The G-8 and NATO summits being held in May in Chicago are expected to draw thousands of protesters, and Christie Hefner had heard that some local CEOs were being told by their senior staff to "get out of town" that week to avoid them.
The warnings were making it "very difficult" for organizers to persuade corporations and executives to become "engaged" in the planning effort, Hefner said while moderating a panel discussion Tuesday at the Executives' Club of Chicago.
There was silence.
Hefner looked at Brad Keywell, the venture capitalist and one of Groupon's largest shareholders.
"Are you looking at me? I'm the young guy here," Keywell said. The audience laughed. "I have no idea how to answer that question," he said.
Patrick Ryan came to Keywell's rescue. "Business creates jobs. … It helps bring families down the road to prosperity," said the former Aon founder and CEO, who shepherded Chicago's failed bid for the 2016 Olympics. Ryan concluded his pep talk with, "I think you really need to focus on not 'Get out of town,' but get that (jobs) message across in every possible way."
The audience in the Fairmont Chicago ballroom applauded.
Lori Healey, executive director of the G-8/NATO Host Committee, said she had not heard of any security consultants advising executives to leave the city.
"To the best of my knowledge, that's not happening," she said.
Thomas Kasza is a former special agent in charge of the Chicago district of the U.S. Secret Service, the federal agency responsible for security at official G-8/NATO events. Kasza now works as a senior vice president at Chicago-based security firm Hillard Heintze and is advising foreign embassies and local consulates on security measures for the overlapping summits May 15-22.
"'Get out of town,' that's not what we subscribe to," Kasza said. "I've not heard security directors say that."
He said all an executive needs is a plan.
"There is security and protection in logistics," he said. "You'd have to be naive to think you're going to be able to stroll anywhere you want, but a plan with some effort will work."
I told Kasza I had heard about one such plan from a source, who oversees public relations at a Fortune 500 company in Chicago but didn't want to be named. The source said it was essential that his CEO attend G-8/NATO events to build relationships with foreign governments.
But he said he planned to advise his CEO to arrive at those events simply dressed and in a cab, rather than a limo or town car. A tuxedo would be waiting for the CEO in his hotel room. His wife would meet him there, also arriving in street clothes. They would get dressed in the room and then walk downstairs for dinner.
"What you just said is one of those plans," Kasza said. "The person who told you that has been through this."
There are really only three large venture capital firms in Chicago: J.B. Pritzker's New World Ventures; Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell's Lightbank; and Apex Venture Partners, led by Lon Chow and Wayne Boulais.