Supply chain matters, but recruiting manufacturers a sales job for Colorado communities

By Curtis Williams | May 16, 2016

It took South Carolina 10 months of sales pitches, negotiations, and incentive offers to get Volvo to build its first American manufacturing plant in their state. When completed in 2018, the $550 million, 900-acre site will build up to 100,000 S-60 sedans per year and create about 8,000 jobs directly and indirectly.

Volvo's choice for the new plant was already stacked in South Carolina's favor. Executives admitted that they would not have located there had it not been for the success of BMW's Spartanburg plant which opened in 1994. The state already has 250 automotive suppliers to complement Volvo, employing 58,000 workers. And the port of Charleston is just down the road, making it easy to transport cars worldwide. Additionally, the Palmetto State boasts one of the oldest and most successful skilled training programs in the country. They still had to throw in over $200 million in incentives and tax breaks, but the billions in economic contribution to the state will more than make up for it.

Whether high tech or heavy industry, every economic development team fantasizes about closing such a deal for their own state, guaranteeing solid jobs and tax revenue far into the future. They work tirelessly for opportunities of any size. And because competition can be fierce between states, companies bringing in significant investment and employment know that they're in the driver's seat, and they'll expect states or cities to make them very generous incentive offers.

What's the secret to attracting large manufacturers into our backyards? If only there was an easy answer to that question. A report I read recently summarized the process into three fundamental steps. First, an economic development team would create a profile of their community identifying its strengths including infrastructure, a trained and educated workforce, employment laws, complimentary suppliers, and quality of life. Second, compatible industries that are a good fit for their communities would be identified, and third, a list of prospective companies would be developed and the process of selling your community to them would begin.

I can't argue with that formula, but it's grossly over-simplified. These are surely the same steps every economic development office follows day in and day out. Moreover, it's the same process that any company uses to sell their own products or services, and the same one job hunters use to sell themselves. Economic development is a sales job, and anyone that has worked in sales knows how hard it can be to find the next big customer, and also knows how immensely rewarding it is when you do. The work is even more difficult during economic downturns when companies put expansion plans on hold, and startups can't find investment capital. But the work is the same. You hopefully have a good product to sell (your community), you market it to the targeted businesses, and then do whatever it takes to close the deal. You network, advertise, attend trade shows, know the competition, read business publications, and research previous deals to understand why some states win and why other states do not.

A good salesperson would find out which companies are having frustrations with their offshoring, and approach them with an alternative that would solve their problems by bringing them back stateside, and maybe even save them a little money by doing so. A good salesperson would think of creative alternatives, not ruling out any possibilities. In partnership with business leaders, educators, and local government, they'd listen to the potential transplant company's concerns and collaborate to work through them.

A company considering locating in Colorado would appreciate a well-educated workforce, the state's favorable labor laws, and our central location. We have a healthy lifestyle, good schools, and our beautiful mountains offer unlimited enjoyment. But they would also consider our high housing costs that are climbing at a worrisome rate. Of course, every state has its own positives and negatives, so what's important is to demonstrate why Colorado would be a better choice. The many businesses that have successfully been established here are the best evidence that Colorado is an ideal location to grow and expand operations. But there are more companies that still need convincing.

Curtis Williams has been in manufacturing management and operations for over 25 years. Contact him at