JACKSON — There’s a change of leadership at the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) with Gov. Haley Barbour’s late November announcement that Gray Swoope will become executive director at the end of the year. Swoope, who has been chief operating officer of the state’s lead economic development agency, succeeds Leland Speed, who is returning to the private sector. With 20 years of economic development experience, Swoope has worked on the local, regional and state levels.
The governor praised the leadership that Swoope has demonstrated over the past three years with MDA.
“Gray Swoope has been the man behind the details of all of the important initiatives undertaken by MDA since the beginning of my administration,” Barbour said. “He is thoroughly immersed in all aspects of Mississippi’s economic development programs and initiatives, and I am delighted to say that with his elevation to the top spot we won’t miss a beat.”
Swoope says he is very honored to have this opportunity and that the governor has confidence in him. “I am passionate about this work and will do my very best to move the state forward,” he said.
The 45-year-old economic developer is a native of West Point and a graduate of Mississippi State University. He is also a graduate of the Economic Development Institute. In 1990, Site Selection magazine recognized Swoope as one of the nation’s Top Ten Outstanding Young Economic Developers.
Prior to joining MDA, Swoope worked for the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission and the Area Development Partnership in Hattiesburg. He has served on the board of directors of the Southern Economic Development Council and as president of the Mississippi Economic Development Council.
Swoope and his wife, Mary, are the parents of two daughters, Grace, 16, and Anne Carrie, 8. “My daughters are my royalty,” he said. “I have Princess Grace and Princess Anne.”
The new MDA executive director graciously took time to answer a few questions for the Mississippi Business Journal as he prepares for this new chapter in his life.
MBJ: What are your thoughts on becoming executive director of MDA?
GS: I got my first taste of economic development in 1985 and felt I would like to lead economic development endeavors in my home state. It has been my dream and although Disney coined the phrase “the place where dreams come true,” I feel that in Mississippi dreams do come true.
I first worked for Bill Barnett and consider him the dean of economic development. He was a wonderful inspiration and I learned a lot from him.
MBJ: In all of your education and experience, what provided the best preparation for this position?
GS: My experience at the local, regional and state levels of economic development. They’re all different and I’ve been blessed to see the many facets at all those levels. My formula has been to embrace the business community and work with them and work with government entities.
MBJ: The governor said the change in leadership will be a seamless transition. Do you agree, and if so, why?
GS: Yes, it builds on the formula of working with the business community. Mr. Speed’s structure used a business model. He hired the MDA’s first chief financial officer. State agencies typically don’t have CFOs and COOs. It mirrored the structure of corporate America. We will continue to work like that. Mr. Speed will be the chairman of the board emeritus, and I will seek his advice along with input from the governor and Momentum Mississippi.
We dug deep into the agency to plan and spent hours on training. Hurricane Katrina took us off that focus but now we’re back on it and will implement it. We won’t miss a beat.
MBJ: As the state’s lead economic development agency, what do you see as MDA’s major activity?
GS: Mr. Speed put it in layman’s terms better than anyone. He said we go on a hunt, kill something and then we skin it. In business opportunity terms, we’re preparing for the hunt with program development and preparation of communities. Then, we decide how to market the plan. Almost everything fits into those three things.
MBJ: In your opinion, what is the state’s most pressing economic development need?
GS: We’ve got to continue to work with our communities to improve their competitiveness and tell their stories. We’ve also set the table for a more positive business climate with tort reform and the Momentum Mississippi incentives.
MBJ: How do you describe your leadership style?
GS: I’m pretty easy going. I believe in empowerment. I surround myself with smart, capable people and get out of their way so they can do their jobs. Honestly, I believe in that and I don’t micro manage.
MBJ: If you weren’t employed in economic development, what do you think you would be doing?
GS: I’ve never given any thought to doing anything else other than what I’m doing. I’ve never viewed what I do as a job. I think maybe I can make a difference in someone’s life and I enjoy economic development.
I have a secret aviation interest and I used to fly, but I haven’t stayed current with it.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.