Todd Rowley grew up in a small town in Michigan.
“It was really a slow-down in the road,” he says, “but it was a great place to grow up, with great people in my hometown!”
In a family of farmers and factory workers, he earned a degree from Adrian College in business administration and speech communications. At 21, he came east looking for a job, because there weren’t any in his hometown of Addison.
“I didn’t know where I was going to live; I didn’t have a job,” Rowley said. “I fell into banking. I convinced the bank manager to hire me -- they had no reason to; I had no experience.”
Today, Rowley is market executive for the Capital region at Old Dominion National Bank. He serves on the boards of Virginia Tech, Northern Virginia Community College, George Mason University, Lead Virginia, the Northern Virginia Workforce Investment Board and many others. And in July, he became chairman of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m probably the most fortunate individual in Northern Virginia, and I’ve tried very hard to pay back that debt,” he said.
Rowley took the helm of the chamber for a one-year term after serving as vice chair. He plans to continue his focus on bringing the regional business community together, continuing to expand education opportunities by expanding the definition of “student,” and working to give back to the community.
“We really need to get away from the idea in Northern Virginia that these borders and boundaries exist. They are really meaningless in our efforts toward getting this region the momentum it needs to move forward.”
It’s been a focus for Rowley for several years, starting when he first became an officer with the chamber. He plans to continue that effort as chairman.
“If there’s an issue that really impacts one municipality, leave it to them to take the lead and let them resolve that issue,” he said. “If it involves two or more municipalities in this region, we’ll use our efforts toward a solution.”
He said it’s always bothered him when a business moves from Loudoun to Fairfax or Alexandria to Prince William and the jurisdiction considers it a “win.”
“The key thing I want to come out of the next several years -- a seamless, borderless environment of the business community and the region as a whole,” he said.
Education and workforce
About six years ago, Rowley started to see an increase in need for information technology and cybersecurity professionals around the Washington area. He knew next to nothing about IT, so the banker went back to school.
“The only way that I felt I could understand how to address the issue – and whether the number [of unfilled jobs] is 35,000 or 40,000 in the region, the number is superfluous, assume it’s a big number – the only way I could understand was to start taking computing classes. Was it possible for someone without an engineering or higher science background to acquire these skills?”
The answer? Yes.
Rowley, immediate past chair of the board for Northern Virginia Community College, took so many courses the college gave him an IT degree.
“I humorously refer to this as my golf, because my golf game sucks,” he said. “I take IT classes as a hobby. Everybody should take classes that aren’t their day job.”
And he’s figured out that anyone can learn the skills to fill IT jobs.
There’s a misconception, Rowley said, that only people with “the right mystical abilities” can do these jobs.
“That’s not true,” he added. “The most math you will do is add, subtract, multiply and divide. A degree in cyber is not a degree in James Bond. You’re not working for the CIA. You’re looking at a stream of information to find something that breaks the pattern.”
He said he worried that people over 45 would go to work on a Thursday, be told their job no longer exists and think they couldn’t possibly fill an IT job.
“They want to learn but they don’t know where the on-ramps are,” he said. “I think everybody that comes out with a degree will get a job.”
Rowley said he sees Amazon’s new National Landing headquarters as a continuation of a relationship Northern Virginia has already established with the Seattle-based business giant.
“It’s not that we’re having to introduce ourselves to Amazon,” he said. “We’re just adding more capabilities. Will this region change? Undoubtedly yes.”
Amazon’s East Coast headquarters in Arlington will help transform what Northern Virginians do and how we’re perceived, he said.
“Quite honestly, we’re perceived as a government town,” he said. “Yes, we do have the federal government here and they do support our economy. But now we’re much, much more.”
Rowley said he’s found that Amazon executives want to be good neighbors – and he thinks the company’s presence here will increase the skill set of the area as a whole.
The news of Amazon’s plans to bring 25,000 to 30,000 jobs to Northern Virginia sounds overwhelming at first blush, but next year’s plans call for just 400.
Amazon is not coming in to take over, he said.
“If you look at the ability to absorb that number in the economy of this region, we take on an average of about 50,000 per year,” he added. “We’re just pivoting to different industries.”
Rowley serves on more than a handful of boards around the area, covering everything from education at NOVA and George Mason University to business associations to the Fairfax-Falls Church Council to Prevent Homelessness.
“I’ve had the privilege to be asked to serve on a number of regional boards, and that’s probably the kindest compliment someone can give you -- ‘We want you to be with us,’” he said.
But he’s also asked how he manages to serve on a dozen boards and have time for anything else.
“The answer I give is, if you do it incorrectly you have 12 different meetings and 12 different boards facing in different directions,” he said. “If you do it correctly, you’re having 12 different versions of the same meeting.”
For instance, the Chamber of Commerce is where the jobs are, while the colleges are developing the skills to prepare people for those jobs. And the workforce board is assessing and determining skill sets for the right job placements.
“It’s really just another piece of the same puzzle,” he said, the homelessness prevention council included. “If people have jobs, it’s hard to concentrate when they don’t know where they’re going to sleep at night. It’s hard for a student to study for a final if you don’t know where home is.”
And growing up in Michigan, everyone volunteered.
“It wasn’t a matter of who was going to put a roof on the church,” he said. “We all just showed up and did it. How lucky I’ve been in my career to do the things I’ve done. It is a blessing. All I can do in return is pick up a hammer and start building something.”