CUMBERLAND — There was never any question that Matt Jacobson would go into the military.

He was born on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and moved almost yearly as his father took new assignments. When he was 8, his father went to Vietnam. Jacobson would record football games on weekends and send audiotapes to him.

After graduating from high school, Jacobson entered the U.S. Naval Academy. He would take a commission in the Air Force, just as his father had.

“This notion of duty and service, that was what we did,” said Jacobson, who now lives in Cumberland. “You ought to give something back. We had some obligation to give something back.”

Jacobson’s military service, and that notion of giving back, are cornerstones of his campaign for governor. He’s the CEO of Maine & Co., a private nonprofit that works to create more jobs in Maine. As such, Jacobson highlights his record in attracting businesses to Maine.

He was “provoked to run,” he said, because he believes that government is standing in the way of a better business economy, and that Maine is worse off for it.

“We have hit our head against not being able to get opportunities we should have landed; public policy discourages people from coming here,” Jacobson said. “The direct result of that is our kids don’t have the same opportunity.”

He has no political experience, but that’s not uncommon in this year’s crowded Republican primary field. Only two of the seven candidates, Peter Mills and Paul LePage, have held elective office — Mills in the state Legislature, LePage as mayor of Waterville.

What Jacobson does have, say people who have worked with him, is an up-close perspective on Maine’s economic strengths and weaknesses.

“He understands the challenges Maine faces as a state, and he understands the competition, the advantages and incentives, that other states bring to the table,” said David Tassoni, senior vice president of operations for AthenaHealth, a medical data management firm that Maine & Co. attracted to Belfast in 2007.

Jacobson has “personal believability,” said Tassoni, and an ability to articulate a vision and get people to buy into it. That, said Tassoni, translates directly to how Jacobson would perform as governor.

As governor, Jacobson said, he would provide the vision and direction for the state. If he is clear about what he will and won’t support, the Legislature will follow that direction, he suggested, instead of considering many types of bills and proposals.

After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1984, Jacobson was stationed in Germany, flying C-130s out of Tempelhof. It was Adolf Hitler’s airport, said Jacobson, two miles from the Czech border.

As he flew missions, he could see Rommel’s old tank farm in Czechoslovakia, and the Russian missile launchers tracking his plane. It was a mix of World Wart II and the Cold War, he said.

The threat was real, Jacobson said, and it helped shape him.

“I can do hard things. I’ve been around a group of people that can do hard things,” he said. “Individually, none of us were very special. But collectively, there was nobody better in the whole world.”

In that environment, Jacobson learned how to be a leader, he said. The first time he went up in a C-130 in Germany, he did horribly, he said. He didn’t have much experience in the planes and had not reviewed the manuals. The major who was in the plane with him tore him up in the briefing room — a real low point, Jacobson said.

Another major, Steve Stephens, the chief pilot, slapped him on the back and said, “Don’t’ worry about it, we’ll go up tomorrow and work out the kinks.”

“He was just an amazing leader, one of those inspirational guys,” Jacobson said.

The two men became friends. Before he died recently, Stephens asked Jacobson to give his eulogy.

After Germany, Jacobson served as an instructor at the Air Force Academy, then left the service in 1991. He studied for his MBA and began applying for jobs. He still has a three-ring binder with 200 to 300 rejection letters from companies.

“I wanted to remember. Whenever anybody calls me, I try to help them. I’ve been there. I know how hard it is,” Jacobson said. “The line between that kid who had just gotten out of the Air Force and who couldn’t find a job and didn’t know what the hell he was going to do with his life and me today is a straight line.

“I got some breaks and I was lucky. I was smart enough to take advantage of them, but I got some breaks,” he said.

One of those breaks came from a general with whom Jacobson had worked. The general had retired from the military. He was working for CSX, the rail company, and wanted to know if Jacobson would interview for a job. Jacobson did, and was hired.

He worked for CSX, first on short lines in Florida, as sort of a troubleshooter, then in sales in Pittsburgh. It was in Pittsburgh that he met his wife-to-be, Dr. Kemedy Kathryn McQuillen, a Bowdoin College graduate who wanted to return to Maine.

He took over the Boston-based sales office for one of the company’s divisions, then took a job with the St. Lawrence & Atlantic railroad in Auburn.

He ran the railroad from 1996 to 2000. The first year, he had to turn the business around, Jacobson said, and it was close to bankruptcy.

When he started, the railroad had 13 employees. When he left, it had 100. In that time, 23 new customers built facilities on the railroad’s tracks.

Basically, said Jacobson, he looked at the railroad’s strengths and what his competitors’ weaknesses were, and came up with strategic plans to add customers.

Ed Foley, who is now general manager of the railroad, was head of sales when Jacobson was there.

“We basically ran for five straight years. Everything we shot at, we scored,” Foley said.

Jacobson asked key questions, said Foley. What are the customers’ needs? How can the railroad deliver?

“What the voters of Maine need to understand, and what anybody who’s ever worked around him understands, is he’s very focused, he’s very dynamic and he’s very goal-oriented,” Foley said.

Once, there was a question about the work being done by a contractor, and Jacobson wasn’t getting the answers he wanted. So he went to the airport next door and rented a plane for the afternoon. He flew to the area with Foley and inspected the project from the air. A few hours later, he was in front of the contractor, demanding changes.

“When you talk about results-oriented people — that’s the kind of results he would deliver,” Foley said.

Jacobson took a job with Canadian National Railways, based in Chicago, and was hired by Maine & Co. in 2005.

While at Maine & Co., Jacobson has worked on several big deals to bring companies to Maine, including Athena Health, NotifyMD and Backyard Farms, the tomato producer in Madison.

Jacobson has proposed several initiatives to improve the economy in Maine. He would increase the availability of tax credits for business investment and support a business cost-matching tax credit to keep other states from recruiting companies away from Maine.

And, he said, he would eliminate the state’s estate tax and income tax on military retirees’ pensions. To get early-stage companies to start in Maine, Jacobson said, he would prioritize programs like the state’s business incubators.

“Every problem is easier to manage if we can drive our economy, if we can put people back to work, if we can create opportunity,” he said. “Nothing is possible to solve if we don’t.”

 

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]