As the woman who defined the Economic Development Authority in her more than two decades as its leader — and the woman who helped design the EDA's current management structure at her departure — it only made sense that board Chairman Al Koeppe would reach out to Caren Franzini when he was vetting a potential candidate for the role.
When Koeppe mentioned Melissa Orsen's name, Franzini told him he had found a winner.
“I said she knows the EDA world with her role working with the lieutenant governor, but she also has the management experience of running an agency,” Franzini said. “And she knows, and has worked with, (Chief Operating Officer) Tim (Lizura) and the rest of the team so there will be no time needed getting her up to speed.”
Franzini's recommendation, along with those of many others involved in government and development, assured Koeppe that he had found the right person to replace Michele Brown as the CEO of the EDA.
Orsen was officially appointed to the job last Thursday.
Orsen, who was serving as deputy commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, began the new job immediately, filling a spot left vacant by the departure of Brown, who announced she was leaving to become the head of Choose New Jersey in January.
Lizura, the well-thought-of EDA president and COO, will continue in that role.
Koeppe said he was confident the move was the right one at the right time for the organization.
“(Melissa) has had clear leadership responsibilities in professional organizations and in very sensitive situations; a wide range of both experience-based and subject-matter knowledge; a comfortable and thoughtful demeanor; and both a serious work ethic and well-defined ethical standards,” he said.
“At this stage of her career, Melissa is establishing a record as a first-class professional manager. Melissa, as you would expect, enjoys the highest level of respect in state government.”
“Melissa has a well established reputation for building consensus and facilitating collaboration,” she said. “I have the utmost confidence that Melissa will lead the EDA with the same kind of enthusiasm and finesse that she has demonstrated throughout her distinguished career.”
Koeppe is confident Orsen can produce the same type of results as the highly effective team of Brown and Lizura.
“It is clear to me that she and Tim will be a very effective and complementary team,” he said. “I believe that she fits the CEO leadership template we developed in 2012 very well.
“She has the strong government and leadership skills, which complement Tim's top-rate business, financial and real estate acumen to make a strong leadership team.”
Franzino echoed that sentiment.
“Tim Lizura is the best dealmaker in New Jersey and the EDA is lucky to have him,” she said. “He protects the state's assets. You need a tough negotiator on these big incentive projects to make fair deals for the state and Tim does that better than anyone.
“Melissa has run organizations and brings the management issues. She's dealt with HUD, she's dealt with all the issues facing Sandy. They complement each other perfectly.”
Orsen's experience is vast.
She has served as a trial lawyer with the Attorney General's Office from 2000 to 2003 and the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing from 2003 to 2010 — and five of those years were spent as chief counsel.
In 2010, she joined the DCA as chief of staff. From 2011 to March of last year, she was deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.
Orsen had been the deputy commissioner of the DCA since March of last year, overseeing a budget of more than $3.8 billion and a workforce of about 400 employees.
Koeppe, however, said it's more than just the numbers — it's the experience and connections Orsen brings to the job.
“She has been heavily involved in the active leadership of the organization at all levels (policy, contracts, constituent relations, communications, legal and procurement, among others),” he said. “She has solid working relationships with, and enjoys the respect of, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and, importantly, with our own staff.”
Her selection comes after a vetting period, inside and outside of the organization.
“Members of our officer team (Brown, Lizura, Maureen Hassett and Fred Cole), as well our chief counsel, Betty Renaud, expressed their high professional regard for her,” Koeppe said in his remarks.
Koeppe said Orsen was lauded by the New Jersey community of business leaders, government officials and economic development professionals.
“I reached out to respected members of the New Jersey community to learn of their perspectives on her leadership qualifications from their direct experience with her,” he said. “Their opinions uniformly supported her reputation as a strong and sensitive leader.”
She will have big shoes to fill.
Brown was No. 5 on the NJBIZ Power 100 in January. And the team of Brown and Lizura was at the top of the NJBIZ Power 50 Real Estate list last winter.
Koeppe feels Orsen is up to the challenge.
“She brings policy understanding and big organizational experience — and she has the ability and willingness to ask hard questions,” he said. “That's why she has such a great reputation in private industry and government.”
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