Columbus 2020 relies on local partners to encourage companies to locate or expand operations in the region.
As the region's primary economic development expediter, Columbus 2020's lean-but-specialized staff includes business development and project management professionals, investor relations and logistics experts, research analysts and marketing specialists. But when new business prospects are on the line, they often call in secret weapons. A cadre of local business and academic executives is ready to share data, perspective and personal stories that can put potential investors at ease and prod them to locate or expand their companies in the 11-county Columbus Region.
A combination of working leads from their Downtown offices, traveling to tout Columbus' advantages and hosting businesses with an interest in the region keeps business development specialists Deborah Scherer and Matt McQuade busy. As prospects visit from out of town or out of the country, "We almost always set up some kind of dinner and we always try to have one or two of these goodwill ambassadors at the dinner," says McQuade, director, North American business development for Columbus 2020.
Sometimes a business ambassador is "engaged before we are" and brings Columbus 2020 into conversations with a potential new investor in the area, says Scherer, director of global markets.
Two who are called on frequently to help move new business prospects closer to committing to the Columbus Region are Japanese attorney Hikaru "Todd" Tokuda of Porter Wright or Ohio State University College of Engineering Dean David Williams. Whether meeting with a huge corporation or a small foreign company with limited understanding of US geography and culture, these volunteer ambassadors go beyond data and brochures to tell a compelling story of how Columbus meets or exceeds business needs.
Tokuda meets with companies looking to join the 150 Japanese-owned enterprises already in the region. Now a permanent resident with eight years in Columbus, Tokuda talks about the business environment, answers legal questions and addresses daily life as a local Japanese immigrant. His conversations are often in Japanese, which he says helps put his countrymen at ease.
"I will talk about the history of Japanese-owned business in Columbus, saying that there are many companies who have been here more than 20 years," Tokuda says. Noting the Japanese traditionally work with one employer for a lifetime, he dispels concerns that American workers are transient job-hoppers. "I explain that's not always the case. There are many, many examples of long-term working relationships between Japanese-owned business and American managers or workers," he says.
Tokuda also talks up regional weather, with "no major climate risks such as hurricanes, earthquakes." Winter snow in Columbus is still reasonably drivable, and summer in Columbus is preferable to the heat and humidity of Tokyo, he says. Homes in the area are large and reasonably priced, and for expatriates who must return to Japan after the typical 3-5-year stay, there are Japanese-language schools where their children can continue to learn their native tongue, he adds.
A 2007 Duke University School of Law graduate, Tokuda notes Japanese groceries in the Columbus Region "are super great compared to what I went to in North Carolina."
Williams is often tapped to address the area's ability to provide a highly educated and technical workforce for manufacturers and companies serving their pipeline, such as the automobile industry. Among the facts and figures he employs: "Ohio is the No. 1 state across the nation in supplying parts to Boeing and Airbus."
Ohio's universities-including 15 engineering colleges-will provide 40,000 students to meet workforce demands in the next few years, and the schools routinely partner with industry and government agencies on research to tackle issues such as developing lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft engines, he says.
"So, when Columbus 2020 wants to attract a company here, they will often ask me to meet with the site selector or the company representatives themselves so I can answer questions about the workforce, so I can give them the kind of numbers I've just given to you, which says we can bring a lot of power to bear to help attract companies," adds Williams, who is also a Columbus 2020 board member.
"When I came here, I was asked to step up to Columbus 2020 board in part because of my experience in my previous jobs of reminding people that universities are really an integral part of the whole workforce challenge that the nation has, particularly in the STEM areas," Williams says.
He notes university research funded by industry as well as state and federal governments is often focused in the area of jobs. "Across many states, universities are brought in because we can carry out the research which can help current industries to improve their technology and will help spawn new industries to continue to revitalize the economy."
In his meetings on behalf of Columbus 2020, Williams says target companies are often impressed "with the fact that we have those numbers, that we can bring them to the table and that Columbus sees Ohio State and the surrounding engineering colleges as a valuable partner, because I don't think they see that everywhere. I believe that adds strength."
From his perspective, Williams sees clearly that "universities play a key role in providing obviously the high-end technical workforce. And when companies want to move to a specific area, they want to make sure the workforce is there. While I'm just one university out of 15 or so engineering colleges throughout the state of Ohio, we work together very closely with all of those."
He adds, "If you look around the nation, there are only two cities that are well over a million people that have the flagship university and the state capital in the same place, and Austin, Texas, is the other one. The combination of the state capital and the flagship university and the big city is rare, so that makes a very powerful leveraging tool to bring companies to where all the action is."
Williams explains his efforts are not altruistic. "My job within the university is to ensure that engineering and our faculty have their rightful place at the table. But many of our faculty get this. They get that engineering drives industrial development, that engineering drives jobs, and so all of our faculty do this…. It very often is a team effort."
Williams notes other important team members also help recruit companies to central Ohio. "Having JobsOhio housed here, having the Board of Regents here, having (Columbus) 2020 here and having Ohio State here and everything we can bring to bear, that is a rare combination and one that we perhaps haven't used to full effect in the past, but I think now this is really ramping up. So when you get all of these arms working together and in lockstep and saying the same message, it's a very powerful one."
Williams' work with Columbus 2020 is not limited to meeting with companies thinking of relocating or expanding here. He says Ohio State and a couple of other universities around the nation are exploring how to incorporate economic development into their curriculum. "I've never had formal economic development training but there are enough solid principles out there that we're beginning to examine this, maybe putting a national network of a few universities together to drive the teaching of economic development as a profession. Kenny McDonald and 2020 are involved in this. We're just starting those conversations," Williams says.
Collaborating with Columbus 2020 is consistent with Ohio State's obligations as a land-grant university, he adds. "Economic development is key to all our futures, and if the economy isn't robust our students can't afford to pay to come here, or their parents can't afford to pay. We're part of the whole cycle and we've got to continue to play our teaching role and our research role and our outreach to the community."
He adds, "We've been doing that for 150 years, so we've always been doing it. We're just a little bit more focused."