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Architects, engineers can turn to development

Many architecture and engineering firms are turning to the economic development field to grow their businesses and manage customer relationships. The same can be said for legal and financial firms involved in major projects. In this column, we will discuss the reasons for this phenomenon and personal characteristics such firms should look for before hiring an economic developer.

During the past 15 years, Mississippi has seen its fair share of major economic development projects. The media has reported many ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings, ranging from automobile assembly plants to distribution centers. What the public probably does not realize is that such projects require a myriad of complex activities that are rarely reported or understood. Developers and project managers contract out much, if not most, of the work to outside professional firms that have expertise in a certain area. Contractors manage and coordinate the project, architects design the physical space, investment firms put together financing, law firms tend to legal aspects and on and on. In the past, it was unusual for such firms to have a so-called outside person on the in-house payroll.  That is not the case anymore.

The increasing involvement of government agencies in the development process has created a need for someone who understands the entire process, and who has the contacts to find new business for these firms. There is hardly a major project that gets done with some type of government incentive, whether it be a tax break, financing inducement or new road. What better person than an economic developer for such a position? An experienced economic developer knows the process and the people from a unique perspective. Such an individual can become a valuable member of the team if the conditions are just right.

The first thing that a firm should consider is why it thinks it needs an economic developer. If it is merely to increase business, then this writer, who has been involved in economic and community development for many years, would humbly suggest that the firm would be better off hiring a self-starter from the outside sales world. Trouble will soon loom if the firm’s management believes that an economic developer should be hired simply because he or she will pay for him/herself. Naturally a firm wants to increase business, but an economic developer who just makes sales calls often quickly gets frustrated while the firm’s management wonders why no new projects are coming in the door.  The relationship deteriorates and ends after a short while.  

Economic developers are facilitators and relationship managers.  They should be part of a firm’s marketing strategy, not viewed as the firm’s sales force.  The firm should also consider its government and public relations strategy and whether someone with economic development experience would be the right person for such a role.  Some firms have found that it is advantageous to have such a person be the public face of the firm.  That means sales calls, relationship management, testifying at public hearings and managing public relations.  Suddenly, the duties have expanded, but are not inconsistent with the duties and work experience of an economic developer.  So, what should a firm look for when considering making an economic developer part of the team?

Obviously, this is a position that requires experience and wide-ranging knowledge of the development process.  It is not an entry-level position.  Consequently, a candidate’s resume and recommendations are extremely important.  Ask for specific examples of projects that the candidate has worked on, and then follow up with a phone call to some people who were involved in the project.  And make certain that it is not just the people who were given as references.

Because of the importance of managing relationships, the candidate’s recommendations are important. During the application process, ask for other people who have dealt with the candidate and then contact them. This sounds very basic, but it comes under the heading of due diligence, something that professional firms know so very well.

A candidate for this position should be someone who is involved in economic development organizations.  These would include the Mississippi Economic Development Council, the Southern Economic Development Council and the International Economic Development Council.  Look for involvement as well as membership.  For example, check out whether the candidate held any leadership positions.  And don’t forget other business organizations, such as the Mississippi Economic Council.

Also, ask yourself what an economic developer would do for you that you cannot do for yourself.  What skills would this person contribute that are not already present in the firm?

Make sure that the candidate’s values are consistent with those of the firm.  There is still a paradigm that says that the way to get new business is to wine and dine certain people and to rebate things of value as long as the practice is barely on the moral side of legality.  Fortunately, that is changing, but values should be a part of the discussion.

Is now the time to hire an economic developer, or is it better to wait when the business gets better?  That depends on the firm’s business concentration, but if government projects and stimulus funds have any ring to them for the firm, now may be the best time.

In the cases that I am familiar with that failed, the reason was that the expectations and the measurements were not established at the beginning and there was not enough feedback along the way.

Finally, does your firm have the budget to support such a position?  It can be expensive to travel to conferences, out-of-town meetings and events.  There will probably be lots of trips to Washington, D.C.  That is where so much of the funding comes from these days for big projects.  This is a position that will have above-average expenses when compared to other positions in the firm.  It is, after all, a marketing position.

In summary, for certain architect, engineering, legal and investment firms it makes good business sense to hire someone with economic development experience and expertise. As with any new hire, expectations and how performance will be measured should be clearly understood from the outset.


Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.


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