Dean Barber

Cool in the North Country

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on August 17, 2014 at 6:49 am

DULUTH, Minn. – “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.”

So wrote Mark Twain, a statement that should serve as a working motto for all corporate site selection consultants or anyone with a curious mind.

I came here to find out. And I left with some distinct impressions. Should I ever return to Duluth on behalf of a client company in the search of an optimal location for future operations or in any other capacity, I will undoubtedly learn more.

Peter Drucker said it most aptly when he declared, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

That’s why I try to do. Finding out really is better.

Deep in the Woods

Still, I did not foresee actually driving over bear scat in an all-terrain four wheeler as a part of my familiarization tour of Northeast Minnesota last week.

We ventured deep into the woods on a beautiful day looking at what ostensibly was or could be a site for a data center. Owned Lake County to the north of Duluth, this secluded 120-acre tract had been repossessed for unpaid taxes.

But both Tim Comerford, an energy specialist and senior vice president with New Jersey-based Biggins Lacy Shapiro & Company, and I agreed that what we were looking at was in reality a big piece of woods and not yet a viable site.

It might become a viable site for a data center, but it’s not there yet.

Recognizing the Truth

Our host, Brian Hanson, president and CEO of APEX, the regional economic development organization, seemed to appreciate our input.

“Looks like we’ve got some work to do,” he said, climbing behind the wheel of the ATV that would take us back to a dirt road. At a meeting later that day in Duluth, Hanson referred to the site.

“There are some serious issues that we have to deal with at that site, but that is why we are doing this. (Hosting site selectors.) We’re not just going to talk about the issues, but get the documents and get the work done.”

Tim and I were lucky enough to be assigned by the Minnesota Marketing Partnership to Northeast Minnesota. Other site selection consultant were assigned to other regions of the state.

We immediately recognized that Hanson was a seasoned professional who not only had a deep understanding of his community but a proponent of regionalism and playing nice with others to get things done.

The Importance of Research

Most importantly, Hanson, whose company-member funded organization represents seven counties in Northeast Minnesota and three counties in Northwest Wisconsin (population 400,000; 280,000 in the MSA), recognized the importance of research to his organization’s success in industrial recruitment.

Research is used in two ways – as a way to assist a prospective or existing company looking at investing in the region and also in determining a targeted approach to recruitment.

On point one: “We’re focused on the investment and the business case, which often means helping the company fill in blanks – what’s it going to cost, what can I expect with labor costs and taxes with a facility in our region. We help fill in those blanks so that they have a compelling business case and can make an informed decision on whether to invest.”

On point two: “We need to know is going on in our region, know what we need and understand the trends. Research enables us to connect to our member companies and gives us a targeted approach and not a shotgun approach.”

A Good Win

Hanson said research was the key to identifying and contacting 25 aviation MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) companies to fill the void left when Northwest Airlines pulled out of a 189,000-square-foot repair facility in 2005.

“And we talked to all of them. At one trade show, we had eight appointments with MROs, but that involved hundreds of hours of research.”

Eventually, Oklahoma City-based AAR Corp. showed interest in the building that had sat empty for seven years and was costing the city the tune of $15,000 a month to heat and maintain.

As a skilled workforce was vitally important to the company, the community tried something a bit different – a two-day job fair before the company actually committed.

“We said that if you agree to put your name on it, we’ll have a lot of people there show up. And that was exactly what happened,” Hanson said.

The community reached out to aircraft mechanics in a three-state area and about 325 attended, with about the same number sending in resumes. At a dinner after the first day, a senior AAR executive told local economic developers, “We’re in.”

AAR now employs about 300 people at its facility in Duluth.

Let’s Make a Deal

A former boss once told me, “A good idea without money is still just a good idea.”

So when I come across an economic development organization that is flush with money and eager to make something happen, I cannot help but to take note.

By most accounts, the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board, a state agency insulated with independence, can sink as much if not more financial resources into a project than the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

IRRRB has $148 million in the bank dedicated to the economic development. Its funding source is a $2.50 cents per ton excise tax on iron ore mined in the Mesabi Iron Ore Range, a narrow 100-mile band that traverses the northeast part of the state.

But it’s only in a jurisdictional area in NE Minnesota where IRRRB can make its full weight felt. Still, no other region of the state has anything like an IRRB, which I liken to a regional economic development organization on steroids.

Said Commissioner Tony Sertich, which oversees the agency: “We have money, and we want to make a deal.”

Earlier this year, IRRRB provided $21.2 million in funding to Segetis Inc., a company that makes plant-based solvents that are petroleum substitutes and which plans to build a $105 million plant in Hoyt Lakes, about 60 miles north of Duluth.

“Segetis is on the leading edge of the biochemical economy and will add value to our timber and forest products economy,” said Sertich.

Resources and Manufacturing

Timber, water, iron ore – all were clearly evident to me from the air and from the ground during my tour of Northeast Minnesota. Space does not allow me to elaborate on each of these resources with any depth.

I will say that the historic connection between the iron ore mines, which produce a lower grade ore called taconite, and Duluth remains intact with ore boats up to 1,000 feet in length, referred to as “lakers,” coming in and out of Duluth harbor with great regularity. It is a sight to see on the largest freshwater lake in the world.

We toured Joy Global, a manufacturing plant that came on line in 2012, in the town of Virginia, which builds earth moving equipment for the nearby mining industry.

We also toured Cirrus Aircraft, a cutting edge aviation manufacturer that incorporates a parachute in the design of its aircraft. The company says 95 lives have been saved as a result. It is based at the Duluth International Airport.

Despite the fact that I don’t much care for traveling in small aircraft, I actually began to like the Cirrus that transported me from Minneapolis to Duluth and back. There is a passion at Cirrus about their planes that is hard not to notice and respect.

Beers from the North Coast

And finally let me say that there is a passion about beer in Minnesota, which is I find wholly commendable and a sign that the people here, about one-third of whom in Duluth are of Scandinavian ancestry, are a most civilized breed.

When I first spoke to Brian Hanson on the phone prior to my trip, I told him in response to his questions that I hoped to eat fresh lake fish and sample the local craft beer. Being the ever boastful Texan, I said, “You know, we have 13 craft beers here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.”

His response was low-key and modest, typical of people from the North Country. “Yes, we have eight.”

Dallas-Fort Worth area has a population 6.5 million. Duluth — 86,000. Go figure.

Indeed, Fitger’s Inn, where I was staying, had been the site of a brewery since 1885. Beer was still being made on the premises.

At nearby Canal Park Brewing Company, I met brewmaster Badger Colish, who gave a wonderful tour of “Gus,” the company’s 15 barrel, three-vessel brewing system that produces a “Northcoaster” style of delicious brews.

I sampled the Nut Hatchet Brown, which won a silver award at the 2014 World Beer Cup. T’was mother’s milk to me.

Badger and I soon discovered that besides enjoying beer, we are both Martin guitar aficionados, so a brotherhood was formed then and there. I wish I could have stayed longer.

The Coolness Factor

All of this confirmed in my eyes that Duluth is one cool town, as the young hipsters were in evidence. And there is a lot to be said for that.

Yes, it is true. Minnesota does have some competitive issues regarding both taxes and permitting. In its 20014 State Business Tax Climate, the Tax Foundation ranks Minnesota 47th – just above New York, New Jersey and California.

But if you have a cool place, a place where young people want to live, well, that’s your future pipeline to talent. And smart businesses will tune into that.

So Duluth is cool. (How can the hometown of Bob Dylan not be?) Minneapolis is also cool. This is confirmed by Outside Magazine, which recently ranked both cities as top 10 cities for outdoor recreation.

But Duluth, with 6,834 acres of city parkland, 178 miles of wooded trails, and 16 designated trout streams, came in as No. 1.

“In Duluth, you know you’re alive,” says Don Ness, the 40-year-old mayor.

Brian Hanson said he is on his mountain bike hitting the trails multiple times a week. And Brian is not young, which demonstrates there is hope, even for oldsters like me.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

If you liked what you saw here, invite me to speak at your next meeting.

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.

The Center of the World

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on August 9, 2014 at 9:43 pm

NEW YORK – Even when I am on vacation, I cannot escape my role as a location investigator, a place sleuth. Delving into how and why a place works in the way it does is what I do as a consultant for both companies and economic development organizations.

A vacation, therefore, is never going to be a simple outing, and especially so when I am visiting what I believe is one of the most complex places in the world. Suddenly, I found myself on a mission, which is par for the course in New York, where everyone is on a mission of some sort.

As the most-populous city in the United States, with an estimated record high of 8,405,837 residents as of 2013, more people live here than in the next two most-populous U.S. cities (Los Angeles and Chicago) combined

Not surprisingly, this is a tough place. A crowded place. A noisy and chaotic place. An expensive place. A very diverse place. And in so many ways, New York is and remains, as filmmaker Ric Burns termed it in a 2001 documentary, the “Center of the World.”

I had been to New York on business before, but this was the first time that I was able to really explore it. My wife and I were there for a week.

The American Dream Lives

In front of the National Museum of the American Indian, formerly the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, I spoke to a man from Sierra Leone from the West Coast of Africa. He had been living in New York for the past 15 years. For him, this country and this city represented freedom and opportunity to build a purposeful life.

“There is no place better on Earth,” he said. “No place.”

In his eyes, the American Dream, which had nothing to do with home ownership or even building great wealth, was far from dead.

Today, about about 37 percent of the city’s population is foreign born, but no single country of origin dominates in that regard. The 10 largest sources of foreign-born individuals in the city as of 2011 were the Dominican Republic, China, Mexico, Guyana, Jamaica, Ecuador, Haiti, India, Russia, and Trinidad and Tobago. Based on the many languages that I heard uttered, I think ran across every one of these groups.

But that didn’t bother me in the least. No, I see our diversity as a continuing strength and in keeping with an American tradition of essentially creating and molding a group of new Americans to follow their dreams.

In his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur writes, in response to his own question, “What then is the American, this new man?” I think I met him in New York.

A Reminder of Who We Are

Yes, New York has its Wall Street, the financial district of the city and home to the New York Stock Exchange, the world’s largest stock exchange. But there is another story here, one I find just as compelling, of immigrants, reminding us just who we really are.

For we should never forget that New York was the first place where many of our ancestors first set foot on American soil. Some would eventually venture away from the city and settle into the interior. But New York was their starting point, their launching pad for a new life in a new country.

Christian Friedrich Martin is a prime example. He arrived with his family in New York in 1833 from Austria, eventually moving to Nazareth, Pa., where in 1839 he established a guitar making shop. Martin guitars are still made in Nazareth today. (At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my wife and I happened upon an exhibition of mostly 19th century Martin guitars. As an owner of two Martins, I was just enthralled.)

But many of the newly arrived would stay in the city and find a neighborhood where they felt most comfortable around their fellow countrymen of origin. Said immigrant Patrick Murphy, “New York is a grand handsome city. But you would hardly know you had left Ireland.”

A decade later, many of Murphy’s compatriots would join the Union army after literally stepping off the boat. Lured at the prospect earning $13 a month, thousands would die in a strange land called Dixie. The 69th New York State Volunteers flew a green flag with a golden harp on it, symbolizing Ireland.

The Great Shifting

During our many travails around the city – by foot, cab, bus and subway — the ethnicity of neighborhoods was still apparent – Little Italy, now a tiny fragment of what it once was; Chinatown, home to the largest enclave of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere; a Greek enclave in Astoria in Queens, and an ultra-orthodox Satmar Jewish community in Williamsburg in Brooklyn.

Many if not most of these neighborhoods are losing their ethnic identities with gentrification, which translates into he or she with the most bucks takes home the marbles.

This shift toward wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values is one of the bigger stories that I picked up during our week-long stay in New York.
Gentrification happens with increased investment in a community by real estate developers and local government, thereby spurring more business growth and lower crime rates. This is generally a good thing.

But gentrification also leads to poorer residents being displaced by wealthier newcomers, thereby changing the character of the neighborhood. Gentrification “has become shorthand for an urban neighborhood where muggings are down and espresso is roasted,” wrote New York Times reporter Andrea Elliot.

Harlem would be an example. New York’s most iconic black neighborhood, no longer has a stigma urban decay, is experiencing another rebirth, reflected in new restaurant hot spots like Red Rooster Harlem and The Cecil, where we had our best meals.

Census data maps show significant drops in the African-American population in Harlem, largely because long-time residents are being priced out of the neighborhood. Between 2010 and 2011, the median housing prices in central Harlem jumped by over 18 percent, the Times reported.

But gentrification has been happening all over the city, making the once affordable neighborhoods, like the Meatpacking District, Greenwich Village, Soho, not longer affordable except to the wealthy.

Rent City

According to census data prepared by the sociology department at Queens College, there are about 582,000 rentals in Manhattan, as opposed to 165,000 owned units, meaning rentals make up 78 percent of the total.

New rental projects coming onto the market are rare. Land costs have skyrocketed in the last few years, to the point that prime Manhattan sites can go for $850 a square foot.
With rents of $3,000 a month typical for a one-bedroom apartment, recouping an investment could take years. For most real estate developers, building pricey condos and selling them for a hefty $3,000 a square foot is the better bet.

But despite the high cost of living, immigrants from all over the world continue to flock to New York, with the Bronx probably the most affordable of the five boroughs. But even there, where graffiti adorns many buildings, high rents have some locals packing up and leaving.

Rich and the Richer

As a global hub of international business and commerce, it should be of no surprise that New York has the highest density of millionaires per capita among major U.S. cities in 2014, at 4.6 percent of residents. It is also home to the highest number of the world’s billionaires, higher than the next five U.S. cities combined.

The city is a major center for banking and finance, retail, world trade, transportation, tourism, real estate, media, advertising, legal services, accountancy, insurance, theater, fashion, the arts, you name it and it’s probably here.

And while economists talk of the demise of manufacturing in the city, there are companies who are engaged in manufacturing, driven by technological advances that shrink the size of manufacturing equipment. Indeed, about 14,000 residents of the Bronx are employed in manufacturing.

Silicon Alley

Home to hundreds of tech startups, the tech sector continues to expand in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I stood on the sidewalk outside Chelsea Market, gawking at 111 Eighth Ave., Google’s New York City headquarters, wondering what the heck was going on inside there. Nobody came outside to tell me.

Google bought 111 Eighth Ave., a 3 million-square-foot office building, just more than two years ago, paying almost $2 billion.

Since the recession ended five years ago, New York has added more tech jobs than any city with the exception of San Francisco. The tech sector is noe a major part of New York’s economy–by some counts the amount of venture, angel, and private equity cash poured into New York has grown from $799 million in 2009 to about $3 billion in 2013.

In the last four years, the city added 25,000 tech jobs — up 33 percent. The sector, responsible directly or indirectly for 291,000 jobs, is now 7 percent of the city job market, behind health care at 16 percent and retail at 8 percent.

Lunch Atop a Skyscraper

A favorite photograph, one that I never tire looking at, is Lunch Atop a Skyscraper (New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam). You have probably seen this black-and-white photograph, which depicts 11 dusty construction workers, mostly immigrants, eating sandwiches and smoking cigarettes, as they casually sit nonchalantly on a crossbeam 840 feet above New York City streets.

The photo was taken on September 20, 1932, during the height of the Great Depression, on the 69th floor of the RCA Building, now called the GE Building. According to archivists, the photo was staged to promote the opening of the skyscraper, but nevertheless those were real ironworkers who were part of the construction project.

There is something about that photograph that harkens the American experience. And while they are white men, of European extraction, a similar photograph could be taken today of men and women at work of different races from other parts of the world who are here because they believe in America and the opportunities that they see here.

I wonder sometimes if we can see what they can see. New York, despite all its foibles, continues to say, “Yes, you can,” probably more so than any place in America. And for that we should be thankful.

Sociologists now largely disregard the term “melting pot,” as being outdated and inaccurate. I don’t have the academic background to argue with them, but I would think that immigrants and their descendants would want to adapt and assimilate to their new surroundings in order to prosper.

In his 1905 travel narrative The American Scene, Henry James writes about cultural intermixing in New York City as a “fusion, as of elements in solution in a vast hot pot.”

My hope is that the pot stays hot, thereby keeping New York as the Center of the World.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

If you liked what you saw here, invite me to speak at your next meeting.

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.

A Matter of Economic Patriotism

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on July 27, 2014 at 7:52 am

It’s a free country or so they say.

Like every place, we here in the United States have our laws, regulations and taxes. That’s the nature of things where all governments reside, which is sometimes to the ire and discomfort of business people.

And while the U.S. remains a refuge and haven for foreign direct investment, which was the topic of our blog last week, it is somewhat ironic and interesting to note that some U.S. companies are reincorporating themselves overseas for tax reasons.

These corporate relocations, known as inversions, are becoming more common, and has both parties in Washington at least concerned. But whether lawmakers will actually act to remedy the situation, well, that’s another story.

Legal But Wrong

Speaking at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College last week, President Obama accused certain companies of “cherry-picking the rules” and damaging the country’s finances and the economy by this practice of inversion.

“My attitude is I don’t care if it’s legal, it’s wrong,” he said.

Mr. Obama is now echoing U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew who has called for a new sense of “economic patriotism” and has urged Congress to take steps quickly to prevent U.S. companies from shifting their headquarters abroad to benefit from a lower tax rate.

Typically, these inversions are not causing U.S. job losses. Rather, this is a shell game in which a company sets up a tax domicile abroad which is often no more than a small office, all the while keeping the bulk of business operations here in the U.S.

Inversions take place when a large U.S. firm buys a smaller target company domiciled in a tax-friendly country like Ireland, which has a corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent compared to that of the U.S., which has an ostensible rate percent of 35 percent.

Minnow Swallows the Whale

The acquisition is structured in such a way that the U.S. company becomes on paper the subsidiary of the smaller foreign corporation. Edward Kleinbard, a professor of law at the University of Southern California, wrote in an opinion piece for Bloomberg news that such a deal is where “the foreign minnow swallows the domestic whale.”

The goal or purpose is to avoid paying the federal tax that applies when companies repatriate their low-taxed foreign earnings to the U.S.

In the past few weeks, two U.S. drug firms — AbbVie and Mylan – have moved forward with foreign takeover plans that would allow them to pay lower tax rates. AbbVie reported a global effective tax rate for 2013 of 22.6 percent, a roughly one-third discount off the U.S. statutory rate, largely as a result of its low-taxed foreign earnings.

Lew, who advocates lowering the U.S. headline rate and revamping the entire tax code, charges that companies that do inversions essentially want to keep the advantages of being in the U.S. – things like intellectual property protection, research support, financial security and reliable infrastructure — without paying for them.

Renouncing Their Citizenship

In a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, Lew wrote that Congress should act now to prevent even more companies “effectively renouncing their citizenship to get out of paying taxes.”

But because he is a cabinet member in the Obama administration, you can bet the Republicans are not going to dance anytime soon, even if they, too, recognize that there is a problem.

That is just the nature of Washington today, where true governance, based on give and take compromise and statesmanship between the two parties, is a very rare thing indeed.

Senior administration officials have been telling reporters that the president supports a long-term rewrite of the tax code to make the U.S. a more attractive place to locate businesses, jobs and investment. Never mind that is pretty much what the Republicans have been saying, too.

No Fix Soon

But most political observers doubt that anything will be done before the midterm elections in November, where the GOP stands a good chance to reclaim a majority in the Senate.

Mr. Obama apparently wants legislation that would essentially say that if more than half of the new firm is owned by the old U.S. firm’s shareholders, the inversion won’t be recognized for tax purposes. I think that makes a lot of sense.

The ultimate goal with any legislative fix is to keep the U.S. corporate tax base from eroding. Senior administration officials are particularly worried about “a bandwagon effect,” in which one firm in a sector inverts, raising pressure on other companies in the sector to invert as well.

One such potential decision to reincorporate overseas lies with Walgreen Co., which could raise pressure on CVS Caremark Corp. to do the same. Walgreen, which owns a 45 percent stake in European drug retailer and wholesaler Alliance Boots, could buy the remaining shares, thereby opening up the possibility of reincorporating in Europe and benefiting from a lower tax rate.

Riddled with Loopholes

Over the last 10 years, 47 companies have reincorporated abroad, compared to 29 over the previous two decades, according to the Congressional Research Service. As many as 30 inversion transactions could be moving through the deal-making pipeline right now, according to the Obama administration.

Kleinbard writes that inversions “are symptomatic of a corporate tax system that is highly distortionary, unstable and riddled with loopholes. The headline rate of 35 percent is well above world averages, effective rates imposed on investments vary wildly, and the international rules in particular are an incoherent mess.”

No argument from me on that, professor. He further writes:

“Inverting firms try to justify corporate self-help as the right response, but inversions both gut the domestic tax base and allow key players (those with international operations) to excuse themselves from the debate, while domestic firms are left holding the bag.”

Nobody likes to be left holding the bag. So let’s level the playing field with a bipartisan comprehensive tax code rehaul, which would make our nation more competitive on a world stage. We need to cut our statutory corporate tax rate by half, all the while closing loopholes for special interests.

Now you, Republicans, and you, Democrats. Get at it. Do your job. Quit talking around each other and start talking to each other. Is that too much to ask?

Saw One Coming but Not the Other

You know, I am fast coming to the conclusion that I should start calling myself an economic development “futurist” or maybe a “seer” so that I can charge more money.

Back on July 8, in my blog entitled “A Masterpiece of Economic Development,” I wrote that with the spate of recent U.S., German and Japanese automotive investment in Mexico, with new OEM assembly plants being announced with some regularity, that it was just a matter of time before the Koreans would follow suit.

Well, my prediction seems to be coming true, as Reuters reported this past week that Kia is in talks with Mexico to open a new auto assembly plant worth at least $1.5 billion.

The news service quoted Rolando Zubiran, secretary of economic development in Nuevo Leon, as saying that negotiations on the plant were under way and involved Nuevo Leon, the Mexican federal government and Kia, an affiliate of Hyundai Motor Corp.

“It’s more than $1.5 billion,” Zubiran said, referring to the planned investment. He said Nuevo Leon hoped the deal would be concluded during the first two weeks of August.
Reuters reported that sources said the plant will have an annual capacity of some 300,000 cars and will be built on the northeastern outskirts of Monterrey.

But before I get too much of the big head, I should fess up. I will admit that I was somewhat surprised that Volkswagen announced that it will invest $900 million to expand its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and add 2,000 jobs by 2018.

I say that because I had sensed a tension between VW management and the state of Tennessee, stemming from the company’s desire to essentially unionize its workforce so that it could get incorporate its vaunted works council business model.

There still may be some tension there, as the United Auto Workers will be establishing a local, much to the horror of some elected officials. We’ll see how this story plays out, but it apparently did not thwart VW’s plans to expand the Chattanooga plant in a big way.

So maybe if I was a real futurist, I would not be so surprised by such turn of events. Best I keep my consulting rates reasonable and not make such claims.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

If you liked what you saw here, invite me to speak at your next meeting.

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.


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