Dean Barber

A Rocky Road to Travel: Making Business Development Work

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on August 30, 2015 at 5:22 am

Probably harder than herding cats or making a meeting worthwhile is this thing we call, for lack of a better phrase, “business development.”

Business development is an exercise in outreach and I am convinced that most organizations, and this particularly holds true of economic development groups, are not very good at it.

There is usually much trial and error involved, which naturally puts off many people. It is certainly not a skill that can be learned or accomplished overnight.

I first began learning business development many years ago as a business reporter for a daily newspaper. I wasn’t selling a service or product, but my job, day in and day out, was to get people to talk to me, usually on the telephone.

Of course, my goal was to get “the story,” whatever that story was. I think I got pretty good at it.

Getting people on the telephone and engaged in conversation remains my preferred method today even with all the changes in technology.

Mind you, I am a big user of social media and even email, which can often usher a subsequent conversation, but I typically learn more and understand the nuances of a situation by having a conversation.

Mining Sources

To be an effective newspaper reporter, I had to develop an extensive network of sources or contacts. In virtually all cases it meant establishing rapport and trust with people who might normally not want to talk to me.

Now they may not have liked everything that I reported, but they soon understood that I had a job to do, and that I protected my sources and would not burn them.

Some may have also sensed that having this understanding with me would be more beneficial to them over the long run.

Mining sources typically is an ongoing, never-ending process which by definition takes time. It’s an art that many people who have the moniker of business development hanging on their job titles will never really get the hang of.

Either they don’t know how to develop contacts or they just don’t put in the time to do it.  It often means picking up the phone and calling a complete stranger, which can be daunting.

Too often, business people engage in “busy work,” all the while avoiding outreach and hoping  that someone else will call them so that they can react to the next big project.

To quote Dr. Phil: So how’s that working for you?

It’s Called Follow-Up

Tommy Lankri gets it. My wife and I used him for investment real estate purposes here in the Dallas-Fort Worth market. He found us the property we were looking for, proved to be a skillful negotiator, and we closed on it a couple months ago.

But Tommy understands maintaining a relationship is good business. This past week, he came to our property to see how things were going. It’s called follow-up, and it is integral to maintaining a relationship.

No doubt, Tommy wants our business in the future, and because he has proved to be a faithful ally, he will get it.

No make mistake about it, business retention and expansion is business development. It is a systematic way for economic developers to follow-up and maintain relationships with companies that have invested in their communities.

Do it and chances are you will be rewarded. Don’t do it, and you will lose out. Nobody likes to be ignored. Be the faithful ally.

Are You Linked In?

Truly I am not a shill for LinkedIn, but anyone who is supposed to be doing business development who doesn’t have at least 500 contacts on LinkedIn is out to lunch in my book.

I find it almost jaw-dropping that there are economic developers out there, ostensibly charged with recruiting business and helping existing business, who are not on LinkedIn. Unbelievable.

Yes, there is a learning curve, but it’s not difficult. If you don’t want to take the time to learn, then go home and make pottery, because it is evident that you are not serious about business development.

The truth is I have made more contacts and subsequent appointments with senior industry executives around this country through LinkedIn than any other method. Sure, the actual appointment setting will happen typically via a telephone conversation, but LinkedIn got me in the door.

If I see a business person on LinkedIn with less than 100 contacts, chances are I won’t even try to connect with them, as they have shown that they don’t get it.

And if they have less than 500, I still wonder. My advice: Spend the extra bucks and get the premium version as it allows you do so much more. And then work it.

Let me help you with your business development.

Add Illinois, Wisconsin and Maine to the Club

Last week, I told you how economic development in North Carolina was suffering because of a budget rift within the state legislature there.

Well, the Tar Heel State is far from alone. Lead statewide economic development organizations in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Maine, have also been taking it on the chin, particularly with regard to the rewarding of financial incentives.

In Illinois, tax incentives are on hold as first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and majority Democratic lawmakers squabble over the absence of a state spending plan in the fiscal year that began July 1.

“Local and state tax incentives are important business development tools, but cannot be truly effective while the state continues to bleed jobs due to high costs of doing business,” said  Jim Schultz, director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Issuing the tax incentives without addressing what’s driving the costs “would be a disservice to Illinois businesses and communities,” Schultz said.

In neighboring Wisconsin, Reed Hall, the chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, said he would resign on Sept 25.

Gov. Scott Walker created the public-private hybrid agency, replacing the state’s Commerce Department, shortly after taking office in 2011.

Since then the agency has been stung by a series of scathing audits, media reports about questionable loans and accusations of mismanagement.

Making the Maserati Payment

WEDC released documents in June showing that from July 2011 to June 2013, 27 awards worth about $24 million went out without any staff review, which is kind of hard to imagine.

One award was a $500,000 unsecured loan for a company owned by a Walker donor, who used agency funds to pay for a lease on a Maserati sports car. The company defaulted on the loan from the state.

Oshkosk Wins Big

Despite WEDC’s woes, Wisconsin got a big win last week when the U.S. Department of Defense awarded a $6.7 billion contract to Oshkosh Defense to assemble 17,000 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, a replacement for the Humvee.

The contract is a timely boost for Oshkosh, which eliminated 760 jobs last year because of declining defense spending. The company plans to build the vehicle in Oshkosh, with deliveries beginning in 10 months.

He Said What?

In Maine, George Gervais, commissioner of the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, told a legislative oversight committee that it was beyond his department’s resources to collect and report performance information necessary to gauge whether the tax incentives are working.

Now I wasn’t there, but I bet you that did not impress his audience.

Tracking performance based on incentives rewarded is not exactly a radical idea. It not only shows a degree of good stewardship, but can indicate whether certain incentive programs are essentially working as intended.

I think with a little imagination that it can be done in an unobtrusive, business-friendly sort of way. But generally speaking, government agencies are not known for their imagination.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm. OUR NEW ADDRESS is 2736 Golfing Green Drive, Dallas, Texas 75234. Dean can be reached at or at 972-767-9518. If you liked what you read here, invite him to speak at your next meeting.

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