Now I am no glad-hander – I cannot work a room like a veteran politician — but I do like making new acquaintances and re-establishing contact with old ones. For most of us, business hinges on relationships with people.
We are, in fact, in the people business, whether we know it or not. As a self-employed consultant, I better know it.
Now I am fortunate to live in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, as contingents or packs of economic developers regularly come here to call on site selection consultants. The economic developers, of course, hope to establish a rapport with the site selectors who could possibly bring a capital investment project to their respective communities.
While that is not the single most productive approach to economic development (I would bet most my chips on a robust business retention and expansion program in terms of sheer job creation), I do believe these pilgrimages are worthwhile, both for the economic developers and the consultants.
Tennessee and Kansas Came Calling
Faces, names, and nuggets of information do have a way of coming back to me. And while I do keep rather extensive files on many places across North America (the inventor of the pdf deserves a Pulitzer Prize), I learned some rather useful tidbits this past week in meeting with economic developers from Tennessee and Kansas.
With the Tennessee group, I sometimes watched a Memphis Grizzlies/Dallas Mavericks’ game from a corporate suite at the American Airlines Center. It was my second NBA game of the season. More importantly, I met and learned some interesting things from the economic developers from Knoxville, Memphis, Oak Ridge, Cleveland, and Gallatin.
Down on the court, just before the game started, I got a stark reminder just how tall and athletic these NBA players truly are. I was an awestruck runt.
The next night, I enjoyed a memorable five-course nice dinner with economic developers from Kansas in a nice little restaurant in Dallas. I re-established contact with economic developers from Topeka and Overland Park, and listened politely as Pat George, the secretary of commerce, so ably made the case for his fine state.
I Never Met a State …
And Kansas is a fine state, but so is Tennessee, and Louisiana, and Pennsylvania and Michigan. I’m like Will Rogers, who said he never met a man that he didn’t like. Well, I’ve never met a state that I didn’t like.
And that goes for California, a beautiful place with a reputation of having a not-so-beautiful business climate, which is why the governors from Texas, Utah and Virginia have gone there on recent corporate hunting expeditions.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, who just got back from China on his own industry hunting trip, called the poaching efforts of Texas Gov. Rick Perry as “barely a fart.” Gov. Perry has lately set his sights on Illinois.
Governors have this way of thinking that their states are the best states for business. But experienced economic developers have come to realize what is beyond the comprehension of most politicians — that a “best place” is often dictated by circumstances.
If there was a perfect place for business, there would certainly be no need for me. Every company would recognize the attributes of this nirvana and flock there. But that’s a pipe dream, despite the outlandish claims made on certain ED websites.
Having said all that, there are better places to do business, which should be determined by the specific needs of a company if a site search is to be done with any sort of foresight. Believe it or not, in certain circumstances, it makes quite good sense for a company to have operations in a higher cost state like a California or a New York. Suppliers and customers may dictate as much, as well as talent. (One of many reasons why I largely disregard magazine rankings of states.)
The Reality of Place
Now I have no idea what the brand is or about for Topeka, Kan., and to the horror of horrors to some, I don’t really care. But when the economic developer from there told me that her community built and implemented the nation’s first secondary education course in industrial robotics, well, that made me sit up and take notice.
Here’s my card, Dawn Wright. Nice to see you again.
When the economic developer from Cleveland, Tenn., told me about his new 330-acre industrial park fronting Interstate 75, and that much in-depth documentation had been assembled about the site, with its close proximity to the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, well, I also filed that away.
Here’s my card, Doug Berry. Nice to meet you.
Faces, names and nuggets do have a way. After handing me a drink and telling me how brilliant they thought my blogs were (Ok, they didn’t say that), both Dawn from Kansas and Doug from Tennessee informed me about some key assets and the resources in their respective communities.
It was not the promise of place that I found compelling. No, it was the reality of place that caught my attention. And in a nutshell, that’s why I find the topic of place branding so, well, just doggone tedious.
If there is a Coon Dog Hunting Capital of North America, and I don’t know if there is, it would be difficult for me to imagine how that would play out to that community’s advantage in a site selection project. Unless, of course, that CEO has a special affinity for his coon dogs.
I have had some conversations with some CEOs who have thrown me a curve ball on a site selection project. Rest assured, the conversation below never happened, and let’s just hope it never will.
There is One Thing
CEO: Dean, we are very pleased that Barber Business Advisors will be helping our company determine a best location for our next manufacturing plant. This is exciting.
Me: Thank you, sir. It is exciting. We will find that best community for your purposes and thereby save your company millions of dollars in the process. Now would you mind if I recap some of the things that we have discussed today about our site search?
CEO: Certainly, please do.
Me: Per your instructions, I will be working directly with your executive committee – CFO Sharon Brown; Jim Wetherington, VP of operations; and your VP of strategic planning, Sam Overby,
CEO: That’s correct. You’ll have my best team working with you on this.
Me: Thank you, sir, that’s very important. Now the executive committee has already provided me with some very useful documents and instructions that will greatly assist in our efforts. I now have a much better understanding of the skill sets required at this future plant.
CEO: Well, we must have a skilled workforce. Frankly, that’s been a concern for us at some of our other locations.
Me: And because of that fact, we will want to look at those communities that have a community college/tech school that would be receptive to working with you in developing the needed off-site and in-house training programs.
CEO: I cannot emphasize too much just how important that is to us.
Me: Yes, sir. I have also been provided with information on the anticipated utility loads, and the location of current customers and suppliers, which will permit us to develop a transportation- logistics cost model. There could be some huge cost savings involved.
CEO: Yes, these are all very important things. I’m glad to learn that the executive committee has provided you with this information.
Me: I will soon have an RFP prepared for the review of the executive committee and will seek input on any needed changes. I will not publish this RFP to any economic development organization until or unless I get approval from the executive committee.
CEO: That’s good. I really like your systematic approach which will keep us a partner in this process.
Me: Thank you, sir. I am going to need your help to best help you. Is there anything else that we haven’t discussed today that you think is pertinent to the site selection process.
CEO: Well, there is one thing. I think we need to go to a community with an appealing brand.
CEO: You know, some place that is viewed as being cool and forward thinking.
Me: Would you mind elaborating?
CEO: I just want to go someplace that has a reputation of being tech savvy and where I can find a Starbucks coffee and drink a local craft beer. Maybe it’s a university town.
Me: I’ll speak to the committee on this. Certainly, there are some advantages to university towns. Austin has done very well.
CEO: Austin! Yes, that’s it! That’s the ticket! Austin! That’s where we need to be. I’ll inform the executive committee. Gosh, you’ve been of great service to us, Dean.
Me: Wait, wait a second, what just happened?
Thankfully, most corporate clients have wanted an in-depth understanding of a place that would permit for successful, long-term, sustainable operations before committing to go there. They want to accurately hone in on those functional capabilities and resources that could support a capital investment.
And, again, that is why I like to talk to experienced economic developers, because they get it. They will tell me of the real assets on the ground that could very well make a difference.
So I will gladly go to basketball games and dinners to hear about these things. And yes, I’ll do like “fam tours,” when my schedule permits. Faces, names and nuggets of information can pay off.
To the people of Boston and West, Texas. You are the best of us. You make us proud.
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 in Plano, Texas —http://www.barberadvisors.com He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or firstname.lastname@example.org
If you work for a company seeking site selection consulting or an economic development organization in need of counsel, ask for our separate brochures (pdfs) outlining how we can help. All requests for information will be considered confidential.
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