Surprise and concern. Relief and hope.
Off the record, there’s plenty of talk in economic development circles about Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s recent appointment of new Mississippi Development Authority chief Robert J. Rohrlack Jr., a week after he fired J.C. Burns.
Rohrlack looks young, one said. He looks military, another mentioned. Several people pointed out that he was not a native Mississippian, but studied at the University of Southern Mississippi, so that made it OK.
The recurring comment from many business leaders across party lines about the relatively unknown new economic development chief was, “Will the governor let him do his job?”
But there’s no debate that Rohrlack’s credentials are impeccable. Classmates that attended Troy State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, and USM, where he earned a master’s degree in economic development, consistently referred to him as “top-notch.”
Under Rohrlack’s five-year watch as president of the Alliance for Economic Development, an alliance of the Gainesville Council for Economic Outreach and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, Dollar General distribution center, Nordstrom’s distribution center, Multech Power Systems, Tower Home Insurance Group and Regeneration Technologies located in the Gainesville area.
“Bob is very good at bringing in business and he’s very focused on retaining business and has done quite well down here,” said Marco J. Oliveri, vice president of the Council for Economic Outreach.
Rohrlack was also instrumental in the retainment and expansion of Nationwide Insurance, he said.
“If you went to a dictionary and looked up ‘integrity,’ Bob’s picture would be there,” Oliveri said. “He will be quite an asset for you folks.”
Rohrlack was senior vice president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s Committee of 100 and Tampa Bay International Trade Council. While there, he created the Existing Industry Council and the High Technology Council.
“Everyone I’ve talked to that knows Rohrlack has had high praise for his abilities and thinks he has the potential to be an excellent leader in Mississippi economic development,” said Robert Ingram, executive director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Southern Mississippi.
A few questions
The Mississippi Business Journal talked to Bob Rohrlack, 40, a few days after his appointment by the governor. He begins his new post Dec. 1.
Mississippi Business Journal: How did you and the governor get to know each other?
Bob Rohrlack: I met him when he first contacted me by phone. Then, of course, I met him in person during the initial interview.
MBJ: What priority items have you and the governor discussed?
Rohrlack: The governor wants the state to move from being down on some of the lists that states get ranked on to the top. This is one of the things that attracted me to this position. A big part of that is the impact comprehensive economic development has — good jobs, good health care, good transportation and good schools — that affects the quality of life in a community. My part is going to be looking at whether or not the state economic development programs we have are as responsive, prepared and organized as they can be. My role initially will be to take a look at how programs are operating and to make sure we’re matching up perfectly with the Advantage Mississippi plan and getting that top-notch, quick-response organization ready to go. We’ve got a great plan, a great organization.
I need to fine-tune it and keep it going. All said, a big push is going to be — as we know the economy is slowing down and that’s going to have an impact — determining what we need to do, particularly on the existing business side, to help our businesses survive in these tough economic times. That’s a critical part of an economic development program, paying attention to existing businesses. The Advantage Mississippi plan can do that, and we need to make sure we’re getting information to the communities and to the businesses so they can take advantage of what’s being offered to help them grow. If we’re not working with what’s existing, that’s a signal to any potential company. While I know MDA is working with them, I want us to definitely increase the emphasis on existing industry.
MBJ: It is correct then to assume that you have been given directions to focus more attention on existing industry?
Rohrlack: The governor has set the goals for how he wants things done. He wants to see increased productivity with what’s going on, and he’s left it up to me to determine the best way to do it. I’m a firm believer in the existing industry side. I wrote the existing industry program for the Tampa area when I was there several years ago.
It’s key to work with existing industry. If you’re ignoring it, a new company is going to see how it’s going to be treated. That can have an impact on your chances of getting somebody new. When the economy slows down, the emphasis on existing industry definitely increases.
MBJ: Gov. Musgrove has been criticized for being a micro-manager. If that’s the case, do you think it will hinder your ability to do the job?
Rohrlack: First, I saw the articles that were published when Mr. Burns left. The governor and I had some very pointed, direct conversations throughout the interview process on how I operate and how I saw the best way of me being able to operate with the governor and the governor’s office. When you asked me about the governor being a micro-manager, I laughed because I think anyone who knows the governor knows he is moving too fast to micro-manage. He is a fast mover, get-it-done kind of guy. I spent all day Monday (Oct. 8) with him and spent extensive time with him throughout the interview process and the man does not collect dust. That’s for darn sure.
On micro managing, I’m not worried about that at all. The governor sets goals and he’s very clear about them.
On the other hand, he’s the lead salesman for the state for economic development. He’s the one companies want to see and hear from because they’ll be judging the state by how he presents it. They know we’re supposed to do it but he’s the ultimate decision-maker. I told him I need to be able to call him with last-minute notice and say ‘I need you’ and mean it and he can come be the closer to a deal or help open the door to some very important corporate giants. He’s committed to be available when I need him and he will trust my discretion not to abuse that but to have him at the right place when we need him and not waste his time. He’s a very busy guy with a lot of other priorities to deal with besides economic development.
MBJ: J.C. Burns was well respected in the business community. What steps will you take to smooth the transition?
Rohrlack: The big key for me is getting to know the staff immediately, working with them and listening to them on recommendations for initiatives about where we need to be going and helping to fine-tune current efforts. I’ve never met Mr. Burns, but my focus is moving forward. As I work to do that, sometimes we can get to the first down on one play and sometimes it takes three. But we have to keep making forward progress toward our goal. We won’t be looking back, but looking forward.
MBJ: Can you tell us your philosophy about economic development?
Rohrlack: It’s a team sport. It’s a contact sport with no pads, but it’s a team sport. My role at the MDA is to be an absolute resource to every community working on economic development, which hopefully is every community in the state. That means we’ve got to be a quick-response, comprehensive organization as well as a leader when needed. We need to serve both roles.
MBJ: Tell us about your family.
Rohrlack: I’m a proud dad and husband. I have three boys — Tommy, 6; Stephen, 8; and Bobby, 10. They’ve very act