Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President Brent Christensen had an interesting introduction to the grand new strategic plan that consultants unveiled to representatives of the local economic development community on Friday morning, Sept. 23.
Christensen told the assembled business and political leaders what someone had advised him after he was hired to lead this area’s economic recruitment efforts.
“If you put me through another strategic planning process, I’m going to gouge my eyes out,” Christensen said he’d been told.
But yet they were all at the Cameron Campus of Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in Colfax hearing a new strategic plan from consultants with DCI, an economic development marketing firm, and Garner Economics, specialists in site location. They were making the presentation to the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA) – which had funded the strategic plan – and to a virtual who’s who of the local economic development community. Those business leaders and others who had participated in focus groups for the study earlier in the year were also invited to hear the results.
Christensen said he understood the skepticism regarding yet another strategic plan. He referred to the recent relocation of the Chamber of Commerce’s headquarters.
“We just moved our office and I think I had five strategic plans that came out of my office,” Christensen said. “What we didn’t want to do was create another strategic plan that was going to sit on a desk.”
(Actually, most of the area’s previous strategic plans have sat in drawers or sat on shelves collecting dust rather than on actual desktops.)
Christensen said this, in contrast, was an “action plan” – something that provides concrete steps to follow. He said it would take “shoe leather and elbow grease” and it was designed “so we could hit the ground running,” but he did not include any other metaphors in that sentence. He said this wasn’t about new logos or slogans, but instead it would form the foundation of a work plan.
Christensen said, “Ultimately, what’s going to make this successful is everybody in this room rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.”
The three who presented the plan were DCI President Andy Levine, DCI Vice President Judy Lee and David Versel, a principal with Garner Economics.
On the positive side, they said, since 2010, all business sectors in Guilford County have been growing with the exceptions of publishing, finance and insurance. Among this area’s positives, they stated, there’s a strong manufacturing heritage, a growing aviation sector, a large number of committed, community-minded corporations, a broad range of educational institutions and a family-friendly environment.
The challenges of Guilford County, on the other hand, are a lack of a cohesive marketing message, no real identity outside of the state, an “uneven” K through 12 educational system and a “lack of urban amenities desired by young professionals.” The consultants said the county is a leader in aviation in the Southeast, and added that local officials are thinking big with mega site development. High Point, they said, has a strong furniture presence and Greensboro can boast of “an emerging downtown.”
The consultants said Guilford County should target aviation, specialized business services, life sciences, innovative manufacturing, supply chain and logistics companies and arts and design businesses. They placed the furniture industry in a special category because, they said, it is such a pervasive industry in this area that it’s tied to many other target sectors as well as being a key industry in the area.
Manufacturing in the county was a point of emphasis in the plan.
“You have more manufacturing jobs in Guilford County than any other county in the state,” Levine said, adding that the county is fourth in the Southeast in that category.
“The aviation section is also very interesting,” he added.
Location also plays a role.
Levine said, “You’re sandwiched between two places – Research Triangle and Charlotte – that have done an amazing job.”
The three presenters gave their advice for increasing economic development, with Lee going first.
“The first marketing recommendation is for working and engaging with sight consultant groups,” she said. “It’s a fairly small number of people, about 450, but they are very powerful influencers when it comes to a company making a location decision. About 40 percent of all corporate location decisions are influenced in some way by a site consultant.”
She said Guilford County could achieve that through meetings, fostering relationships with key players and letting them know what Guilford County has to offer. The site selection consultants are centered in three cities – New York, Atlanta and Dallas.
“DCI has a proprietary database of site selection professionals that can be used,” Lee said.
The second recommendation was for a “digital ambassadors program,” a way for the Alliance to increase awareness of Guilford County through social media and other digital media. Lee suggested that GCEDA should “Recruit people who live here, those who maybe are an alumni of a university here who now work in a major city and they agree to spread positive news.”
The consultants also recommended GCEDA use third-party software called Social Toaster to increase that reach, which would only set the Alliance back $79 a month.
“Using Social Toaster, all they have to do is click one button,” she said of social media ambassadors. “It goes out on their Facebook, Twitter or their LinkedIn page,”
Levine said, “They did this with Denver, where they have 125 [digital ambassadors], but in El Paso they have over 2,000. It is really an unbelievably cost effective way to tell your story.”
Christensen asked how many people in the audience spent an hour a day or more on social media, and many of them raised their hands. He said they would be asked to help out. He added that, when prospects wanted to know about a community in the past, they would subscribe to the local newspaper or fly into town and hang around. These days, he said, they check out social media to see what people are saying about an area.
The third step of the action plan calls for a concentrated focus on specific trade shows.
“Our advice in this area is to really focus,” Levine said. “We’re picking four in this first year.”
He said area economic development efforts should really focus on “dominating” these four shows.
He said there are particular strategies for doing that.
“Having a booth is probably still a good idea, but it shouldn’t be your entire focus,” Levine said. “The booths are generally other salesmen trying to show each other. The best way is to secure a speaking role for one your top executives.”
“Get on a panel, make a presentations, and, as part, slip in some positive words about High Point, some positive words about Greensboro – the Trojan horse strategy,” he said.
Levine said certain factors forecast a company’s need for new sites, such as a new product launch, a change in CEO, or, the number one indicator, a merger or acquisition.
The fourth part of the strategic plan offered ways to target this area’s “best bet” prospects.
Lee introduced the fifth element of the plan, which was to focus on attracting expansions from in-state companies using Guilford County’s affordability as one selling point.
“Tell your story in North Carolina and beyond,” she said.
“We think there is an opportunity to get on the radars of companies in cities in North Carolina like Charlotte and Raleigh that have higher costs,” Lee said.
They said those hotspots are only an hour away and Guilford County offers lower costs and more manufacturing expertise.
“We’re not talking about poaching,” Levine said, since the campaign is meant to draw expansion rather than existing business.
Part of that initiative includes targeting commercial real estate brokers across the state – perhaps inviting them to the area once a year.
The consultants also suggested a statewide media campaign centered on radio to raise awareness of Guilford County.
The presentation went longer than planned but there were still some questions at the end.
Former Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins, the president of NAI Piedmont Triad, a commercial real estate company, asked, “How would your recommendations change if you included Forsyth County in this analysis?”
Levine said, “I would have to give that some deeper thought I’m afraid,”
Perkins responded: “Well, frankly, I think you should, because Guilford County isn’t an island.”
Perkins said there’s a huge amount of energy and vibrancy in Winston-Salem.
Christensen said the Alliance’s charter calls for the organization to promote growth in Guilford County.
At the beginning of the Sept. 23 presentation, Christensen had a funny gaff. He said, “We got some great proposals, but we ended up with DCI.”
Levine stopped him and pointed out that that wasn’t a very flattering introduction.
Christensen corrected himself: “We wound up with a fantastic – or rather, we chose, we selected joyously …”