Pittsburgher of the Year: Jim Rohr

Walking and talking with Jim Rohr, the business titan who is changing our city yet again.

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Photos by Ric Evans

Deep beneath One PNC Plaza, Jim Rohr is walking down a long hallway. He is striding with the purpose of a man who has too much to do but knows how to handle it. He is talking about fortune—and not the kind of fortune you usually find a banker discussing.

Suddenly, he stops. This is noteworthy because Rohr is a strider, in the tradition of determined CEOs and politicians everywhere. Walk and talk. Talk and walk. Were he a TV character, he’d be in a show like “The West Wing,” forever moving down hallways, always conveying trajectory.

But after many strides, here is Rohr, a decade into his tenure at the helm of PNC, a tough-minded, number-crunching banker halted in the middle of a windowless hallway just off a parking garage with something to say. From the look on his face, it’s important.

He has been talking about life’s path, about where it can carry you and where you can carry it—not an unimportant topic to a guy who lost his father at age 10 and watched his mother struggle mightily to keep things above water and afford his education. Rohr looks his conversation companion dead in the eye.  “You’re lucky,” he says. “I’m lucky. We’re lucky.”

He pauses to let it sink in. “Not everybody’s lucky,” says the man who runs PNC Bank. “That’s where values come in.”

Then Jim Rohr, Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2011 Pittsburgher of the Year, starts walking again.

It would be easy to call James E. Rohr, chairman and CEO of The PNC Financial Services Group, a powerful captain of industry and leave it at that. We’ve had a long line of those in Pittsburgh—guys with names like Carnegie, Mellon, Heinz and Frick who built companies and changed the world.

Rohr is, after all, running one of the country’s largest regional banking systems and has been since the beginning of the century. He’s steering PNC through the choppy waters of a global financial crisis, troubling unemployment rates and a sense among some of the citizenry that those guys in dark suits running the banks make too much money and might not always have our best interests at heart.

For a decade, Rohr has been not only the captain of one of Pittsburgh’s most influential companies but a leader of the region itself. As chairman of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, he helped revitalize its economic-growth mission. He chaired the Pittsburgh 250 Commission and was instrumental in the renovation of Point State Park. While leading the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, he helped spearhead the growth of the Cultural District. He has been consistently active in the Boy Scouts of America, both regionally and nationally. And in 2011, he joined the likes of Buzz Aldrin, Billy Graham and Condoleezza Rice as a recipient of the Horatio Alger Award, which honors people who have worked their way up through the world to great success.

Wouldn’t Rohr fit the cliché, then? The one about the top dog who gets it all done and doesn’t ask questions? That’s what we revere in America, what our frontier and cinematic history has conditioned us to seek out: The guy who blows in from out of town (cue Wild West flute music), gains the community’s trust and delivers it from its travails.

But that’s not Rohr, who did, in fact, blow in from out of town—in 1972 at age 24 from his native Cleveland via the Fort Pitt Tunnel.

Sure, decisive is part of his toolkit; those around him will attest to that. But listen to Rohr talk for a few moments. Listen to how he talks. The cliché falls away, and you’ll see that in a nation where rugged individual leadership is revered, this is in fact a builder of consensus—an intuitive man who sees that it’s not just about maneuvering the whole. It’s about understanding the pieces and how they fit together.

Exhibit A: the steel industry. For so many years it defined Pittsburgh in most every respect, from the way people earned money to how they saw themselves. When it declined in the 1980s, the economic picture of the region began to resemble the topography and culture—a patchwork of challenges and possibilities, each with its own character and its own set of obstacles.

Rohr, 63, and his wife of 40 years, Sharon, have three children, Julie, Kristen and Jim Jr., and five grandchildren in the community. He believes that to understand Pittsburgh—and do business successfully here—one must understand the pieces of that collage.

“People said, ‘It’ll never be the same. The mills will never be back.’ I heard that through the ’90s,” he says.

But other industries emerged. Pittsburgh burnished its already robust health-care chops and developed its tech chops, its research and hospitality chops, even its movie-industry chops. Our reputation became more multifaceted. Folks started talking about the short commutes, the ability to balance work and life, the affordable real estate, the arts, the North Shore, the Cultural District. PNC financed some parts of this revitalization and helped encourage others. Rohr got involved.

During the 21st century’s first decade, Pittsburgh’s reputation spread. Fewer visitors said, “Wow—I expected soot and dirt.” More Pirates fans began walking across the Clemente Bridge from PNC Park into downtown after a game. The individual pieces of Pittsburgh started looking more attractive.

“Then people said, This is pretty great,’” Rohr says. Finally, in 2009, came the G-20 Summit—the moment when, Rohr says, “I believe Pittsburghers changed their minds about Pittsburgh.”

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