When Laura Neumann retired six months ago, she'd transformed Cheyenne Mountain Resort from a doomed conference center still dreaming of pre-9/11, corporate extravagance to a resort reliant on a diverse base of regional travelers, fraternal meet-ups and weddings. In a 20-plus-year career with Benchmark Hospitality International, the 49-year-old built a track record of such turnarounds — impressive in the hospitality world — but no experience in government.
So, when Neumann met Mayor Steve Bach through mutual friends 10 weeks ago, she was looking for a volunteer position. At their first meeting, Neumann says, the mayor talked at length about his vision.
"I don't have any government background, so it was fascinating to me," she says. "But it also became clear that there wasn't any volunteer role, and he didn't offer one, so we just kind of let that conversation be."
A couple months later, he offered her the job as chief of staff. (Since it's a position in the mayor's cabinet, it did not need to be posted publicly.)
At first, Neumann says, she didn't think she was qualified. But after the mayor decided to retain control over police and fire, the job description looked more familiar to Neumann, and she accepted.
Bach says she's the right pick for a complex job.
"Being chief of staff of a city involves a tremendous amount of detail ... complicated, time-consuming, but important operational matters," he says. "And she spent a lifetime doing that in large resorts and hotels."
Though she doesn't start until Jan. 1, Neumann's already working to find a finance director. She'll also look for a city clerk and directors for human resources, planning and public works, and information technology. Early on, she plans to spend time getting to know City Council.
"You know, when I first heard [about Neumann's hire], I had a little bit of concern," Council President Scott Hente says. "But it's mitigated in my mind by the fact that she has an extremely strong assistant chief of staff."
That would be Nancy Johnson, who's spent her career in government and has been an administrator with the Springs for several years. Neumann says she's equally relieved to have Johnson, and other experienced staff, as she settles in.
We spoke with Neumann about the new challenge.
Indy: What will your days be like? Will you just be approving the work of department directors?
LN: One of the reasons, a very strong reason that I said yes, is that I think Mayor Bach has some very strong vision ... So I think there's a lot of conversations about great ideas and strategies — just like those Solutions Teams that are very exciting that he put together.
Those things will all need to get a life. And I think at the end of the day, I'm kind of the tactical person that will help hold people accountable, and get things traction.
Indy: In the past, this was the city manager position. I don't remember seeing anyone who came into it out of the private sector. What do you know about roads and transit? Is that something you think you're going to be directly dealing with?
LN: I think that some of that is going to fall on me, I do. And I have been very honest about what I don't know. And some of the things you just mentioned, I don't know, I've never had experience in.
But what I'll say is just like running a resort — like, let's say for example, I've managed all these spas, and golf courses and championship golf. I don't golf. I've never designed a golf course. I haven't done some of this stuff, but I do hire, or in some cases retain, professionals that I trust to give me information ... and then help me make the decision that's in the best interest of that particular issue.
Indy: I know lots of smart people in the private sector who complain about how money is spent in the public sector. Often, they're surprised that laws require money to be spent in certain ways. How do you feel about working with those strings attached?
LN: It's interesting you say that, because people have said to me, "Can you handle the bureaucracy?" That's the word they've used. And they say, "Change moves slow, and there's all this red tape." And, by the way, the people who are saying this have never done it before. So I'm not saying they're wrong, I don't really know.
My answer to that is, someone must serve. ... And I told people, "Don't consider me naive. I'm not naive."...
I don't know where it's going to be, but I'm going to be told, "You can't do that." Well, the one thing I've always asked in my whole career is, "Why?"
Indy: Tell me how your experiences in hospitality have shaped you into somebody who will be good at this job.
LN: I've been in the service business, whether hotels and resorts, or food and beverage and restaurants, all my life. ... And I guess what I'll say helped shape my experience [were] many difficult, very challenging economic times, and a lot of turnaround properties, making them from financially struggling to successful, and that's kind of how your success is measured.
But what I'm most proud of ... is I took a group of people, some with higher education and very accomplished, and some with nothing but the clothes on their back ... and brought them together toward a common goal of whatever that particular property's mission was. And I created a vision, created a culture, and made big things happen.