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Economic developers value mentoring opportunities

Whether it’s an “art” or a “science” is open to debate, but there is no doubt that economic development takes special skills and knowledge. For young economic developers, having a mentor, someone to learn the tricks of the trade from, gives them a distinct advantage. From these seasoned veterans, new economic developers can gain real-world insight they can get nowhere else. And, these early mentoring relationships often leave an indelible impression still evident years, and in some cases even decades, after the experience.

Learning from Martin

Jimmy Heidel has held numerous important economic development posts all over the state, including heading the Mississippi Development Authority. He currently serves as an economic development consultant for the City of Jackson.

Heidel has been in the industry for nearly 40 years now, and is the dean of economic developers in Mississippi. However, he only earned that title upon the retirement of Harry Martin.

Martin spent nearly a half-century heading up economic and community development efforts in Tupelo. And, Heidel categorically gives credit to Martin for knowledge and insight that he still uses today — before, during and after negotiations.

“Harry was simply amazing,” Heidel said. “Probably the thing that impressed me the most was his preparation. He often knew more about a company than the company’s CEO did.
“He knew how to handle prospects. He knew how to have a cordial discussion on what the prospect needed and wanted. And, he knew how to bring a community together. Harry frequently negotiated with families to sell land that they had owned for years, sometimes decades, by showing them how it would benefit the community. He was just incredible.”

Mitch Stennett is another Martin product. Stennett has been the president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County since 1990, and before that was an economic developer in Tupelo and Clarksdale. Like Heidel, Martin was a pivotal figure in Stennett’s career. In fact, it was Martin who gave Stennett his first economic development job in Tupelo.

“What I learned from Harry was that if you wanted to make it in economic development, you had to have a strong work ethic,” Stennett said. “He believed as an economic developer, you were on 24 hours a day. He worked incredible hours, and he expected his staff to do the same.

“Another thing Harry taught me then that I understand better now is that, while economic development is a project business, it’s also a people business. He was so right.”

Gary Matthews has been plying his trade in economic development for 32 years now. Currently executive director of the Tishomingo County Development Foundation, Matthews could not single out one of two mentors, but instead pointed to several organizations.

“The Mississippi R&D Center, TVA and now the MDA has offered numerous workshops and seminars over the years that I have learned tremendously from,” Matthews said.

Trainers and matchmakers

Stennett listed off others that helped him along the way. Bill Barrett was head of the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association in West Point and gave Stennett his opportunity in Clarksdale. Stennett said Barrett probably trained more young economic developers than anyone else, and many of his students, including Mississippi Development Authority COO Gray Swoope, are still key players in the industry.

Bill Hackett, now deceased, was the one who brought Stennett to Jones County. He gave another example lesson in work ethic. “He actually worked in the office on an interim basis while looking for a permanent president,” Stennett said.

Stennett reserved special praise for Robert Ingram. A former mayor of McComb, Ingram worked in economic development all over the state, including a stint at the University of Southern Mississippi and its economic development program.

Ingram recently completed a successful period as executive director of the Greenwood-Leflore Industrial Board, and is now president and CEO of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance in Alabama.

“Robert has probably placed more young people in economic development positions than any one in this state ever has,” Stennett said. “That’s why I hated to see the state lose him.”

One of those Ingram placed in the field is Tom Troxler, current executive director of Rankin First. Troxler, who has been in economic development for approximately 17 years now, came from a banking and finance background, and originally met Ingram while in Pike County.

“When I was in banking, I served on the board of both a chamber of commerce and economic development organization,” Troxler said. “I learned a lot about the private side of economic development from that experience.

“What I learned from Robert was the public side, as well as how to run an organization. He also taught me how to keep pace, and the importance of being the first one to solve the last problem.”

Giving back

Having been brought under wing as young economic developers, many of these now veteran professionals see it as their turn to be the mentor. And, they relish the role.

“I have a young person working with me now that I’m helping lead into the industry,” Heidel said. “It is great to watch her grow and develop — extremely rewarding.”

Stennett echoed Heidel’s words. He is especially proud of his role in helping develop Chad Chancellor, who was an economic developer in Wayne County and has since moved to Mobile, Ala.

He said he found his role as “senior” economic developer fulfilling, but he admitted that being a mentor is not always good for the ego. “I hate to think that I am old enough to be considered a mentor,” he said with a laugh.

Troxler said he also fields calls from younger professionals, mainly with issues he once brought to Ingram. “Every now and then, I’ll get a call asking about my experience with ‘XYZ’ process, but mainly I get organizational questions.”

Mentor’s mentor

Though now veterans of the industry, these economic development professionals still stay in contact with their peers to swap ideas or just to commiserate. Stennett said his relationship with folks like Ingram and Bill Johnson Jr., former head of the Meridian Chamber of Commerce and contributing writer for the Mississippi Business Journal remain important.

“In this business, you never stop learning. I still value relationships like I have with Robert and Bill Johnson, who is the finest example of a Southern gentleman.”

And, Stennett added that not everyone he learns from is necessarily “seasoned.”

“Heck, a lot of the economic developers I learn from today are younger than I am!” Stennett said. “They bring new ideas and new perspectives, and I learn from them every day.”

Troxler has had the same experience. “It doesn’t really matter about age and years of experience,” he said. “It has more to do with the situation. If one community has done something that I can learn from, I’ll call them up.”

Matthews said he values his frequent talks with his peers across the state. He could not point to one or two he talks to more than others, but said he has learned just how important continuing education is.

“It’s only after you have been in this business for 10 or 12 years that you start realizing just how much more you need to know to be successful,” he said. “We run through problems together, bounce ideas off each other. I think it’s very important to keep learning everyday even if you’ve been in the field for years.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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