JACKSON — Even though the Mississippi Economic Council’s Millennium Business Celebration included discussions about transportation, education and economic development, the unveiling of Mississippi Technology Inc.’s bold, new plan, and varied musical entertainment, the most chatted up advice was the three snakes rule: One, if you see a snake, don’t consult a committee, don’t hold a meeting, just kill it. Two, don’t play with a dead snake. And three, remember that all opportunities start out looking like a snake. All of the great businesses have started with problems that become opportunities, explained native Mississippian James Barksdale, former president of Netscape, partner of The Barksdale Group, and co-founder of The Barksdale Reading Institute and keynote speaker for the luncheon. Barksdale talked about “the fastest-growing medium ever created: access to the Internet.”
“The difference between the haves and the have nots is 20%. The basic reason? They can’t read,” he said. “It’s the same 20% that don’t have health care and that we worry about. Ironically, 22% of the reading-age population can’t read at a fourth-grade level or above. The greatest snake we could kill in our lifetime is reading. The reason more people are not interested is because it’s not a quick fix. It takes 20 years for these kids to grow up.”
Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson said, “If there’s ever an opportunity for the business community to pull together and have a single focus, now is the time. Barksdale’s success is an example of a single focus. We’ve got to kill that snake, have a single purpose and pull toward that single purpose.”
Nearly 1,000 business leaders and government officials attended the May 11 event, prompting MEC chairman Donald L. Kilgore to refer to business leaders at the head table as “a power group.”
“Never before have we been in a situation where the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house work extraordinarily well together to get things accomplished,” he said. “It’s truly a new spirit of partnership with state leaders — not because it’s good politics, but because it’s good business.”
Even though Gov. Ronnie Musgrove deferred questions about the state’s new economic development plan, he said, “it’s time to revamp. We need a proactive, not a reactive economic development plan.”
Carolyn Shanks, president and CEO of Entergy Mississippi, said it’s sound business policy to periodically revisit strategic economic development plans.
“That way, you make sure you are in the right division to take advantage of new opportunities,” Shanks said. “This is especially true today with the rapid change of technology we see all around us. Entergy commends Gov. Musgrove for ensuring that Mississippi remains competitive.”
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck thanked business leaders for “creating the flow of money for us to provide services,” while Dwight Evans, CEO of Mississippi Power Company and MEC chairman-elect referred to MEC as “a clearinghouse for information and involvement that shrinks miles that separate us so that we can hold town meetings electronically.”
Bill Reed of Baker Donelson Bearman & Caldwell in Jackson, one of the event sponsors, said the work of the MEC, including the annual meeting, “is a vital part of Mississippi’s future economic prosperity. For that reason, we were pleased to help sponsor the event.”
Tim Ford, six-term state representative and house speaker since 1988, introduced Barksdale, who immediately began talking about the “pinball effect.”
“All technologies are like pinballs,” Barksdale said. “Who knows what the next ping of the pinball will be?”
With remarks and observations that ranged the gamut from “only Walt Disney might have been credited for two paradigm shifts: cartoons and theme parks,” and “FedEx was modeled after the phone center — nobody was going to ship a refrigerator overnight,” to “nobody’s going to pay for a long distance call in the future,” Barksdale, former executive vice president and COO for Federal Express Corp., held the rapt attention of the 966 attendees.
“Jim Barksdale was right on target,” said Gloria Johnson, director of customer service for Entergy Mississippi. “He hit on several key points, especially making an investment in reading in Mississippi and that sometimes you can’t get the returns overnight.”
Wilson said it was an important day for Mississippi, not only because of the release of MTI’s study on cluster technology, but coupled with Barksdale’s remarks, demonstrated a new way of looking at a subject we all look at every day.
“Jim made us see what we all try to complicate look so very simple,” Wilson said. “That’s really what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to pay attention to deal with that snake.”
Wilson, who considers himself a business community “ringmaster that gathers all the right business leaders around the table,” said the annual meeting was “a tremendous success.”
“When you looked around the room, you could feel the incredible positive energy,” Wilson said. “We need to keep the momentum moving forward.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.