Dean Barber

Kids Don’t Try This at Home

In Uncategorized on February 10, 2013 at 5:49 am

“Go Greyhound and Leave the Driving to Us” was an advertising slogan started by Greyhound Lines Inc. in 1956 and one that I grew up with as a child. I was reminded of it recently when I received what can only be described as a curious email.

It was a county commissioner on the Gulf of Mexico who was writing to me. His county  apparently had been damaged and then subsequently compensated by BP because of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

There is no surprise that BP would have to spend billions of dollars to compensate state and local governments for what was the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history. But I was somewhat surprised that this county commissioner was using this new found money as a dangling lure directed at site selection consultants.

“A large portion of the dollars will be utilized for economic development and job creation. Do any potential projects or opportunities come to mind? We have a responsibility to be as efficient as possible leveraging these incentivizing funds in the best interest of our citizens and of our local economy. My personal cell number is xxx-xxx-xxx.”

From my standpoint, this elected official, well intentioned as he may be, does not understand how the site selection process works, although he does have someone in his backyard who does. The commissioner is under the misguided belief that overt incentives drive that process when it goes far deeper than that.

Do incentives have a role to play in the site selection process? Of course, they do. Incentives are a means and a way for operations to start quicker, smoother and at less cost, all very attractive factors worth considering and even pursuing. Certainly, we will look at incentives and even engage in some hard nose bargaining in the final stages of determining our optimal location.

But are incentives a primary driver in a best location decision making process? Only to someone who does not understand what a site selection consultant is trying to achieve. (And believe it or not, that can sometimes even include the corporate client, at least in the beginning.)

Finding That Better Place

Keep in mind there is no perfect place for business. (Despite what some economic development organizations might claim.) Rather, there are better places where the risks can be better managed and the chances for success can be optimized.

The role of the site selection consultant, if he or she is properly doing his or her job, is come up with a short list of those optimal communities, based on a tailored list of ranking criteria agreed to up front and with a whole lot of analysis and investigation to follow. The criteria will differ because of the specific wants and needs of a company. There is no one size fits all template, although there are logical steps and a pre-defined process to be followed common to most projects.

So in my case, I really want to dive deep with senior management to get a thorough understanding of the drivers of a project and how the company’s core operations work. The better that I understand those things, the very essence of the business, the better that I can serve my client. And sometimes that takes a little teeth pulling on my part.

But my point is this: discussions and considerations about incentives, while of significance, will  come late in the process, not early. I would never advise a corporate client to focus on a particular county on the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else simply due to the fact that money is being spread around.

Business Not Bait

Rather, we look at those places where it makes the most business sense to expand or consolidate operations. Business reasons for the long haul dictate where we go, not bait. (Having good live bait while fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, well, that is important.)

Of course, we very may well accept offered incentives and even ask for more, but the reason why we are even talking to an economic developer is because his or her community is a finalist in our systematically planned search based on defined locational factors.

In short, if we are even talking to you, it is because we have determined that your community could be a beneficial fit. It’s not the incentives per se, although they can factor in. And it’s certainly not because you have come up with some nifty slogan that A) you think will make a difference B) you probably spent way too much money on and C) which probably makes no sense.

I fantasize that states like Alabama or Mississippi, places that I really like, should have a branding motto something similar to this. “You are most welcome here, but please do not make fun of us as if you are so much smarter, as that could cost you an ass whoopin.”

Of course, that would never be a proper brand message to convey, even if there is a degree of truth expressed. And this is why I do not dwell much on this ethereal notion of brand.

Going back to my original point, the site selection process is about risk management. A bad location decision can prove costly if not deadly for a company as millions of dollars can be at stake. And for that very reason, I would advise that companies to use professional site selection consultants on any major project involving an expansion or consolidation.  

(And incidentally, I would prefer that they hire my company for that specialized task.)

Think Core Compentency

Keep in mind that the site investigatory process is a core competency for the professionals who actually do it. They know how to do it. This is their bread and butter. But site selection is not and never will be a core competency for most companies. They won’t even know where to start, much less how, and they will often display the same naivety as our county commissioner that incentives should be the motivating factor.

Also, if a site selection consultant performs a thorough analysis with recommendations to follow that are heeded by the company, the savings in time and money, much less the impact on the strategic direction of the company, should be substantial. Again, this can be make or break for a company. I do not think our county commissioner understands that.

So you may be wondering about my reference to Greyhound and leave the driving to us. I thought of that because that county from where our elected official was writing to me just so happens to have a very good and experienced economic developer. Actually, he has several.

I will bet that our elected official winged this one on his own by sending me that email without consulting the economic developer in his community. Had he had that conversation, he probably have heard: “Let’s hold off on that, sir.”

So to all you elected officials around the country, I salute you for service and dedication, but if you have an experienced economic developer in your community, by all means please leave the driving to them. That is what they were hired to do.

I know the economic developer in that Gulf state county has a much better understanding of my role and duties as a site selector, because he has a track record of working with companies and other site selection consultants. In short, he is a seasoned pro.

Of course, it takes wins and losses to become seasoned. But those are the people that I prefer to work with. They have been through fire before.

Warning: You Can Get Hurt

“Jackass” was reality series, originally shown on MTV from 2000 to 2002, featuring a deranged crew performing various dangerous, crude self-injuring stunts and pranks. I was drawn to it because I did some incredibly stupid things growing up and yet somehow survived.

The show featured warnings and disclaimers noting that the stunts performed were dangerous and should not be imitated, and that recordings of any stunts would not be aired on MTV. The warnings featured a skull and crutches logo at the bottom of the screen to symbolize the stunt performed was risky.

But, of course, that did not stop the resulting mayhem that followed. The program was blamed for a number of deaths and injuries involving young people recreating the stunts despite the reoccurring message of “Hey kids, do not try this at home.”

For some, it was just too tempting not to try. And apparently, some cashed in the chips trying.

Just as I tell companies that it is too risky for them to try site selection on their own, so too would I advise elected officials to just cool it and allow and support their economic developers to do their jobs. Again, leave the driving to the professionals. Kids, do not try this at home.

Back in the 1968, Dean Martin recorded a song that would probably be offensive to some by today’s standards. It was called “Not Enough Indians” and the common refrain was that “there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians around this house.”

And so it is in some communities where there is no designated and agreed upon chain of command in regard to economic development. Confusion typically reigns, as too many people want be chiefs and thereby seek credit. But they only contribute to a sense of an un-unified team.

In the risk management process, which is the process of site selection, that can be a deal killer. We will go to that community that has its act together. And that’s no matter how much bait might be dangling on a hook.

I’ll see you down the road.

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 http://www.barberadvisors.com

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  1. The credo should probably be “first do no harm”.
    My favorite bad story was when I was helping a bank locate in Canada, so I arranged a meeting with the Economic Development Dept. Thought he might meet and greet the Mayor, and give us that standard spiel..
    Turns out they have a special initiative specifically to attract financial services. So we arrived and entered a full room. There was a lawyer there – who presumably dealt with other banks – and this was a confidential meeting – not to mention, I had a meeting with a lawyer arranged. Then they gave a detailed presentation on retail demographics and how they could provide them, when we did that and needless to say were way better at it.
    I have to take some blame for this for not telling them what I didn’t wat, I suppose.

  2. Excellent article, particularly in light of recent articles and hand wringing in the economic development profession about site location consultants and incentives. My experience has been precisely as you describe. I’ve been frustrated that some in our own profession have bought into the perception that all site selection professionals and all incentive deals are as shady as the ones that make the New York Times. The claim is that incentives are not needed because businesses will locate where they will locate because of location factors without regard to incentives, and that the economic benefits from these projects will flow just as they would without local incentives. That doesn’t make sense to me, either from a theoretical perspective, or from my more day-to-day perspective as a practitioner with a bit of experience under my belt on some great, beneficial projects both large and small.

    • Thank you, Paul. I appreciate your comments. But you give me too much credit. This is not an article. No objective journalism was attempted here. This is just a blog, my musings and opinions based on my business experience. But I am glad that you found some value here. Thanks again.

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