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COMMENTARY: Knoxville’s Greatness Challenge

By Marty Brown, President and Chief Executive Officer, PYA

What if we achieved greatness but nobody knew it? I often contemplate that question when thinking about business growth in the Knoxville region. Sure, we have the University of Tennessee, ORNL, and TVA. We have numerous lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds to go along with the hills, mountains, and beautiful vistas. We show up on lists. Some extraordinarily successful national brands started here. And although we’ve experienced our share of closures, exits, and “monetization events,” that’s natural. That’s business.

I simply ask, how can more Knoxville region businesses grow exponentially without government or state support, create thousands of jobs (yes thousands), and stay in the community even if a “monetary exit” is desired?

Knoxville is at the crossroads of America, literally, with a broad ranging workforce, no state income tax, and amenities galore. Yet, this community had less than ½ percent growth in the 25-54 age group between 2010 and 2019. That is the working age group. Why? What is holding us back? We have heard it’s the lack of Arts, or museums, or night clubs, or discount airlines. It is not. I suggest it is the absence of broad-based, collaborative leadership. Let me make this argument.

PYA’s Marty Brown

In 1990, while living in Nashville–a city that possessed all those amenities at the time–I walked every day by boarded up lower Broadway, stepping over used needles along the way. Thirty years ago, there was no Bridgestone Arena, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, vibrant lower Broadway, professional football team, professional hockey team, downtown baseball field, a new convention center, etc. Many of those pieces of “civic furniture” have been in Nashville for more than 20 years, so it’s not like it took 30 years of planning and development. Rather it took local government working collaboratively with many local businesses to realize their potential for the benefit of Nashville.

One difference between Nashville and Knoxville is most of our major employers are quasi-governmental or non-profit. So while they are extremely beneficial to our economy, they are duty-bound to invest only in their missions. And while they are charitable for sure, this region has relied heavily on the generosity of a few large private companies to fund the Arts we enjoy, the charities we need, and much of the “civic furniture” we have. And now some of these companies, while remaining in Knoxville, have more non-Knoxville, and even non-US ownership. Again, that’s OK. That’s business. I am grateful to all the entrepreneurs, corporate benefactors, and local government for everything they have done for our community. But it is truly just the beginning. Who are the next companies to make a big impact? They’re already here. We just need to empower them.

If there can be a silver lining to the tragedy of the pandemic, it is the growth in our population and the relocation of businesses here. With a highly educated workforce in place and an abundance of jobs requiring highly educated applicants (at one point in 2020, there were over 150 open engineering positions in the Knoxville MSA)–why shouldn’t Knoxville be as attractive as Palo Alto, for example, from a business perspective? With a much lower cost of living, lower taxes, etc., it must be more than views of the ocean or the mystique of California that keeps Knoxville from achieving “Palo Altoesque” success. In fact, we have world-renowned views–magnificent mountain, valley, and lake vistas. And there is a mystique to our region that draws visitors by the millions each year. So what is missing?

I believe the “fire starter” is collaborative leadership; broad-based leadership that led the Nashville business community, for example, to step up and demonstrate genuine interest in growing the business community. (Example: See Nashville Health Care Council’s mission: “To inspire global collaboration to improve health care by serving as a catalyst for leadership and innovation.”) One result is that just about any company interested in the healthcare industry has a business interest in Nashville, despite the vast competition.

PYA is not the only advocate for collaborative leadership, resulting in growth. The Knoxville Chamber (the Chamber) calls this “The Path to Prosperity”. PYA is fully supportive of this plan. The Chamber has further outlined their plan around 5 key initiatives: Communication, Health, Movement, Power, and Security.

So, I ask again, why not Knoxville? It seems obvious when reflecting on Nashville and Palo Alto’s success that the only way Knoxville can reach its full potential for greatness is for private enterprise companies to re-invest in Knoxville while working to elect competent, growth-minded political leaders. We need “all boats to rise” in all geographic areas of the region.  Need just a small example of what this might look like? Look no further than our local brewery industry and unique restaurants. We owe them a debt of gratitude for mapping this out for us and leading the way.

Our challenge lies before us. Let’s realize our GREATNESS. It must begin with leadership, with investment by businesses in the community, with politicians who care more about creating generational growth than the next election, and it takes all of us telling our STORIES. Stories inspire. Stories are how we learn. PYA is prepared to do our part to tell Knoxville’s stories. I have stated numerous times that PYA’s investment in our region’s entrepreneurial community is focused on helping businesses that start here to stay here, and on helping businesses that move here to love here.

Specifically, how will we do this?

Today we are excited to launch the first edition of Teknovation Weekend, an expansion of the five-day-a-week Teknovation newsletter that has spotlighted technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in the eastern half of Tennessee since January 23, 2012. Our focus with the weekend edition will be on the Knoxville region’s established business community–the stories of their successes, the issues they face and the opportunities they believe are before us.

Why is PYA doing this?

The answer is also simple, but challenging to achieve. We aspire for the Knoxville region to move from the “greatness we locals know” to “our greatness is universally known”. To achieve that goal, we must have the involvement, buy-in, and commitment of many established businesses, like PYA, who can see and embrace the potential that exists here.

Over the next three years, Knoxville will attract international attention through the new “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator”, along with still evolving plans to brand the region as a global innovation hub. Teknovation Weekend will share those developments and the overall vibrancy of the local business community with outsiders, while also highlighting challenges that must be overcome if the region is to achieve greatness.

We understand that the leadership required for success will not come from passive observation, so we will tell the story about what is inspiring the entrepreneurs, celebrating the wins, and being honest about the losses. We will tell these stories because stories have power.

A bit of our own PYA story

Since our founding in 1983 as a Knoxville-headquartered professional services firm, PYA has always aspired to be the very best that it can be, not only in service to our clients but also in the quality of the people that we employ. Our culture is represented in a powerful four-letter word – HELP! We believe it is not enough to simply respond to the specific request that we receive from a client; rather, it is to go much beyond so that we can help our clients achieve true greatness in what they do.

At PYA, our HELP culture goes hand-in-hand with our aspirations for greatness for this community. Teknovation Weekday and the new Teknovation Weekend are just two examples of how our firm is making a contribution. We also have embraced all five cohorts of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by ORNL, and the inaugural cohort of participants in the new “Spark Innovation Center” at UT by providing pro bono accounting, tax, and other advisory services.

Today, PYA is a Top 10 privately-held healthcare consulting firm as ranked by Modern Healthcare, and a Top 100 accounting firm nationally as ranked by both Inside Public Accounting and Accounting Today. PYA has clients in all 50 states, and we serve those clients from our offices in Atlanta, Kansas City, Knoxville, Nashville, and Tampa. Yet, even as we have expanded our footprint across the country, we have never lost sight of our roots that run so deep in the Knoxville community where our headquarters continue to be located. It’s been our home for nearly 38 years, and we expect that to be the case for decades to come.

We challenge those in the business community to work collaboratively to move us from “potential” to “realized” greatness. PYA will commit to doing its part. But we need our collective business colleagues to join us.

Stay connected with us on Twitter and LinkedIn. Article ideas and other suggestions should be sent to tballard@pyapc.com. Include the name and contact information (phone and email) for follow-up.