The game has changed

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Published: July 20,2009

Industry recruitment is totally different than it was 30 years ago

Notable job creation announcements since the start of the new year include the private prison in Adams County landing a federal contract that will bring 400 jobs with it, a call center in Meridian producing 273 jobs since October and Alliant Tech Systems in Iuka, which manufactures commercial aircraft composites, signaling plans to expand its facility and grow its workforce from 176 to 800 people in the next eight years.

Clearly, the efforts of state and local economic developers paid off in those cases.

Business recruitment and industry expansion play a prominent role in a community’s having enough jobs to employ its residents and a big enough tax base to pay for essential government services.

A struggling economy has put the brakes on a lot of opportunities economic developers have to lure new industry to Mississippi, so the game plan has changed.

“We’re salespeople, obviously, first and foremost,” said Griff Salmon, head of the Mississippi Development Authority’s global business division. “Our job is to sell the state and hit on the assets of what Mississippi has to offer.”

Salmon and the other self-described sales team at the MDA have landed some huge deals the past few years, from Nissan and PACCAR to Severstal and Toyota.

With all that on their resume, Salmon and the rest of the MDA team still can’t match the sales record of one entity.

“No one sells business more effectively than existing industry,” Salmon said.

The wooing of a client goes through a lot of stages, but it almost always starts with the client wanting to hear from businesses that have been in Mississippi and know what it takes and what it is like to operate in the state.

“If your plant manager, if your employees aren’t happy, don’t have a good quality of life, don’t have a strong workforce or aren’t happy with what they’re doing, then they’re not going to sell your, state, community or your workforce,” Salmon said.

“When we are recruiting, obviously we want to put a plant manager who has a wonderful experience in Mississippi and is thrilled to be here and is doing well in front of clients thinking about relocating, because they can sell it better than anybody.”

With that in mind, keeping existing business happy is paramount.

“As much as I hate to say it, being on the recruiting front, everything starts with existing industry,” Salmon said. “If people aren’t happy, it’s hard to sell other people on the values of Mississippi.”

Increasing the pressure on economic developers is the economy, which has essentially turned the business into even more of a buyer’s market that it was before things went south.

Companies looking to relocate or expand can expect states to fall over themselves to accommodate them because projects are scarce in a recession.

“In this economy, it’s difficult because companies are looking for the perfect situation, and they have to have everything fall into place to make their business model work, to sell (commercial) paper in the market and to get financing when you’ve got an economy going in the direction we’re going in,” Salmon said.

“Recruiting becomes all the more important. How do you differentiate your state, community or local group from everybody else in the market place? I think Mississippi, with limited funds, is doing a pretty good job of that. You have to look at, first and foremost, what are the drivers of the company, what makes their business plan work and how you can differentiate that from Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, etc. It becomes extremely important how you position yourself in the marketplace to do that in a lousy economy.”

Like a top-flight high school quarterback getting dozens of letters a day from football programs wanting him to play for them, companies with an eye on relocation or expansion hear from virtually every state that could use more jobs.

“The game has changed because you have that many more players,” Salmon said. “Used to be, companies would decide they had to be in a certain area. Nowadays, especially in an economy like this, people can be anywhere. If you’re not prepared, if you haven’t done your homework and – I hate to keep going back to this – you haven’t differentiated your product you’re already behind.

“We’ve entered a new era in recruitment of new business, simply because in the Information Age people can figure out everything they need to know about a piece of property, a building or whatever, without ever talking to the actual salespeople. Being out in the market in front of that is extremely important.”

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