her job harder and need to be fixed.
She pointed out that since 2011 the state has a net gain of more than 90,000 jobs and that the private sector has regained 96.6 percent of the jobs that were lost in the Great Recession. She'd like that percentage to be higher, but insisted that progress is progress. The May and June jobs reports documented more than 15,000 net new jobs in the state, although the unemployment rate increased from 4.7 to 4.9 percent. Still, some economists, among others, focused on the unemployment rate.
"We have an unusual culture here in Connecticut; we tend to be very hard on ourselves," Smith said. "So getting good news out and having it stick is extremely challenging. People can find bad news within the good news. We're making slow but sure progress. Would we wish it faster? Of course. Do we want more people employed in the state? Sure. But when you're under 5 percent unemployment, you're in pretty good shape."
For those who think Connecticut doesn't make anything anymore and that all is gloom and doom here, it is worth noting that the state is one of the top five aerospace manufacturing hubs in the world, with hundreds of companies like Pegasus thriving here, according to DiPentima. He said that his business and payroll have doubled since 2009 and a major expansion of its Middletown plant is in the works.
This isn't Catherine's Smith first go-round in the public sector. Straight out of college she went to work for a nonprofit, Friends of the Earth, co-chairing a lobbying campaign that helped to preserve 100 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. As a board member for Outward Bound she periodically leads "Invitationals," forays into wild places that give potential supporters a taste of what the organization is about.
Board chair Laura Kohler characterized her colleague this way, "I am very fortunate to get to work with Catherine. She's so refreshing. She cuts to the nub of an issue, and does it in a polite, but very direct way. She's an absolute roll-up-your-sleeves kind of person and a great ambassador for Outward Bound."