Dean Barber

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

China This and China That

In Uncategorized on October 29, 2012 at 5:21 am

China killed my old grey cat. Well, maybe not. She was 18 years old, but if I take what I have been reading to heart, I wouldn’t put it past them.

You see, I have learned that I live amidst a spy cabal. Right across the street from where I live and work in Plano, Texas, sits the North American headquarters of Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies. Now our most esteemed U.S. House of Representatives (and we know they always get things right) says my neighbor poses a security threat to the United States because of the risk of cyber espionage linked to the Chinese government.

Following an 11-month investigation about the business practices of Huawei and ZTE Corp, the House Intelligence Committee recently released a report stating that the two companies “could undermine core U.S. national-security interests” and therefore the U.S. “should view with suspicion the continued penetration of the U.S. telecommunications market by Chinese telecommunications companies.”

No question about it, doing business while Chinese can and has raised scrutiny in this country.  And based on a large number of corporate spying cases involving China recently, with formal complaints resulting to the World Trade Organization by the U.S., Japan and the European Union, I can understand why

In November 2011, 14 U.S. intelligence agencies issued a report describing a far-reaching industrial espionage campaign by Chinese spy agencies. This campaign to essentially steal technology apparently has been long running and targets biotechnology, telecommunications, and nanotechnology, as well as clean energy. One U.S. metallurgical company lost technology to China’s hackers that cost $1 billion and 20 years to develop, U.S. officials said last year.

Political leaders and intelligence officials in the U.S. and Europe are coming to a disturbing conclusion. “It’s the greatest transfer of wealth in history,” General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, said at a security conference at New York’s Fordham University in January.

Now I do not know if there are Chinese secret agents lurking about in my neighborhood. There very well could be. There are certainly many employees of Huawei all around me and I must commend them for being a particularly polite crew.

If they are hell bent on stealing intellectual property and eventual world domination, they give no inklings of it. Of course, discretion is the better part of valor in the spy business.

A Huawei spokesman called the Congressional report ” little more than an exercise in China-bashing and misguided protectionism.” In short, the telecom equipment maker is saying that we are being too paranoid and xenophobic.

The charge is one that deserves some introspective consideration. Are we essentially just being racist jerks or we rightfully concerned about protecting our intellectual capital and property rights?  I happen to believe in the latter, knowing full well that protectionism does not always serve our better angels.

President Obama and Mitt Romney have both found it useful to engage in some tough talk directed at China during the presidential campaign. And while some of the rhetoric of China as a “cheater” may prove true, keep in mind that it is also easy to scapegoat.

China is not to blame for why 47 percent of Detroit’s adult population is functionally illiterate. China is not the reason why half the kids in some major U.S. cities do not graduate from high school. China is in no way responsible for why the World Economic Forum ranked the United States as No. 48 in quality of math and science education.

You don’t hear the two candidates talk about that very much.

I think the evidence is clear that China has been engaging in some predatory, state-sanctioned practices that we need to counter, including being a major source of international computer hacking and cyber-attacks. But if we’re looking for a guilty party, a bogeyman during this Halloween season, let us never shy away from the mirror to get a glimpse of at least one culprit.

We most certainly now view China as a rival and a collision course or showdown of some sorts seems to be in the offing. But I believe and hope that our economies are too intrinsically linked to each other for a shooting war to result. But be aware that we truly are now engaged in an economic cold war with China. That’s already happening.

The Obama administration has 10 cases now pending against Beijing at the WTO in an effort to use trade rules to reduce China’s large bilateral trade surplus with the U.S. In the first seven months of this year, China sold $174 billion more in goods to the U.S. than it bought from the U.S. The bilateral trade gap between the two countries in 2011 was $295 billion.

In one of those pending cases before the WTO, the U.S. has charged China of providing at least $1 billion in illegal subsidies to Chinese auto and auto parts exporters from 2009-2011, helping them essentially unfairly win business from U.S. manufacturers in the $350 billion U.S. market.

The U.S. usually prevails in such cases, but I’m not so sure that turning to a world court is the answer. However the WTO rules, the Chinese will continue to operate their state-run, centralized version of capitalism, which remains focused on corning the market in buying raw materials in virtually all parts of the globe as well as penetrating markets with their finished goods.

We have never faced such a strategic rival as this before — a one-party state with a voracious commodity appetite and with the financial capability of making investments around the world. These guys are playing for the long term and they’re playing for keeps. Never forget that.

We may not be able to effectively thwart China in Africa or Asia, but we can play some hard ball here at home. We can (and have) essentially barred at least some Chinese investment in this country on grounds of national security. And we can slap tariffs when dumping is apparent.

The Obama administration recently rejected a bid by Chinese firm Ralls Corp. to build four wind farm projects near an Oregon-based naval facility, the first foreign investment to be barred in the U.S. in 22 years. The administration has also introduced tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels and tires.

By the way, if a Chinese company wanted to engage me to help them find a suitable site for manufacturing startup operations in the U.S., I would most likely want to help them. Unless, of course, the feds came knocking in the middle of the night to dissuade me otherwise.

But I would hope to enter the deal knowing full well that most of the Chinese companies investing capital resources around the world are either majority state-owned or maintain intricate government links. By western standards, where there is more pressure for corporate transparency, Chinese companies seem far more secretive and opaque. I wouldn’t expect them to tell me too much.

And there lies the rub. We suspect that these companies are essentially tentacles of a government that is not only a strategic rival to the US, but engages in a state-run centralized form of capitalism that has essentially been running circles around us. In such a scenario, some form of industrial espionage may not be the exception, but almost the norm. Again, no Chinese client company would confide in me on any such terms.

China’s economy has grown at an average of around 10 percent a year for the past three decades, allowing it to propel past the competition to become the world’s second largest economy. Along the way, an emerging middle class have evolved, which is not a bad thing. A growing middle class may force democratic reforms.

We have all heard about how growth has slowed in China and how the country may be in for a hard landing. There is no question that the economy has lost steam more dramatically than expected. Europe’s debt crisis and lackluster growth in the United States have sapped demand for China’s exports.

The growth slowed last quarter in China to its lowest level since early 2009 at 7.4 percent. But we would kill to have a growth rate of 7.4 percent, with the U.S. economy growing at an annual rate of 2 percent. Apparently, there has been no widespread social unrest as job losses in China have not been significant.

In short, the threat of China is not going away. It will remain a powerhouse and may I suggest even a trading enemy because of its state sponsored capitalism. We can continue to go the WTO route or we can play hard ball and essentially and block them from investing in markets that are sensitive to our national security. We can also slap tariffs on them, knowing full well that they are, in effect, doing the same by deliberately making our manufactured goods more expensive by 10 to 20 percent with their currency manipulation.

We can also consider adopting government policies to advance economic interests, particularly when it comes to manufacturing. (We currently have the highest corporate tax rates in the world.) And I do believe there is a role for the federal government here in underwriting basic research.

Now here is a crazy thought. Just as there are Small Business Development Centers around the country, why not consider creating a similar network of manufacturing technology incubators. It might be anathema to some free marketers who are wary of big government (and I am no fan of big government), but manufacturing in this country must be encouraged, and yes, even protected.

There, I said it. The “P-word.” I am waiting for the lightning to strike.

I hope this blog is not viewed as an exercise of paranoia and xenophobia. Heck, a little paranoia might not be so bad.

But It gives me great solace that when a couple of my friends and I will periodically pick and sing our American old-time hillbilly music out by the “cement pond” in nearby Bishop Park, Chinese people, probably most of them employees of Huawei, seem particularly drawn to us. Groups of them will form around us, smiling and nodding, as we engage in our barbaric twang.

I believe that is conclusive proof that even the Chinese can have bad taste. Now how can I not have a special affinity for such a nice people?

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at dbarber@barberadvisors.com Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com

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Big, Small, and the Skinny of It All

In Uncategorized on October 21, 2012 at 8:08 am

There is a long-standing tradition in this country, perhaps more so than anyplace in the world, of being suspicious of anything perceived as being too big.

Mind you, most of us do not want to see an iconic General Motors fail, nor does a majority subscribe to the belief that the only role for the federal government is delivering our mail and defending our shores from attack. Still, most Americans will refrain from celebrating big government or big business.

President Andrew Jackson realized as much when he dismantled a national bank, while President Theodore Roosevelt was hailed as the “trust buster,” targeting certain large corporate conglomerates that he thought had too much controlling interests in the national economy.

Tapping into this anti-big, populist sentiment, Ronald Reagan referred to what he called the nine most terrifying words: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

And if there is a tendency to demonize big business in this country, at least in some camps, we also like to lionize small business, where most Americans are employed.

I think our psyche as Americans is to root for underdogs, those struggling to make right against forces way bigger than themselves. It plays to that notion of rugged individualism and manifest destiny that really is part of our national heritage.

There remains a romantic pioneer notion about entrepreneurship in this country, of going it alone to build something big and lasting. Frankly, I am thankful of that. The American Dream may be harder to come by, but it’s far from dead.

Humble Origins Indeed

And what will always be encouraging is the fact virtually all businesses started off small.  You’ve heard by now the story of Steve Jobs starting his company in his parent’s garage.  Harley Davidson began in a 10-foot by 15-foot backyard shed in Milwaukee. Humble origins indeed.

As a small business owner – providing site selection and economic development consulting services — I will admit to pursuing plans of grandeur, of growing my business into what will become the largest multi-national conglomerate in the Free World. My model, of course, is Kurt Vonnegut’s RAMJAC Corporation.  One of my first takeover targets – Ramen Noodles.

You see, as an entrepreneur, I must have my dreams (even if they are delusional) or I wouldn’t be in business.

Recently, I had the pleasure of listening to a business professor who I thought understood business. David Summers, an associate professor of economic development and entrepreneurship at the University of Houston-Victoria’s School of Business, spoke at the annual conference of the Texas Economic Development Council on small business, dispelling some myths along the way and putting things in perspective.

Not surprisingly, myths do prevail, especially during a presidential election season, when the two candidates are putting their spin to the story on how they are so much better suited for small business than the other guy.

I was able to sit down with the good professor and he pointed me to some very useful sources and statistics, to which I will be reciting as if I am the expert here. (A common ploy by consultants.) In short, what I am saying is that I didn’t make any of this stuff up, and if I get anything wrong, it’s his fault and not mine. (Another typical consultant stratagem.)

So in 2010, there were about 28 million small businesses in this country, responsible for 49.2 percent of private sector employment. But there were also 18,500 firms with 500 employees or more, defined as big business, and they employed the other 50 percent or so.

About half – 52 percent – of all small businesses are home based and 78.5 percent, are non-employers in the sense that they employ only the sole proprietor.  Of the remaining 21.5 percent that do employ anyone, only 10.7 percent of that group will employ more than 20 people.

What those numbers show is not so surprising – that small businesses, almost by their very nature, are typically rather fragile enterprises. Twenty percent will die in the first year. Only about half will make it to five years. About one-third will survive 10 years or more.

And here is more to ruminate on while you are at it. According to the US Census Bureau:

  • Firms with 100 or more employees makeup only about 2 percent
  • Firms with less than 250 employees contribute to 47.6 percent of total employment in 2010; down from a peak of 52.1 percent in 2001.
  • Firms with more than 250 employees contribute 52.4 percent of total employment.

The Buffalo That I Hunt

As a site selection consultant, I will set my sights on corporate America, those 18,500 firms employing roughly half of the private sector and classified by the SBA as big business. Those are the buffalo that I hunt.

In doing so, I subscribe to Sutton’s law which states that when diagnosing, one should first consider the obvious. The law is named after the bank robber Willie Sutton, who reputedly said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.”

A similar logic is contained in the physician’s adage, “When you hear hoof beats behind you, think horses, not zebras.”

According to Kauffman Foundation’s annual index of Entrepreneurial Activity (March, 2012), 320 businesses were started each month nationwide in 2011 for every 100,000 adults in the United States. That translates into about 6.5 million startups a year, creating 2.46 million jobs in 2010.

But business starts have been trending downward in recent years and with it job creation. Indeed, according to the Census Bureau, the 2.46 million jobs is down from 2.8 million in 2009 and from the 17-year high of 4.8 million in 1999. In fact, the trend has been down each year since the 1999 peak.

Identify Growth Firms

For economic developers trying to make a difference in their respective communities, identifying growth firms, which represent only about 4 percent of all startups, is probably the best bet. These are businesses that have demonstrated a pattern of growth and have owners that frankly want to grow their business. Some business owners don’t, essentially content on remaining a sole proprietorship.

Also look at certain growth industries, like health care, social assistance, accommodation and food service, professional and technical services. Mind you, there is always risk in trying to pick winners and often the resulting jobs will not be offering stellar wages.

And the truth is that while start-ups do produce the largest number of new jobs, many don’t last. Nationally, since 2008 job losses from firm deaths exceed job gains. It’s clear that the better paying jobs, the more sustainable quality jobs, come from older and larger firms.

And here’s where I preach the importance of business retention and expansion again to economic developers. Concentrate on helping not only your existing older and larger firms, but also those promising young gazelles, those existing growth firms that you have in your community.

If you have a Small Business Development Center in your community, use it and consider the idea of an incubator. The five-year survival rate for Small Business Development Center-assisted businesses is 81 percent and 87 percent for incubator-assisted firms, according Dr. Summers, who again hooked me up with most of this information.

So Far, So Good

According to our friends at the Internal Revenue Service, the average sole proprietorship earned a net annual income of only $13,500 in 2009. So while it is clear that most entrepreneurs will make less money than those who are employed, there is a flip side to that coin. More than 70 percent of all millionaires are, in fact, business owners. In short, the potential for making more money exists by being a business owner.

That’s the message I keep telling my wife, aka “the little general.” So far, so good.

Probably the biggest mistake that I have made in writing this blog was venturing into politics. I did so a few weeks back, soon after the conventions in Tampa and Charlotte. The little general (I was at Fort Benning when she jumped out of a perfectly good airplane five times in one day to get her airborne wings) called me on it.

And, of course, she was right. It served no purpose to my core business to be writing about politics. The blog predictably elicited crazed ravings from partisans.

What I Am Hearing More and More

Now I am not going to tell you how I am going to vote or who you should vote for.  My vote hinges on the economy and the future. And, yes, I am being a bit self-centered in thinking of my own small business prospects.

I do like these Small Business Development Centers scattered around the country that offer technical assistance and training to small business. I think they can be a great and valuable resource. But another part of me cannot help but think that businesses thrive or fail in a free market, and that big government cannot reward competitive businesses any better than getting out of the way.

That’s what I am hearing more and more from business owners — that Washington needs to get the hell out of the way. That sentiment coincides with a nationwide survey in September of small businesses and manufacturers that government is largely viewed as barrier and not a help.

The poll, sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers and National Federation of Independent Business, concluded there are too many burdensome regulations now in effect that hamstring our competitiveness.

As a small business owner, I think big. (Building the largest multi-national conglomerate in the Free World will take some doing.) But a part of me, too, will always be suspicious of too big.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at dbarber@barberadvisors.com Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com

Another Way to Make and Bake

In Uncategorized on October 14, 2012 at 7:46 am

More than a year ago, I wrote a blog that took a rather critical look at what some people in the world of economic development see as a holy grail of sorts — the venerable strategic plan.

Not surprisingly, it stirred up a hornet’s nest.  I was criticized by some who said that I didn’t advocate or believe in their vaunted religion of long-term planning. Well, that’s a bunch of horse hockey.  I never said anything of the kind. I would welcome you to read “The Problem with Strategic Plans” and be the judge.

Rather, what I said was that it is easy for some economic development organizations to get so caught up in the planning process that they do not and cannot see the forest for trees and nothing gets done, as the study itself becomes the end game.

If you have been a reader of my Barberbiz blog, you might have noticed that I will sometimes challenge conventional thinking. I don’t do this for the sake of being a contrarian, even if I am one on occasion.

I will admit to an ulterior motive that is aimed squarely at potential clients. And it is simply this – that I am willing to take a critical view at certain things that are widely accepted as being the right course, when they might not be at all. I do this on the corporate side for site selection and on the economic development side. Doing so serves my clients well.

Now I have seen, you have too, some strategic plans that are, at first blush, rather impressive documents. They are thick and populated with graphs, tables, matrix diagrams and flow charts, proving that whoever did them must have really known their stuff.  Usually, they have been handed to me by beaming economic developers, proud parents of a wonderful creation.

Fat Plans Lean on Action

Sometimes these are, indeed, excellent documents that pave the way for a better way. But sometimes they fall short. I have seen more than a few fat strategic plans that are lean in providing for actionable items, recommended concrete things to do within a certain timeline. And you have to do stuff if you are going to get to the Promised Land.

I’ll say it again (for those itching consultants ready to pounce) that strategic plans can fill the bill and provide for a real actionable roadmap to the future. Based on our findings, try doing this, this and this, and then call us in the morning.  In such cases, the consultant has provided real value, even if his report is largely ignored.

I say that because all too often the recommendations (if they are present) are of a secondary importance. Rather, it is the report itself, the fact that it was done at all is of primary concern. In such instances, the strategic planning report serves as political cover for a local economic developer who wants to prove his or her bones — that something is getting done or was done, all in the name of progress.

“Look, I got us a strategic plan. It’s 250 pages. I think there is an executive summary in the front that you might want to read.”

And then it sits on a shelf somewhere, never to be referenced as that working roadmap, a document with legs.

The Report That He Paid For

An economic developer in Alabama, a good friend, told me that he once instructed a consultant on what the fine points of the future study should say in order that he (the economic developer) would have better footing to work toward certain goals with his board. In other words, he wanted the consultant to essentially verify what he had been preaching to his board. Apparently, the consultant followed his orders and the developer got the report that he paid for.

Mind you, my friend is an honest man, and he knew the challenges facing his community far greater than any outside consultant. Rather, he needed the consultant to say what needed to be said in the guise of a strategic plan.

I understand his logic. Local economic developers too often labor under the watchful, misunderstanding eyes of oversight boards that will have some screwy ideas and unreasonable expectations, especially in regard to recruitment and job creation. An economic developer in Florida recently told me that most of his time is spent trying to educate his stakeholders on what actually constitutes economic development in this day and age.

To that end, I suggest that there might be another alternative to the all-in, full monte strategic plan.

Now I don’t care what you call it. You can call it a banana plan for all I care, but what it really is and this might sound a bit vulgar to some of you aspiring to great lofty heights, is a sales plan. It will be and should be a more concise document, written in plain English. It’s almost the antithesis to the longer-term strategic plan, and I think it’s the better choice for most communities. (I can almost hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth.)ou

Your Community as Product

The truth is that your community at the end of the day is a product with certain assets and certain liabilities. And, of courste, as with any sales plan, you leverage your strengths, your assets. On the liabilities side, you address them. Sometimes you can even fix them, which is where a strategic plan can offer true value.

The bottom line is that a company looks at a community as something to either buy into or pass over.  It’s a calculated decision where to put limited resources, where to store your marbles and where to make your money.

Now it is my belief that effective targeted industry recruiting initiatives should be based on an existing and robust business retention and expansion program. Why is that? Because you are selling capabilities that you have proved that you already have and can do.

And if you develop the relationships and treat your existing industry right, they can be and should be a great source for industry intelligence and also a great ally to your recruitment (sales) efforts. But only if you do them right and be the problem solver and at times cheerleader that you can and need to be.

Trust me, recruit and ignore afterwards does not make for a long-term winning strategy.  In the end, that old quaint concept of customer service still reins.

It bemuses me that some communities, minus a meaningful BR&E program, much less a sales plan, will seek to recruit companies in certain industry groups that have no more business being there (in that community) than I have in being in Outer Mongolia.  In other words, there is little or no basis for surmising that this particular industry or company should take root here. And yet sometimes communities will go off on this wild goose chase on the guise that the local economic developer is being busy.

We Need One of Them

Bubba: “I think we need to get us one of them biotech companies.”

Joe Bob: “Sounds good to me. What exactly do they do?”

Bubba: “Well, I’m not exactly sure.  They got people running around in white lab coats, trying to come up with ways to invent new drugs and stuff.”

Joe Bob: “You think maybe our community college might train us up some folks to put on those white coats?”

Bubba: “Don’t see why not. We got us a dang good welding program, and because of it, Shazaam is making trailers over on the north side of town.”

Joe Bob: “How much you figure one these biotech companies pay?”

Bubba: “Better than a trailer company.”

BRE + SWOT = 1 FINE PIE

A few years ago, it was biotech. Now it seems that data centers are everyone’s darling. Everybody wants a piece of the action. But the truth is, the action can only go in some very limited places because of some very specific and technical needs. Mind you, it might be a growth industry, but even a growth industry cannot go just anywhere.

I’m not saying that economic developers cannot or should not sometimes think out of the box and go after something totally new for their communities. Evolving new technologies will almost by definition mean new ways of making things. Entire new industries will be born in the future. That’s a fact, which gives me great hope.

But I am saying that your best bet is to go after something or some things that you have a basis of knowledge for and have proved that you can do. This is where workforce comes to the forefront and why a good BR&E program is a logical place to start. Again, your existing industries can provide you with valuable prompts and insight on where you have been and where you are going.

My advice: Listen to them. They provide the foundation from which you build.

In Praise of the Lowly SWOT

Also, you also might consider the unappreciated and lowly SWOT analysis, which is often seen as a precursor to a strategic plan. It may not have the bulk of the all-encompassing  strategic plan or my favorite, the industry cluster analysis for the cluster that probably doesn’t exist in your community (Most places, in fact, do not have real clusters).

Now it just so happens, that your all-knowing, sage-like consultant (that would be me), can work you up one of these telling SWOT documents, which don’t have to be so long, but can be (and should be) quite revealing. I call mine the Barberbiz Review, because I figured I had to call it something.

Paired with your BR&E program, a SWOT analysis should point you in the right direction for your business development efforts. I said “should” because it’s so easy to get sidetracked as Bubba and Joe Bob so rightly proved.

For the uninitiated, SWOT stands for strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I have actually met some economic developers who did not know that, but that’s OK. I don’t know a lot of stuff, which is why I have a wife. Every day I am reminded of my profound ignorance in the ways of the world.

A SWOT analysis should enlighten and lift the ignorance, serving as an integral part of your sales plan, which probably should be revisited on a yearly basis to make sure that you are not overlooking the obvious. Again, information derived from your regular conversations with existing industry, a prerequisite for BR&E, can provide for some vital information that can be leveraged as to a community’s capabilities.

In short, if you have a real BR&E program (which takes time to accomplish), and then you do a SWOT analysis, (which shouldn’t take much time) you should have all the ingredients necessary to bake a fine sales plan pie.

And, Lord knows, I do love pie.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at dbarber@barberadvisors.com Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com

Build Your Own Golden Triangle

In Uncategorized on October 7, 2012 at 11:11 am

Most site selection consultants would probably agree that a place that invests in itself – in terms of infrastructure and/or human resources – is generally a more attractive place for future business operations.

In the quest to serve a corporate client well, I will seek a location to fill the bill in terms of specific requirements of the project, all the while weighing the risks involved. Risk is an underlying fundamental factor of all businesses, big and small, and is certainly paramount in the site selection process.

As I wrote in last week’s blog entitled “Site Certification: Saddle Up Old Kate,” there is no perfect place, just better places where the risks are lower and the chances for success are optimized. To be sure, it means an investigative and winnowing process on my part to determine just where those better places are.

In terms of the location of my own consulting business, I concluded the Dallas-Fort Worth area made a lot of sense for a lot different reasons that I will not go into here. But while it works for me, it most certainly would not be the best choice for many if not most clients that I would serve.

In short, they need to go where they need to be, which is where I come in. My job is helping them find that special place, where the risks can be better managed, whether it’s Maine or California, Canada or Mexico, and all parts in between.

But here’s the deal, and one that will boggle the mind of some economic developers. That special place doesn’t necessarily have to be all that special. It can be a best fit (or not) despite any and all branding efforts by an economic development organization.

This is Not Cheerios

It amazes me that some communities, so taken with this idea of brand, will go to extraordinary lengths in terms of time and money to differentiate themselves “from the competition.” They buy into the message of some consultants who impress upon them that their community is somehow uniquely special. We’re going to help you find your voice, the special message of your place. Now if you just sign on the bottom line here.

Well, folks, this is not Charmin and this is not Cheerios. It matters little to me or most corporate clients that you believe that you are so unique because of your annual dump truck festival or have the largest stuffed collection of two-headed calves in the world.

The truth is that your community may not be so different after all, but it still might be the best place for a company to do business. Here fit, not brand, rules. I’m not saying that marketing is irrelevant. Indeed, it is not. Rather, I am saying that you don’t have to strain yourself on the sublime in your never ending quest to differentiate yourself from the rest of the world.

I know of communities that have spent tons of money, only to come up with some goofy logo and marketing materials that they think will somehow make a difference when it absolutely won’t. We’re the “Tomato Sandwich Capital of the Southeast.” No kidding?

Chances are, your community does have some real assets that can be documented and leveraged, minus the goofball logo and tagline proclaiming yourself this or that. Tangible assets are a good thing, but it does not usually make you a unique world unto your own.

I try to think about a community’s assets and liabilities and how that can play out for a corporate client on a particular project. Certainly, I want to develop a better understanding of a community’s business climate in terms of permitting and regulation, transportation infrastructure, energy availability and cost, and get the behind-closed-door opinions of major existing employers regarding skill sets, prevailing wages, turnover, work stoppages. And a whole lot more.

As I alluded to in my opening, I take note of communities that invest in themselves. The question immediately comes to mind, why should a company invest in your community if you are unwilling to do it yourself? Think about it.

I realize that times are tough and that state and local governments are strapped for money. But when I see a community spending money on upgrading infrastructure or workforce training or even quality of life things like a park or walking trail, well, I tend to remember those things, file them away in the back of my mind. If you believe and invest in your community’s future, well, then I can, too.

A Golden Triangle in Mount Pleasant, Texas

Now I want to tell you about a friend of mine and a community in East Texas, whose efforts are worth remembering.

For purposes of full disclosure and transparency, I will tell you that I have done work for Charlie Smith and his Mount Pleasant Industrial Development Corporation (MPIDC). I worked with Charlie certifying two industrial properties in Mount Pleasant. During my initial visit to eyeball the properties (all subsequent work was done via computer and teleconferences), Charlie took me out to a workforce training center that was under construction.

Slowly I came to realize that this training center, while not totally unique, did represent something very big and very special to his community, because it brought together local government, education, and the business community together as buy-in partners. That’s no small feat, folks. (By the way, I think this is hard to do without a substantive business retention and  expansion program.)

And it says something very important about the community and its vision for a future: We are willing to invest in us.

I like to think of government, education and business as a holy trinity or a golden triangle. Here in Mount Pleasant, I found that everyone had skin in the game, looking to the future where young people in the community would be better equipped to compete and work in a manufacturing environment.

The more I learned, the more impressed I became. Thankfully, I’m not the only one. This past week, Mount Pleasant was recognized for its startup Industrial Technology Training Center by being awarded a Gold Excellence in Economic Development Award at the annual conference of the International Economic Development Council in Houston.

IEDC Chairman Jay Moon cited Mount Pleasant’s “innovative and successful strategies “ and “using cutting-edge, effective practices that can be replicated in other communities.” To Charlie, the story goes well beyond the training per se that will take place. Rather, it was that golden triangle that he helped formulate and build, which made the training center possible.

MPIDC partnered with the Northeast Texas Community College and Mount Pleasant Independent School District  to purchase, rehab and equip a building. Southwestern Electric Power Co. and US Steel were also investors in the project.

“A lot of companies, communities and schools have mutual needs, but they don’t really communicate with each other. We saw that where there were mutual problems, that mutual solutions were the answer,” Smith said.

Above all, it meant compromise. None of the parties got everything they wanted, but they got enough of what they wanted to make it happen, Smith said. The new center includes certified training at two levels in industrial maintenance, in two CAD programs and electrical technology.

The program advanced from concept to facility acquisition and remodel to startup in less than one year. At the end of year two, the center operates with more than 200 high school and adult students.

I like to think of this as basic blocking and tackling that goes far beyond the hoopla of brand. Again, this is a community investing in itself, and again, as a site selection consultant, I have to take note of that.

Now I cannot predict whether I will bring an industrial project to Mount Pleasant. Whether the fit is right is dependent on fate and the future wants and needs of a corporate client. If Charlie finds himself in the mix as a finalist community, he knows he’ll have to compete along with everyone else. I will try to remain an unbiased referee and counselor, knowing full well that my client makes the final determination.

But I will say that Charlie Smith has built himself a fine marketing tool (yes, I believe in marketing) for his community with his new training center, along with the certified sites that I helped him with. And I have to believe that there will be a payoff in time for the money spent. That’s what investing in the future is all about.

Somebody said, I don’t know who, but maybe it was a Texas rancher, that a calf can’t brand itself. I reckon not.

But it’s your money to spend. My advice: Spend it wisely, invest in yourself, and build your own golden triangle.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at dbarber@barberadvisors.com Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com