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Program first of its kind in the nation to combine technology and human touch

Synchronist System benefits Mississippi manufacturers

Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA), public utility companies and economic developers have partnered on a retention and expansion network plan for manufacturers in the state, with the Synchronist Business Information System as its foundation.

Developed by Eric Canada and Nancy Blane of Chicago, the software tool identifies companies with the best growth potential and new marketing opportunities, predicts companies at risk and captures consistent results on an annual basis that gives decision-makers critical insight and generates quantifiable facts. It will provide a long-term point of reference with leading economic indicators on the health of existing industry in the state.

“Ken Johnston on our staff was the driving force behind adopting this program,” said Jeff Dukes, director of existing business and industry division for MDA. “He began having conversations with Eric when he was putting the program together. We’d talked long and hard about the need for us to have a statewide information system based on input from our manufacturers that would show us the good and the bad, like what we might have overlooked in training needs and legislative issues. Synchronist does just that.”

Soon after Gov. Haley Barbour announced in April that the state would implement the program, the partners began gathering information from plant managers in-person, breaking into teams to canvass the state, beginning with Delta counties. Because it is more time-consuming the first go-round, Dukes estimates it will take until the end of 2005 to interview manufacturers in all 82 counties.

“When we first told plant managers we wanted to come in and ask a few questions, some of them were a little reserved initially, but after they realized they were the beneficiary, they opened up and have been extremely receptive,” said Dukes.

The program also includes a crucial second step after information is gathered that no other state has reportedly incorporated: annual visits to Mississippi manufacturers’ parent companies.

“Many states have existing industry programs, but they’re little more than going in and asking, ‘How’re y’all doing?’ or ‘How’s little Johnny’s baseball team this year?’ We wanted to get way beyond that, to a quantifiable, measurable system of questions. After the data input, Synchronist gives us a number of evaluation screens, such as the probability of a particular company leaving the community, and if so, why, plus an evaluation of the relative worth to the community and a number of other things. Then we use the information to visit parent companies.”

Jay Moon, president of MMA and former deputy director of MDA, said his organization has been monitoring the alarming rate of manufacturing closures in Mississippi over the last several years.

“One of the questions we try to find out when they announce a closure is ‘Why?’ One of the reasons we’ve seen develop over a period of time is consolidation,” he said. “The parent company didn’t close, but in the consolidation process closed the Mississippi branch. We’ve been pondering how to get ahead of that, not just for consolidation but also for any reason where there was a problem with a manufacturer in the state. Maybe if we could talk to the company before they made the decision, we could address concerns.”

Once the initial input is programmed, manufacturers will be surveyed every year, using the same roughly 40 questions.

“It helps us identify telltale signs,” said Moon. “If a plant had a turnover of five plant managers in the last 12 months, there may be a problem. Or if no capital investment has been made in the plant in the last two years, maybe there’s a problem.”

During informal plant and parent company visits in the last couple of years, Moon said civil justice reform “was heavy on people’s minds.”

“We addressed that,” he said, “and it’s a beautiful thing to walk in the door and say we took care of that, what are some other issues we can address?”

Last month, team officials visited about a dozen parent companies in the Chicago area, including Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill.

“We’re finding out all kinds of things,” said Dukes. “After visiting one parent company, they decided to keep their manufacturing plant in Mississippi. During a visit to another corporate client, they discussed moving one of their plants to Mississippi.”

MDA owns the master license to the Synchronist software program for Mississippi, while public utility companies — Entergy, Mississippi Power Company and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) — own regional licenses. Economic developers can access local licenses. Where needed, rural counties may partner for access to the database program in their area.

“We’ll make sure everyone is covered,” said Dukes.

The Metro Economic Development Alliance (MEDA), a consortium of six entities that functions as the marketing and economic development arm for metropolitan Jackson, has signed onto the program.

“It makes sense for us to be involved in this effort,” said MEDA director Ross Tucker. “Central Mississippi is an economic engine for the State of Mississippi ,and if we can encourage existing business to grow and expand, it will have a positive impact across the state.”

John Turner, director of economic development for Entergy Mississippi, said the public utility company, which provides electricity to more than 400,000 customers in 45 counties, has placed a strong emphasis on working with existing businesses and believes the Synchronist program provides another valuable tool “to help us better understand our customers and the markets they compete in.”

Johnny Atherton, director of economic development for Mississippi Power Company, said the data “will help us pinpoint companies or industries that may need immediate assistance, while still providing confidentiality.”

“It will also help project growth potential for areas or specific segments, which will allow us to better focus our economic development efforts and resources,” he said.

Amy Bunton, general manager of business and community development for TVA, said “business retention has been key to everyone’s fundamental economic development strategy for a long time, and it’s really exciting to see the State of Mississippi put so much energy and effort into this program.”

“It’s very critical that we are proactive in our efforts to communicate effectively with manufacturers, because the truth of the matter is that in this economy, if we’re waiting to react to manufacturing, it’s too late,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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