Dean Barber

A House Divided Cannot Stand

In Site Selection on February 22, 2014 at 9:15 pm

When you are hashing out a plan, there is nothing wrong in having and even encouraging differing opinions among your stakeholders.

I actually want to hear diverging views to get a more complete picture of what the facts are and what the possibilities may be. Disagreement at this stage of the sausage making does not particularly alarm me.

But there comes a point down the line when you want your team to come together and coalesce around a single plan or strategy. In short, you want buy in on action to be taken.

“A plan without action isn’t a plan. It’s a speech,” said T. Boone Pickens, a Texas oilman who knows from what he speaks. I always keep that notion of action in my mind when I am doing a strategic plan for an economic development organization. Too often, planning can be a trap in that it can actually inhibit action.

Stop Thinking and Go In

President Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory,” was a man of action and wasted little time in getting down to what he needed to do.

“Take time to deliberate,” he said. “But when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”

And when you go in, it’s usually best to go with both feet. Half-hearted, timid measures usually reap unsatisfying results. Pedal to the metal. Full tilt boogie.  Any and all divisions are to be put aside as they can destroy what is built.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Abraham Lincoln, referencing statements by Jesus recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke).

A House Divided Gives Me Pause

If I detect a house divided in the course of my work on a site selection project, I will duly note it. When looking at finalist communities that I am visiting on behalf of a corporate client, I hope to see a unified team approach. If I detect deep schisms (not minor disagreements), which are often the result of institutional fiefdoms or competing interests, well, that’s going to give me pause.

Certainly, the last thing I want is for a company that I am serving to be placed in an environment where it becomes a political football among opposing factions. So A) we want to be wanted and B) we want to see a unified team approach, which means one economic development voice in a community, not multiple competing, uncoordinated voices. C) We want competence and a track record of making deals happen smoothly and seamlessly.

Back in South Georgia

This past week, I was back in Screven County, Ga., a rural community about 60 miles north of Savannah, straddling the South Carolina border. It was my second trip there, interviewing stakeholders as part of an investigative process that I believe is necessary in developing a strategic plan of action.

Our job (I’m partnered with Ohio-based Jason Hammans of Hammans Consulting) is to find the right fit for Screven County in terms of where future job growth opportunity lies, with a focus on target industries to be pursued. We’re calling it an action plan, because we will be recommending that certain actions be taken.

Screven County is a community with some wind behind its sails. After decades of no growth and population loss, the county has won two industrial projects with a third one in the mix. Suddenly, this community believes it can attract industrial investment, as do Jason and I.

Tough Row to Hoe

But it will not be easy. I submit that economic development in rural America is much more challenging than in metropolitan centers, where there are more more options and resources. In rural America, where there will be limitations by the very nature of the place, it’s typically a tougher row to hoe.

But that does not mean that rural communities do not have strengths and opportunities that can be leveraged. And that is what we are focused on in our work for the Screven County Development Authority. We gave a mid-term report of our action plan/SWOT analysis to the board this past week in which we went over some of our findings to date.

As no one hurled anything at us, I think we are on the right track. Our full report to the Authority should be completed in April. I promise that we will be offering a plan and not a speech.

Volkswagen Thwarted

So my blog last week about workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., rejecting representation by the United Auto Workers got a lot of comments, some of which were quite insightful and some of which were kind of out there.

I usually will not comment on the comments, but prefer to remain silent. The way I see it, that’s your opportunity to present your views, and I welcome them even if you might disagree with mine or come up with a totally different take.

But I did get a rather curious email from a Tennessee economic developer who didn’t seem to understand my analysis that the rejection of the UAW, from the standpoint of VW management, may actually hamper the Chattanooga plant’s chances of getting a future SUV production line. The competing candidate for the SUV line is a VW plant in Puebla, Mexico.

The reason is simple. VW’s plans for a work council were thwarted by the vote. It wasn’t so much that VW wanted the UAW. They were probably ambivalent on that. Rather, the company very much wanted its vaunted work council model in Chattanooga, and by U.S. labor law, they figured they had to have the union to get it. In the past, the automaker has concurred with legal experts that a works council would not be legal without a union.

However, Gunnar Kilian, secretary general of VW’s global works council, said in a statement last week that he and Frank Patta, another top works council official, will consult U.S. labor law experts to plan further steps. “We are committed to our goal of establishing a works council in Chattanooga,” he said.

Revealing Statements

Now Chattanooga is the only VW plant world-wide without a works council. What’s more, some senior VW managers have made some pretty revealing statements that Chattanooga may not be sitting pretty for expansion, at least in the short run.

It did not help that U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. and a former mayor of Chattanooga, said prior to the vote that he had “inside information” that if the workers would vote against the union, that the company would reward the Chattanooga plant with the upcoming SUV line.

VW management almost immediately issued a statement essentially saying Corker, without mentioning him by name, was talking out of his hat.

“There is no connection between our Chattanooga employees’ decision about whether to be represented by a union and the decision about where to build a new product for the U.S. market,” said VW Chattanooga CEO and Chairman Frank Fischer said one day before the vote.

The way I read that: “Hey workers, don’t listen to that guy.”

A Board Member Speaks

Bernd Osterloh, a board member and head of the company’s global works council, was quoted as telling the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that he was concerned with the “massive anti-union atmosphere created from the outside by conservatives” surrounding the Chattanooga vote.

He told the paper that the fate of the works council in Chattanooga could determine whether the company decides to make further investments in the state and region.

“I can well imagine that a further VW location in the U.S., in the event one should one be built there, would not necessarily have to go in the South,” he said. “If the subject of co-determination isn’t cleared from the start, we as wage earners could hardly agree to that.”

I don’t know how you can read that any other way, but to see that VW was not pleased by what transpired in Chattanooga.

You Can’t Be Serious

What is almost laughable is that Tennessee officials, with the Chattanooga vote behind them, are now saying with a straight face that a “mega site” between Memphis and Jackson would be ideally suited for a new auto assembly plant — even if its workers are represented by the UAW.

Come on, guys, give it a break. We know what happened in Chattanooga, duly noted by Herr Osterloh. Heck, you had a state senator, Bo Watson, saying shortly before the vote that should a majority of workers support being represented by the UAW, that “any additional incentives…for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.”

Man up and acknowledge the obvious – that Tennessee is a right-to-work state and unions are not going to be welcomed with open arms. That does not make you in any way unique in the South, which by and large has a better business climate.

By the way, I do believe that the West Tennessee mega-site is viable site for a future auto-assembly plant, but don’t count on Volkswagen looking at it.

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 based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

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