A quiet force: King helped revitalize city behind scenes

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Coming of age in the 1950s, Tom King thought he’d make a pretty good engineer.

“I grew up during what I call the ‘Sputnik Era’. Anybody who was a halfway decent student was going to be an engineer,” says the newly retired president of the Lilly Foundation. “When I saw what engineers did, I discovered I wouldn’t make a very good one.”

Instead, King found himself a niche constructing some of the
most complex local economic development projects of the last 30 years. While president of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, and later as Eli Lilly and Co. Foundation’s chief, King went to work on a number of deals that were central to the city’s revitalization.

The RCA Dome, the NCAA

headquarters and some much-needed sewer improvements may not have happened were it not for King, a selfdescribed “role player” who gladly ceded the spotlight to others while he worked behind the scenes on project after project.

“He’s never been afraid to roll up his sleeves and do what he has to do,” said Greg Schenkel, president and CEO of the Indy Partnership.

King, 63, is the 2005 winner of IBJ’s Michael A. Carroll award for community service, given annually in memory of the former deputy mayor to a person who embodies Carroll’s qualities of determination, humility and devotion to the community. The award will be presented June 8 at the Indiana Achievement Awards luncheon at the downtown Marriott Hotel.

Though officially retired-he hung up his hat at Lilly March 31-King hasn’t retreated from civic life. He is chairman of the Indy Partnership, the region’s economic development organization, and also leads the Indianapolis Branding Initiative, an effort on the part of 14 development groups to give the city an identity.

The privately funded initiative, created in 2003, is working on developing a logo and slogan that will help sell Indianapolis to outsiders.

Without King, others said, there might not be as much for the city to brag about.

“He has been involved in a lot of the initiatives that, in my opinion, have set Indianapolis on the course that turned it into the exciting city it is today,” said Jim McClelland, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana Inc.

King got his start in the business world in 1970.

It was “kind of a fluke,” he said, when he called the Chamber of Commerce about job openings around the city and ended up getting hired by the Chamber
itself. In the position of director of civic affairs and community development, King organized job fairs and worked closely with the minority business community at a time when race relations were tense.

Not yet 30, King was already rubbing elbows with local bigwigs, many of whom became mentors, and was learning the difficult ropes of economic development.

“That was such a wonderful job to have at a young age,” he recalled. “I had all these father figures … and they let me make mistakes and coached me through them.”

King was promoted three times at the Chamber, eventually becoming its president in 1979. During his time at the helm, the Chamber’s membership doubled as smaller businesses from around the metropolitan area joined along with the longtime big business members.

King’s big moment came in the early 1980s, when he was part of the movement to build what would be the RCA Dome. While conservative Hoosiers balked at the idea of an expensive domed stadium, King stuck his neck out as the Chamber’s new president and rallied support for the project.

“In the beginning, it scared the daylights out of me,” he said. “I had just become president of the Chamber of Commerce at a very young age. Some people on the board thought I was too young for the job, and I was very much aware of that.”

The Chamber led the way with a feasibility study that determined a dome would be financially possible. Then King set out making speeches to community groups while Chamber colleagues lobbied lawmakers.

The result was the $77.5 million, 57,900-seat dome-not to mention an enhanced reputation for the new kid on the block.

“That’s the thing that I think established me as someone who could get
things done,” King said.

A few years later, King used some of that clout to back plans for infrastructure improvements. In the late 1980s, the Chamber conducted a feasibility study on massive infrastructure problems in the city, eventually coaxing the new Goldsmith administration to issue bonds for $1.1 billion in improvements to roads and sewers.

With two big feathers in his cap, King ended his tenure at the Chamber in 1991, when he became IPALCO Enterprises Inc.’s vice president of corporate affairs. Two years with the utility were followed
by an equally brief stint as president and CEO of Walker Research. Then he made the leap to Eli Lilly and Co.

For King, running the pharmaceutical giant’s $75 million foundation was gratifying, but it “wasn’t as much fun as you would think,” he said.

“There are more people than you can possibly imagine who have all these ideas about [where the money should go],” he said. “The challenge becomes, how do you balance between the philanthropic part of it and the [corporate] part of it?”

The ultimate winners were the foundation’s beneficiaries. In 1999, King convinced Lilly to go above and beyond its typical quarterly funding of the foundation with an additional one-time capitalization of $150 million.

While at Lilly, King also participated in a $15 million effort to recruit the NCAA headquarters to Indianapolis. The bid was successful, with the organization moving here in 1999.

Again, it was King who toiled behind the scenes on a high-profile project, said James Morris, then chairman of IWC Resources Corp., who asked King to spearhead fund-raising efforts for the NCAA relocation.

“I never saw Tom put himself forward, but usually working faithfully in the background, pursuing good things for Indianapolis,” Morris said.

In his retirement, such as it is, King may be tackling one of his toughest projects yet with the Indianapolis Branding Initiative. Trying to get 14 groups with different priorities to focus on a common goal is “like herding cats,” King admitted. But, he said, the inherent difficulties are worthwhile.

“It’s one of the most important things we can do from the standpoint of getting all these development organizations to come together on one agenda to improve the city. I’m very pleased that all 14 organizations are at the table. Nothing but good can come from that.”

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