Taking Public-Private Partnerships by Storm
If the private-public partnership trend in government is a storm, then Mary Scott Nabers, MBA ’89, is a highly accomplished storm chaser.
In addition to earning her MBA, she has served as the commissioner representing business at the Texas Employment Commission, worked on the Texas Railroad Commission, and published a book ( "Collaboration Nation," about the push for governmental agencies to partner with private companies to complete large projects and help spur economic growth).
If that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Nabers also founded two companies: Strategic Partnerships Inc., which helps Texas clients capture public-sector business, and Gemini Global Group, which specializes in private-public partnerships nationwide.
Nabers explains why she thinks these private-public partnerships, also known as "P3s," are instrumental to both private- and public-sector success and how her expertise started with her Texas MBA.
Why did you decide to get your MBA from McCombs?
I have really been a serial entrepreneur since I was 16 and have started a number of companies. I have always been totally fascinated by business, and I knew that I needed an MBA. I chose UT because, first of all, I thought, “There is not a better school anywhere!” I had always wanted to get my MBA and I was in Austin and had the opportunity. It was one of the better things that happened to me in life!
What did you do as the commissioner representing business at the Texas Employment Commission?
I was the commissioner representing all the employers in the state from December 1984 until 1992. Of course, in 1986 and 1987 we went through two of the worst economic crunches this state has ever seen, and I had the opportunity to work really closely with all the business industries.
My brainchild was the Texas Business Council, and for the next five years we went around the state about every third month. We had 14 agencies and we would hold daylong sessions talking about everything “Mr. Employer” needed to know about government. We would talk about all the services we provided and the regulations he would need to understand and everything an employer would need to know, including why taxes were going up. There was a great chance for employers to really start to interact with government. That Texas Business Council still exists today.
Where did you go after that?
[In 1993] Gov. Ann Richards reappointed me, and then came back and said that I really needed to go to the Railroad Commission. There was an open seat, and she appointed me. In that job at that time, that agency regulated about $64 billion of the state's economy. We regulated all transportation and all of the oil and gas issues came before us. We had a lot of environmental issues. I was on the national petroleum council, and on the national coal council [I] ended up testifying before Congress, all the while just trying to learn everything there was to learn about the energy and transportation industry.
What did you do when you returned to the private sector?
I opened an office, and it was almost like, “OK, now I’m back to where I understand the world and I have some control over the world.” I started Strategic Partnerships Inc., and we represent very large government contracts. We are their research arm; we have to find the opportunities. We do their capture strategy, and we help them get positioned and team up with sub-contractors and pursue government contracts.
About two-and-a-half years ago I started another company called Gemini Global Group, and that group is pursuing private-public partnerships. We represent large companies that want to get involved with public-private partnerships. The private-public partnership trend has become so predominant now that I think it is going to literally transform government as we know it.
What got you interested in private-public partnerships?
I was already working really with both sectors, both the public and private, and watched this trend evolving. It was almost like standing and watching a storm develop. You could feel the winds and the change in the air, and you just weren’t sure what was going to happen.
As cities started declaring bankruptcy and states cut funding to public schools and universities, we were on those campuses, in those school districts, in those state agencies, and in those cities listening to the people say, “We don’t have the funding that we need to continue providing even our mandated services.” The stimulus money was gone, every state was cutting their budget, and we were aware of the private-public partnerships that had done wonderfully well in Europe and Canada and almost every country. Chicago and New York were doing lots of private partnerships.
Because we all came out of government, and we all believed in good government, and we certainly care about the economic prosperity of the state of Texas, we started really delving into what makes a good private-public partnerships.
How do you think private-public partnerships will continue to make a difference?
This area is probably the hottest new business trend that we will see in the next two decades, and here's the reason—it will spur economic activity more than anything else. When there is a P3 initiative, states, cities, and counties get extra points if the prime contractor partners and brings in sub-contractors from the local area. Everyone benefits. Jobs are created, more revenue circulates, and big public projects that are much needed get developed. If they’re successful, it’s good for everyone. We’ve seen them in the past mostly in roads and transportation, but now you’ll start seeing a vertical construction. Universities, community colleges are all looking at launching P3s.
Why did you decide to start working on a book in addition to the work you were already doing for P3 initiatives?
My team was standing with one foot in the public sector and one foot in the private sector, and we could see and understand what was happening more clearly than anyone else. It was all we were dealing with. Every contract that we were trying to help our clients win was with a public entity. We spent a lot of time with those people, all of our friends were in government, and were listening to them. All of our clients were in the private sector, and we were listening to them say that they were interested in providing some of the services that government had to privatize. Someone needed to tell that story.
How does your book help clarify the private-public partnership process?
The story is not just that there’s a trend, but it’s this: There is a huge cultural divide between the private sector and the public sector, and if the parties on both sides don’t understand the culture of their bus partner, P3s cannot be successful.
The book is a lot about the culture, and what you’ll find as a career professional that lives in the world of government. And as a public official, you need to know what the world is like in the commercial sector, and what you’ll find [the commercial sector] talking about and worrying about. For instance, public officials can stay 30 years and never have to worry about the profit margin. They don’t have to report to investors every three months or live in vertically structured organizations. They don’t even speak the lingo that people in the private sector speak. We’ve always been that buffer between those two cultures, and the book is about understanding your future business partner.
How has your Texas MBA helped you throughout your public and private sector careers?
My MBA has helped me in so many different ways with the investments that I now oversee, plus my two companies. I couldn’t have done anything without the education I got from McCombs. I am still very close friends with many of the people I graduated with. When you go through something like that together, you become very close friends. I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and say, “Here’s what I’m thinking, what’s your opinion?” And they don’t hesitate to do the same with me. It’s a great network.
What advice do you have for current students?
The world is such a competitive place, and you’re going to be called upon to do so many different things that you need all the education and experience you can get. When trying to decide whether to go into public or private work, there is nothing better in the world than doing an internship in these sectors. See where you fit best and what you like most. I council a lot of young men and women, and I always say if you can just figure out what really makes you happy, what one skill set you’re using when you feel really good about yourself, that’s where you’ll be successful, and that will either be in the private sector, the public sector, or both. I loved both. I loved my job in government, but I’m more at home in the private sector.