Dean Barber

Tales from the Trenches: Of Projects Won, Lost and Mangled

In Uncategorized on February 3, 2012 at 8:56 am

“All great ideas and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.” — Albert Camus

And so it is with just about any book or business. It starts with an often delusional belief that this thing we want to create is somehow needed and will be appreciated. The old proverbial idea of filling a niche is still true today.

And often in spite of our ignorance and sometimes even because of it, we actually accomplish what we set out to do. Sometimes we get to the promised land by shear will. I’m fast coming to the conclusion that will power or desire may be every bit as important as smarts in business. Some people not only have a better idea, but they just want it more.

If he didn’t say it, he should have – a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Along with fire in the belly, I have also come to believe that great success is usually predicated upon great failure. It seems that one is needed for the other, that nobody goes unscathed. Now this often makes for wonderful stories and teaching moments. These are tales from the trenches. Funny stories, sad stories, memorable stories, where failure and success are intertwined.

No Textbook Here

My friend Neal Wade, former head of the Alabama Development Office, and I want to write a book to tell these kind of stories. We want it to be from the perspective of  both economic developers and site selection consultants. The book will be about recruiting projects won and lost, and I promise that it will have no resemblance to a boring textbook.

Rather, we want to tell memorable stories that serve a purpose, stories that teach. To accomplish this, we will need your help. In short, we want to hear your stories, as they will be the foundation for our teaching book.

“We are looking for message stories,” said Wade, who was recently named executive director of the Bay County Economic Development Council in Panama City, Fla. “Some will be humorous. Some will be touching. We are going to tell stories to make a point. The story could be a real tear jerker or it could make you laugh. We want you to learn from these stories.”

Wade, formerly the president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, has a story of his own that he will occasionally tell.

“You know I always dealt with numbers. I always thought that you had to have a certain number of jobs, until I went down to Foley (Alabama). EDPA had provided a grant and helped a plant there, and I had been invited to attend the grand opening.

“After the program was over, a lady walked up to me and said, ‘I just want to thank you. I am now going to earn a salary that will allow me to send my kids to college.’ Now, I can’t tell that story publicly without almost tearing up. Because it taught me that we are not in this just for the numbers. We’re in this because we can change lives.”

The Power of Stories

That story will be implanted in Neal for the rest of his life. It touched him, and stories will do that. They become a part of our DNA and have been so ever since early man painted images on cave walls.  We remember stories, we appreciate stories, we even think in terms of stories or narratives.  We collect them whether we know it or not. In business and in life, stories become a part of us.

Some people are just natural story tellers. Mike Bolton, a sports columnist at the Birmingham News, certainly has that gift. Mike could double me over in laughter with his tales, most of which poked fun of himself. I remember one he told about a New Year’s eve party that he went to as a hell raising young man.  Much alcohol was consumed that night.

When Mike wakes up the next morning, he finds himself outstretched on the front lawn. He stumbles into the party house, where his buddies are all laid out. He makes his way to the bathroom mirror, where he cannot help but see that his face is scorched red and his mustache is burned off. Even his tongue is burned. Something is very wrong.

Then he learns the truth from his friends, who awake, see him with a burnt face and begin howling with laughter. They call him “a legend.” It seems that after Mike passed out on the lawn from too much fun, his drunken pals soon recognized the brilliant opportunity to shoot bottle rockets out of this mouth.

Now that’s the short version. When Mike, now a church leader and far removed from his rowdy days, gives this account, it is so much better because he has this gift for storytelling.  And I will always remember that story. I can’t prove it that it happened. Heck, I don’t want to. I just want to savor it, even if it has nothing to do with economic development or site selection.

Now the moral of the story is not to drink yourself into a stupor around riotous, drunken friends who might take a notion to entertain themselves by humiliating you in the process.  Thankfully, Mike’s friends did not shoot bottle rockets from another orifice.

By the way, Mike gave me permission to tell this story. He’s a brave man.

Sailing Across the Deep Blue Sea

But now I want to tell a story that may very well go into our book about economic development and site selection. It comes from Ron Ruberg, a veteran site selection consultant, and I first heard it last fall on a fam tour in Northwest Florida. It was there that I noticed that Ron, like Mike, could spin a yarn.

Ruberg and his colleagues at Location Advisory Services are hired by a California-based printing company to find a location for a future corporate headquarters. Consummate professionals, the consultants have done their due diligence. They have had extensive interviews with senior management on the musts and wants of the company. They understand the drivers of the project and are confident that their findings, a recommendation of three communities, will be well received by an executive committee within the company.

The big day comes. Seven senior managers fly in from California to New Jersey for a meeting at Ruberg’s office.

But it soon becomes soon apparent during the meeting that all is not right. After presenting the findings on each community, Ruberg detects a lack of enthusiasm, a quiet unsettling feeling in the room. Finally one of company executives breaks the silence.

“Ok, I’ll bite the bullet,” the exec said. “Look, guys, I don’t know what happened here, but there is a tremendous gap in one of the things that we wanted. Let me put it to you this way, of the seven of us here, five of us are avid, avid sailors. We go into competitions on a monthly basis. The other two also sail, but they don’t compete. None of these sites you’ve presented are near any water.”

Ruberg said the company execs were magnanimous and did not blame him and his consulting colleagues for the apparent gaff, acknowledging that probably no one in the company ever mentioned sailing and proximity to water as an important factor to be considered.

The company eventually chose Annapolis, Md., which had substantially higher operating costs than the communities that were recommended.

“Once they saw it (Annapolis), that was it. It’s a gorgeous place, and that’s where they wanted to be, close to the water where they could sail,” Ruberg said.

The moral of this story is that is somewhat similar to Neal’s story in that it’s not always about the numbers. Choices on where to build a plant or locate a corporate headquarters will often entail an emotional aspect that goes beyond the numbers.

Apparently, in the long run, the idea of pursuing a hobby – sailing – trumped most other business considerations and factors on where that corporate headquarters would be located. Now you may think of that decision as being unprofessional and even selfish. But I bet there are some people employed at that corporate headquarters in Annapolis today who are rightly thankful that the decision happened the way it did.

Ants, Goats and Idiots

Space will not permit me to tell you the full story about an automotive CEO, in search for a billion-dollar plant in the Southeast, finding himself getting bitten in an ant-infested van, which would get a flat tire on the site and have him stranded with his economic development hosts, without a backup vehicle planned for. Now that is priceless. Then there is the one about goats in a building, told to me by a Chicago-based site selection consultant. Truly a classic.

And how could I forget the story about the prideful, small-town mayor who told the company prospect during a community tour that his town had a very low crime rate, because, brace yourself, there were so few black people in his commmunity. The visiting corporate executive’s face turned into a grimace and the visit ended quite abruptedly. The moral of that story, of course, is that you should never, ever advertise that you are a racist idiot.

So there you have it. A sprinkling of tales from the trenches. We’re looking for all kinds of memorable stories — stories where you struck gold and stories where you struck out. If you have been involved in project recruiting for more than a few years, either as a site consultant or an economic developer, you no doubt have a few treasured yarns locked away in your memory.

Please consider sharing them. It may take a little swallowing of pride to tell about past mistakes made, of the big fish that got away, but think of it as a service to the young people who are entering this crazy business. (I almost called it a profession.)

So let’s hear your stories. Operators (Neal and I) will be standing by.

Need a partner in results-oriented site selection? Contact Dean Barber at 972-890-3733 or at Barber Business Advisors, LLC, is a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. Please visit our website at

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