Outside the box

The Baltimore Sun

At a time of financial crisis, Gov. Martin O'Malley has chosen as the state's new economic development chief a thirtysomething Baltimorean whose private-sector experience includes a failed dot-com, two companies based out of his mother's home and a year at a consulting firm.

O'Malley's choice of Christian S. Johansson to lead the state Department of Business and Economic Development might seem risky for a Cabinet post recently held by men decades his senior with far more experience in business and government.

But Johansson's boosters say the 36-year-old is precisely the person to complete the state's transition from an industrial past to a future in biotech and finance and health. They contend that his resume, which also includes five years leading a public-private development partnership, shows an entrepreneurial spirit that might not have created huge profits but could serve him well in the state position.

"These are challenging times in economic development, and fresh thinking is going to be important," said C. William Struever, a prominent developer in the state. He said Johansson comes to the post from a "somewhat unconventional route" but is a "great choice."

Johansson takes over the 280-employee agency - charged with creating jobs, stimulating investment and training workers - at a critical time. Not only is the recession dragging down Maryland's economy, but the agency faces a 10 percent budget cut.

Johansson, whose appointment is subject to approval by the Maryland Senate, has long had ties to the Democratic governor's inner circle. He recently chose Dominick E. Murray, who worked in city government when O'Malley was mayor and sang with O'Malley's Irish rock band, as his deputy.

Regarded as a wunderkind by some in Baltimore business circles, Johansson most recently started a private equity firm to invest in minority-owned companies. The firm, Continental Equity, got financial backing from Whiting Turner Contracting Co., one of the state's largest construction companies, and sought to acquire one company. But the firm was out-bid, and Johansson left after six months before any deals were done.

O'Malley is "supremely confident" in Johansson's abilities and picked him in part because he believes he'll be successful in luring international companies to Maryland because he's "cultured in such a way that he can represent Maryland well," spokesman Shaun Adamec said. Johansson grew up in Sweden; his American mother was a foreign exchange student who met his father while studying abroad.

Tall and lanky, Johansson talks like a wonky business type already on message with O'Malley. When launching into a statistical rundown on the state's economy, he insists Maryland is better off than other states, a point frequently made by the governor. Unemployment is 20 percent lower than the national rate; sectors such as professional and technical services are actually growing.

Nonetheless, he says Maryland suffers from an image problem - that it's unfriendly to business. State officials for years have tried to dispel the perception, which stems in part from a high-tax reputation and from legislative initiatives such as an effort to require Wal-Mart stores to provide better health benefits for employees.

Johansson said he would use some relocation marketing dollars to reassure companies that are here already, using data to make the case that Maryland's economy is strong. Borrowing a phrase that O'Malley had for Baltimore when he was mayor, Johansson said the state suffers from "pathological modesty."

"Confidence-building measures can have a big impact in the short term for us," he said.

Johansson used the same strategy at the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, a partnership of business, government and educational institutions that markets the region. His small staff researched patents held by Johns Hopkins institutions, for instance, to help convince medical product or service companies that they should be based in Baltimore.

The alliance targeted the life sciences, information technology and financial services sectors, and it sought to promote Baltimore as having more in common with fast-growing Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C., than with languishing Rust Belt cities such as Detroit.

Johansson "was quick to jump in on projects and always thought we could win," said Dick Story, chief executive officer of Howard County's Economic Development Authority.

In building his career, Johansson took a number of different turns.

After earning a biology degree from Brown University, he started two companies with his cousin, capitalizing on his mother's expertise and connections as a professor of nursing at the Johns Hopkins University. The companies were incorporated from her Mount Washington home.

One company, Dola Health Systems, sold to Swedish hospitals the painometer, a standardized way to measure pain patented by his mother, Fannie Gaston-Johansson. The other, Dola Consulting Services, landed a contract to improve patient protocols for a Swedish hospital after he persuaded Johns Hopkins to let him give a presentation to a visiting delegation.

A few years later, while on leave from Harvard Business School, Johansson started Inka.net, a Boston software company that had 30 employees at its height but didn't make a profit and closed after the dot-com bust.

After earning his graduate degree and before returning to Baltimore, Johansson became a consultant for Boston-based Sag Harbor Group. His boss, James S. Henry, said Johansson's job advising wireless company investors was a "a good test run for any business development role."

"In some businesses there is a case for having people with tons of years on the job," Henry said. "But in this environment it's increasingly a matter of creativity and the ability to work hard and quickly understand a number of subjects."

christian s. johansson

Age: 36

Current position: Acting secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development

Experience: President of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, managing director of Continental Equity, senior consultant for Sag Harbor Group

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