Ostensibly, I am a consultant. I am in business to help companies find optimal locations for their future operations throughout North America. I also hold myself out to have sage-like knowledge in working with economic development organizations.
But in my heart of hearts, I will always be a journalist, a digging, probing gumshoe reporter. It actually serves me well in what I do today.
For 20 years, I worked on newspapers, first as a reporter and then becoming an editor. My last job in the craft was as the business editor for The Birmingham News, Alabama’s largest daily newspaper. But I left journalism in 1998. It was a scary thing to do to be sure, but sometimes you can only leap and hope for the best.
The opportunity presented itself and I jumped. The Economic Development Partnership of Alabama sent me all over the world, recruiting European and Asian companies to Alabama. It was one fun job. My new bosses figured if I was so good at rooting around at finding news (news that sometimes they didn’t want reported), that I might also have a good nose for digging up projects.
Well, I think they were proved right. Through my investigative methods, which I learned as a reporter, I found or originated a good number of projects that would eventually result in manufacturing plants on the ground in Alabama. But in the process, I learned that economic development was far more of a team sport than what I expected. Teams win projects not individuals.
Actually, that is a common denominator for all successful business operations. It’s an old, old concept but it’s still true, true. Team work matters.
This past week, I spent some very good time in Tallahassee, Fla., where I spoke on the subject of business retention and expansion and later, during a panel discussion, on site selection. During the course of the all-day forum, sponsored by the Economic Development Council of Tallahassee/Leon County, I had the pleasure of listening to remarks by John Crowe, chairman and CEO of Memphis-based Buckeye Technologies Inc.
Crowe, a Florida State University graduate and member of the FSU Sports Hall of Fame, struck me as a most personable and humble man. In his public and afterward in private remarks to me, he said that it was not about what he may know or offer his company that makes such a big difference, but rather the people around him – his team.
An exec with the company told me that Crowe has the uncanny ability to walk into the company’s plant in nearby Taylor County and talk with ease to workers, remembering their first names and things about their families.
Crowe has 32 years of experience in manufacturing, and began as a shift worker. So he has seen manufacturing up close and personal from the shop floor to the boardroom. Buckeye manufactures cellulose fibers used for everything from hot-dog casings to currency paper to wipes. The company is a leader in its industry.
No Going Back
I also learned from my Tallahassee trip that I can never go home again. Any faintest idea of ever returning to the newspaper business was totally dashed with a tour of the newsroom of the Tallahassee Democrat provided by Executive Editor Bob Gabordi.
The newsroom that I saw was not the newsroom that I left 15 years ago. Technology had transformed it. Bob tried to explain to me these starship panels that were center stage showing editors in real time who is reading what online, what stories were being worked on and the progress to completion. At that moment, the all-knowing sage consultant felt dumb, very dumb. And like a relic. There would be no going back for me. Ever.
But earlier in the very same building, I was cruising, indeed felt a level of confidence, in fielding questions about economic development and site selection with the editorial board of the newspaper. They were asking me about my world, a world that I have grown comfortable with as a consultant. And they even wrote an editorial that came out the next day (Friday) suggesting that I knew my stuff.
Fooled ‘em again, Josey. (From the movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”)
A Road Show in the Making
The conference began a few hours later in which I offered up a deep dish helping on the concept of business retention and expansion (BR&E) via a PowerPoint presentation that was replete with the most absolutely ridiculous images that I could find. I was speaking after lunch so my goal was to keep my audience awake.
Later that afternoon, I found myself on a three-member panel discussion fielding questions about the recruiting process and what companies were looking for in communities of interest. I came to realize very quickly that my two comrades on the panel were not only very smart and very good at what they did, but also good guys to boot. And they were fun to hang out with.
Thomas Henry and Marty Reid with PricewaterhouseCoopers offered valuable views on site selection and economic development that were from a different perspective than mine. But their ideas and methods are great. Somehow, someway in answering questions from the audience, we – the three so-called experts onstage — complimented each other in what we had to say by our different approaches.
Afterward, some people commented that they thought we had worked together before and had planned out and rehearsed our answers. It was at that point that we started musing the idea of taking our show out on the road and selling tickets. Marty plays a mean guitar and I play, maybe I shouldn’t say this here … the uh, oh boy … Well, you know, it’s the uh … Ok, we’ll tell you … the banjo. There, it’s out.
But the point is that while I was being presented as the expert and maybe was successful in parting some information that others found useful, this learning thing is a two way street. I am just as much student as teacher. I am learning, or at least trying to learn, all the time from people that I meet. And I came away from Tallahassee having learned some things. Things that I hope to apply to my consulting business.
Thank You, Thank You
So let me publicly thank Beth Kirkland, president of TEDC, and her entire staff for their hospitality and all the work they did to make the economic development forum on Thursday such a success. They are a good team and teams matter. Kudos also to Karen Moore, chairman of the TEDC and owner of her own public relations consulting firm. Karen just makes things happen and makes people feel good in the process. Now that’s an art.
And this doesn’t happen very often, but it actually should. I want to thank the sometimes thankless press, specifically the Tallahassee Democrat. You must understand that these people publish the equivalent of a book every day. Do they always get it right? Of course not. But the overwhelming majority of journalists are dedicated to getting it right. They care about their community and shedding light on both strengths and weaknesses.
So I would urge local economic developers nationwide to get to know your local newspaper editors and publishers. You will not always be on the same page, but you need to have that dialogue and that relationship. I am speaking to you as a former business editor, a former economic developer, and now an expert on all business matters under the sun, because I am a consultant, and we are all knowing, which is why we give PowerPoint presentations.
A Good Deal
But seriously, I consider myself blessed. Like you, I’ve had my share of misfortune and pain, but I am thankful that I am able to move about across this great nation of ours and impart what little knowledge that I may have, while learning from others and making new friends. Now that’s a good deal.
Does Tallahassee have an intrinsic advantage in a future site search for a corporate client because I made friends there? The answer is yes and no to the degree that I would take a company only to the most optimal (and finalist) places where the perameters of the project – the wants and needs of the company – truly fit.
But I do now have a better and deeper understanding of the assets of Tallahassee and Northwest Florida. I have some ideas on what they can and cannot do in that region, and, again, depending on the client’s needs, it might be a place that can work. It just all depends.
My Next Dumb PowerPoint
I think soon, very soon, I will start building a PowerPoint presentation on the importance of regionalism in economic development. Like BR&E, it is a growing movement. There are reasons why communities should band together and share resources and develop regional strategies, which we will not go into here and now.
And like my other presentations, I will populate it with totally ridiculous images so as to keep my audience awake if not entertained.
Don Kirkman, president of Florida’s Great Northwest, representing 16 counties, formerly was president and CEO of the 12-county Piedmont Triad Partnership in North Carolina. Don understands the importance of regionalism as he has lived it most intimately in his marketing efforts.
So Don knows that I will be turning to him in the future on this subject matter. I should also thank him. He was the moderator for the panel discussion on Thursday in Tallahassee. He did not ask any questions that left me flat footed and looking un-sagelike. So thank you, Don.
As Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” I think that I may have left Tallahassee in the nick of time without doing or saying something too overly stupid, thereby threatening my all-knowing consulting status
I think. But I’m not absolutely sure.
Need a partner in results-oriented site selection? Contact Dean Barber at 972-890-3733 or at email@example.com Barber Business Advisors, LLC, is a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com