NKY Chamber of Commerce Chairman, Brent Cooper Talks Regionalism & Success
By Dianne Gebhardt-French
Brent Cooper likes to joke that Northern Kentucky puts the Greater in Greater Cincinnati.
He believes Covington is being reborn, the colleges are producing top-notch graduates, and businesses — large and small — are fueling the region out of the recession and into sustainable business growth.
Part coach and part cheerleader, Cooper says he’s very optimistic about Northern Kentucky. The unemployment rate has dropped in Boone, Campbell and Kenton and, in his position as chairman of the board of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Cooper is at the table with the region’s leaders representing not just Northern Kentucky but also the smaller and mid-sized businesses that are crucial to a strong economic foundation.
Gateway Community and Technical College (where he serves on the board), Thomas More College and Northern Kentucky University are all doing an outstanding job at minting graduates with the skills needed for businesses to succeed, he says. He spares no credit, calling the three “absolutely fantastic partners with the business community.”
“Four of our best employees are NKU graduates,” Cooper adds.
Yes, there are problems to be solved. The airport, the Brent Spence Bridge and K-12 education. He believes it will be businesses that lead the way in solving those issues.
Covington is on the cusp of a revival, he says, pointing to quietly explosive growth in biotech and the eZone. It’s an exciting time to be here, he says.
That’s one of the reasons he set up shop here, making creative use of an old building and hanging his shingle at Fifth and Madison for C-Forward, the computer networking and IT consulting business he founded in 1999.
Cooper says C-Forward’s number one product is its employees. He hires good people, trains them continuously, and, in 2011 had a 95 percent retention rate over three years.
His employees value urban living. Covington offers that.
“We can walk to restaurants, walk to vendors, walk to customers,” he says.
The riverfront city also provides the perfect location. With multiple bridges and proximity to Cincinnati, C-Forward can quickly get its techs to the customer.
“We can be anywhere in Greater Cincinnati in about 30 minutes or less. Our response time is so critical to who we are.”
He repeats the slogan, painted boldly on the service vans in the back parking lot: “We’re personal, we’re proactive, we’re reliable. We joke that we’re faster than Domino’s,” he adds. The location is strategic. When companies have an IT situation, time matters.
Not Rocket Science
Cooper talks plainly about success. It’s about increasing revenue, attracting and retaining good employees, and satisfying customers. “Happy employees and happy customers, those two are equal in my eyes,” Cooper says.
“It’s not rocket science, not magic.”
The company grew 16 percent in 2010 and 32 percent in 2011. That’s despite a nationwide recession.
Cooper’s formula: “We provide a good service, are engaged with the community and people like working with us.”
Making money has not been Cooper’s only focus, he says, adding “to our accountants’ dismay, from time to time.” He’s committed to providing good wages, good benefits and being involved in the community. “C-Forward has always made money, that’s not the issue. We give a lot away, which we’re happy to do.”
Part and Parcel
As sold as he is on the qualities and resources of his home state, Cooper makes it clear that success — for his business and for the region — depends on businesses on both sides of the Ohio River.
“The majority of our business is actually on the northern side of the river. We’re just as dependent on Cincinnati as we are Northern Kentucky,” he says. “The decisions they make in Columbus affect us just as much as Frankfort does,” Cooper says.
“The things that unite us — the bridge, the airport, how the Reds are doing, how the Bengals are doing — those are all things that I think most Northern Kentuckians, most business owners in Northern Kentucky for sure, (make us) feel that we are just as much a part of Cincinnati as anyone.”
He’s not alone in identifying the region’s top five areas of growth:
• logistics and distribution
• health care
His office is besotted with blazing blue UK logos — his lamps, pennants, even the watch on his wrist. “I went to UK. Met my wife Lisa who is from Fort Thomas. If you are from Fort Thomas, there’s a rule that you have to move back there. It’s kind of like the West side of Cincinnati,” Cooper explains. So, they live in Fort Thomas.
He loves it now, too. His kids, ages 10 and 7, can walk to school, the library and Graeters. “We can be at a Reds game in five minutes or a Bengals game in seven minutes,” he says. The family often does that, he says, they “park here, walk the Roebling.”
A lifelong diehard Bengals fan, he loves to tell the story of the day Coach Marvin Lewis stood right at his desk in this very spot and gave him a signed football for a Fort Thomas school fundraiser. A friend forgot to pick it up and “the next day Marvin hopped in his car, drove over here and personally delivered it.” He walked through the offices, introducing himself and passed on a bit of advice to Cooper that he had learned from someone else: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
The story brings him back to the relationship between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Neither, he says, could be what it is without the other. “They are inseparable.” He wishes Frankfort and Columbus would work together and collaborate on the issues facing the region, including the bridge and the airport.
For exactly that reason, he is a member of both chambers.
“The business community for some time now has been working collaboratively and will continue to do even more of that,” he says. “You are going to see much more of a coordinated effort on things like the bridge, the airport, and I think we’re realizing that leaders in Frankfort and Columbus are not going to get us out of this • The business community is going to have to lead the way. ”
There’s a display case of awards in the hallway of his office, for service to clients as well as service to the business world and the community: NKY Chamber’s Small Business Success Award, Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award, the Cincinnati Chamber’s Excellence Award and Community Involvement Award, and others.
Cooper’s first lessons on customer service came while working for his dad at Holbrook Drugs in his hometown of Morehead, Ky. “You got a free Coke with every prescription,” Cooper says of the iconic store that features an old-time soda fountain. “I used to make milkshakes. That was my first job.”
So, what’s the most surprising thing about the small business owner? He laughs at the question but he is quick to answer:
In basketball, “If nobody’s guarding me, I can hit five to seven out of 10 three-point shots. I’m actually a really good shooter… If nobody’s guarding me, I’m really good.” – Dianne Gebhardt-French writes about the newsmakers of Northern Kentucky. Contact her at (513) 297-6209 or firstname.lastname@example.org.