Millennials, automotive, financial health of communities among topics covered at last week’s “Governor’s Conference”

ECD ConferenceBy Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

Here are some highlights from last week’s 60th annual “Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development” in Nashville. We have a separate story on the Brookings Institution’s automotive study.

The Entrepreneurial Scene

Knoxville was front and center during a breakout session on entrepreneurship. Brian Strong of Vendor Registry, one of “The TENN” program participants, and Jonathan Sexton, Co-Founder of Bandposters and Artist Growth, LLC, were two of the four members of a panel moderated by Charlie Brock, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Launch Tennessee. Strong described his experiences in launching and growing Vendor Registry as did Sexton with his music-related ventures. Sexton also serves as a Master Mentor in “The TENN” accelerator activities currently underway. Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero attended the session, and told Strong she wanted to learn more about Vendor Registry.

Millennial Entrepreneurs

One of the more fascinating sessions focused on young people born between 1982 and 2002, Known as the Millennials, this group was characterized by Jack Schultz as “the most entrepreneurial generation in the history of the United States.”

Schultz, Founder and CEO of Agracel, Inc. and Craig Lindvahl, an educator and filmmaker, described an innovative program – CEO – focused on inspiring the Millennials in their community of Effingham, IL to unleash their entrepreneurial spirit in their hometown, not somewhere else. CEO stands for “Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities” and is a 90-minute, five-day-a-week course in high school that is totally funded by the local business community.

The duo reported that 110 students have participated in the first five classes, and 109 of them have gone on to college. The students have founded 105 businesses with 25 of them still operating.

Perhaps more important for rural communities, the CEO program is changing the attitudes of the Millennials. Prior to enrolling in the inaugural program, only three of the students planned to return to their hometown after graduating from college. The number rose to 21 after they completed the CEO year-long program.

Site Selector Insights

The conference kicked-off with a 90-minute panel featuring three site selectors who offered insights on the current needs of their clients.

“Many of our clients are (still) somewhat tentative,” Mark Williams, President of Strategic Development Group, Inc., told the attendees. The industry sectors that he viewed as most robust were automotive, aerospace and energy.

“The food industry is getting incredibly diverse,” noted Scott Kupperman, Founder of Kupperman Location Services.  Frank Spano, Managing Director of Austin Consulting, added that the food sector includes processing, manufacturing and distribution.

As might be expected, the trio hit on some traditional issues like the availability of a skilled workforce and incentives, but they also offered some interesting twists to the traditional topics and a few new priorities for those looking for sites. One emerging area is the financial and fiscal health of communities.

“Companies are analyzing states and counties based on their financial state,” Williams said, citing everything from the debt load to the likelihood of raising taxes.

The matter of incentives is always a lively topic, and this year was no exception.

Kupperman said his clients are asking, “Is this incentive program going to help us innovate? Is the building flexible? Are the workforce training programs flexible?”

Williams noted that incentive programs too focused on job growth are no longer in sync with industry priorities to make higher initial capital investments so they don’t have to hire as many workers.

All of the panelists discussed the importance of robust, up-to-date community webpages.

“Take time to do a good job of articulating your value . . . this is what we are good at and these are the companies that have thrived here,” Kupperman suggested.

Leadership Principles

During Thursday’s opening luncheon, one of Tennessee’s most successful business executives offered his thoughts on leadership. The individual was Joe Scarlett, retired Chair of Tractor Supply Company. During his 10-year tenure, the company’s revenue quadrupled and the price of its stock increased tenfold, so he obviously knows a good deal about leading and inspiring others.

Scarlett’s leadership principles incorporate several concepts you’ve no doubt heard before, but they are always worth repeating. They apply to entrepreneurs as well as corporate executives.

  • Never, ever compromise your principles.
  • Surround yourself with great people.
  • Set clear direction and be repetitive about it.
  • Build a teamwork environment.

As he talked about hiring bright people, Scarlett wryly observed, “If you surround yourself with turkeys, you’ll get sliced-up for Thanksgiving.”

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