Mississippi ties helped put Brent Christensen atop list for new MDA chief

Former Netscape and FedEx executive Jim Barksdale took over leadership of the Mississippi Development Authority with one over-riding goal — find his replacement.

Barksdale met with the media to comment on the recruitment of Christensen including some of those salary negotiations.

He wanted a pro with a track record of success but he also sought to follow the wishes of state business leaders to hire someone with ties to Mississippi who would “understand our state,” Barksdale said in an interview last week after the introduction of Brent Christensen, head of the Gainesville (Fla.) Area Chamber of Commerce, as Gov. Phil Bryant’s pick to run the MDA.

Christensen had the requisite connection to the state, having worked in economic development in Hattiesburg more than a decade ago with the Area Development Partnership, a job he took after a stint as a reporter for the Hattiesburg American.

Christensen worked with David Rumbarger, now an economic development executive in Tupelo, and Gray Swoope, former executive director of the MDA and current chief of Enterprise Florida, the Sunshine State’s economic development arm.

That Mississippi background alone likely pushed Christensen to the top of Barksdale’s list to run the 300-employee department, said John Lovorn, president of Tupelo-based executive recruiting firm The PACE Group.

“Christensen had the opportunity to train under both of them,” Lovorn said of Rumbarger and Swoope. “When you have the opportunity to train under the two of the best in the business, by just osmosis some of that is going to rub off,” he added.

Lovorn has a working familiarity with the 42-year-old Christensen, having recruited him on behalf of the Gainesville Chamber from a job he took at the Tampa Chamber after leaving Hattiesburg.

Lovorn, whose firm has a niche in filling economic development jobs around the country, said Barksdale and Bryant “hit a grand slam” in hiring Christensen.

Before going to Gainesville to discuss the job with Christensen, Barksdale “called me to go over the pluses and minuses,” Lovorn said, adding he endorsed Christensen based on his professional background and his “patience, passion and listening skills.”

Lovorn, who also recruited Blake Wilson away from the Florida Chamber of Commerce to head the Mississippi Economic Council, said governors around the country are searching for economic development executives who have “the intelligence and political savvy” to take their states to the next level.

“This business is very competitive — as competitive as the Super Bowl,” he said. “You’ve got to be thinking about it 24 hours a day.”

Lovorn’s career in Mississippi economic development stretches back more than 40 years, starting with the Canton Chamber of Commerce in 1971, the Greenwood Department of Economic Development a year later and the founding of the PACE Group in 1992. The state’s current business development team is as strong as any he’s seen, he said.

“With the combination of Blake Wilson, Brent Christensen, Jim Barksdale and Phil Byrant,” economic development will move forward in Mississippi “like never before,” Lovorn predicted.

One observer of Christensen’s work in Gainesville said Mississippi recruiters likely took note of his diplomatic skills and ability to achieve success in a climate often unfriendly to business growth.

With a strong anti-growth sentiment in the hometown of the University of Florida, “For him to have success on the business front is a significant achievement,” said Alex Patton, owner of Gainesville advertising agency Ozean Media.

To be pro-business in Alachua County is to operate in a “hostile environment,” he added.

But Christensen devised a strategy to work effectively with the powers-that-be, Patton said, “Brent went to the political community and said, ‘Guys, what kind of business do you want here?’ Then he went out and made that happen.”

Working in a pro-business state such as Mississippi, should make him even more effective, Patton predicted. “If you turn him loose, he’ll be successful.”

Early Contender

Christensen’s Mississippi connections landed him among top prospects for the MDA job early on – an outcome Lovorn expected. “Mississippi is one large community,” he said. “Everyone in Mississippi knows everyone else. We’re really one large city as a state.”

Barksdale said he talked to business leaders around the state and ended up with the names of several candidates, including Christensen’s. “They all, generally speaking, were rather pointed in their remarks that the person we did select would have some connection to Mississippi and understand our state.”

Barksdale settled on a handful of candidates “but I did not know what I was going to be able to pay them,” he added, citing a Mississippi law that caps the pay of state executives to 150 of the governor’s salary. Thus, the new MDA chief’s pay would be limited to about $180,000.

That would have to change before the hiring process could gain steam, Barksdale said.

In the meantime, Barksdale had decided Christensen would be his pick.

He moved quickly once legislators agreed to allow the private sector to pitch in to raise the annual salary of the MDA’s executive director.

Getting to offer a possible annual salary of $230,000 sweetened the deal enough to begin talks with Christensen in earnest.

“By the time it was signed into law, I had narrowed it down to this man,” Barksdale said. “I was so taken by him.”

As was Bryant, said Barksdale.

Another crucial step remained, however.

Key people who would be working under him had to give Christensen the nod as well, according to Barksdale. “Two principals who report to me visited with him at length. If either one of them had given him a thumbs down, I wouldn’t have hired him.”

“They gave more than a nod,” Barksdale said. “They fell in love with him.”

>> READ MORE: With Christensen, MDA gets its man

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