The unassuming style of the 56-year-old Bob Stefanowski belies his corporate titles as division CEO and president of GE and CFO of UBS, but is consistent with his stories, his website and his philosophy. Dressed in a polo shirt, he sat next to his wife, Amy, at an outdoor table at Willoughby’s Coffee shop in Madison, where one of his three daughters works, on Saturday morning, July 28.
“I am a normal guy,” he said. “I don’t have a big ego.”
With his website photo of him in a tee shirt and jeans, he seems to be courting the middle class, but, he is not turning his back on the rich either. He wants to keep them in the state. When asked how he would reverse the exodus of businesses and rich individuals from Connecticut, he said: “Taxes, taxes, taxes.”
He wants to eliminate three taxes: the estate taxes, the corporate tax and, most controversial of all, the income tax.
On estate tax, he said, it is “morally incorrect that you are taxed on your income once and then if you want to leave it to your kids you are taxed again. That tax represents less than 1% of the state revenue, but it’s driving people out of the state,” he said. “The people who have millions to leave their families are the ones that “donate to museums and create jobs.”
He also plans to eliminate the corporate tax over two years. “Make Connecticut a place where businesses want to be again,” he said. “That will bring jobs back.”
He was optimistic for the state, because it has “pockets of different industries,” including financial services in Fairfield County, defense in Madison area, insurance in Hartford and technology corridor in New Haven, he explained.
“We have a big opportunity in this state,” he added.
‘This is the one I love’
He is the only candidate who has introduced a plan to get rid of the state income tax, he said. His opponents say it is not realistic to get rid of such a large part of the state’s revenue, In 2016-17 income tax accounted for nearly 52% of the tax revenue, according to the Department of Revenue Services.
“This is the one I love. People tell me we can’t do it.” But he said, the state functioned without an income tax before 1991. “Before 1991 and we were the fastest growing state. So people are telling me its impossible to do something that we have done before. It’s not impossible to do something that Tennessee, Florida, Texas have done,” Stefanowski said.
“I signed a formal pledge that I will never raise taxes as governor,” he added.
“We have to break the SEBAC agreement,” he said. “I am sympathetic to the union because they were promised this money, but it is absolutely choking the state,” he said. “I have been pretty successful in my career negotiating, but you need to have a credible threat.”
The state employee pension is underfunded by $100 billion, almost $40,000 per person in the state of Connecticut, Stefanowski explained.
“And I don’t think we are doing a favor to the union employees by promising them that we are going to fund it, because are not,” he said.
Saying he wants “fair compromise,” Stefanowski plans to look at perks such as reducing cost of living adjustments and considering copays for medical insurance.
He said layoffs may be necessary.
“I would hope we can find a fair compromise,” he said. “I do think government is too big. Hopefully you do it through attrition and not have to lay off a lot of people off. But we have got to right-size government.”
Also, “there is still $8 billion in discretionary costs in the state,” Stefanowski said.
He said the state needs to re-prioritize spending. “We spend too much on things like a bus from New Britain to Hartford that very few people use or a baseball stadium in Hartford.”
Stefanowski supports high-speed train service. “I think through private capital, we could invest high speed rail and shorten the commute times, which would help real estate values,” he said.
“If we used the private sector, we would actually reduce the burden on the state budget,” he added. “Other states have done it, so it is not impossible,” but is will not be easy either.
Where he gets emotional
Stefanowski was asked about rival David’s Stemerman’s attack ads that calls Dollar Financial Group — which Stefanowski headed up and says he turned around — a predatory lender.
“That ad is 100% misrepresentation,” he said. “I think David Stemerman is desperate.”
“This is where I get emotional, I remediated every single one of those fines,” he said.
“The facts are: I was brought into to clean up that company. It changed ownership. The new owner wanted a compliant company. They brought me in because I had worked at companies like GE so I had integrity,” he said. “Every single one of the fines, mentioned in that ad, were when I was not there.”
Stefanowski shared his thoughts on leadership “It is about integrity. Leadership is about setting an example. Leadership is about having a vision.”
As a leader you should “surround yourself with people who are different than you. If you surround yourself with a bunch of people that are similar to you, then you are going to get all the same feedback,” like “an echo chamber,” he said. “What I would do is get multiple opinions” and “then I would make the decision.”
He also said it helps for a leader to be relatable. He told stories about raffling off his expensive corporate leased car at a Christmas party and repeatedly insisting on a regular office instead of the corner office to which he was entitled.
Stefanowski believes his success is based on his ability to build alliances. “I started as an entry-level person at GE; they’ve got 300,000 employees and I made it to the top,” he said.
“If you wait until you need something from somebody to build an alliance it is too late. The first thing I’ll do is I’ll go in and I’ll sit down with the people on the other side of the aisle and try to figure out what motivates them, what their interests are,” he said.
Amy urged him on to tell about his international experience at UBS.
“When I was CFO at UBS, I had 35 countries that I was responsible for,” he said. “Can you imagine trying to get them to agree?”
“We had to do a lot of downsizing, just like we are going to have to do here, everybody had to absorb their piece,” he said.
At first, “the person from Germany says that the UK has too many people,” but he eventually ended up getting them on board, he explained.
In businesses, he said, “We used to have a lot of arguments in the corporate sector at GE and UBS, and at the end of the day we would go get a beer.”