When it comes to attracting businesses, size alone should put Palm Beach County at a distinct advantage over its Florida peers. With 38 municipalities, the county trumps Broward, Pinellas and even Miami-Dade as the largest in Florida and third in population.
The problem is, although geography plays a role, it is not nearly the most important factor for businesses choosing whether or not to invest in your county, says Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO, Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.
“When you’re in economic development, one community can look like another community,” she says. “These CEOs are looking at 20 or 30 communities at a time, and it’s the communities that are going to roll out a much different experience and feeling of a corporate home that they are going to remember.
“We cannot present the same product as everybody else. So with everything that we do, whether it’s the message we deliver in a website, social media message, any printed material or their experience when they visit our community — it must make a lasting impression.”
Since taking the top role at the board in 2004, Smallridge has helped overhaul its economic development strategies to grow jobs and drive business investment in the county. Between 2011 and 2012, these efforts have helped create or retain 1,700 jobs and $166 million of capital investment into Palm Beach County.
In addition, Smallridge herself has been recognized by the South Florida Business Journal as an “Ultimate CEO” and by South Florida CEO as one of the top 40 business leaders in Palm Beach County.
Smart Business spoke with Smallridge to discuss what economic and business leaders can do to create make their counties attractive for businesses and why it’s an ongoing process.
What makes a county globally competitive for business?
Workforce has to be top notch, meaning highly skilled and available. Education K-20 has to also be more than excellent to attract families and corporations to this area — so workforce and education. The cost of doing business has to remain affordable … and the ease of doing business has to be far better than other locations, other competitive sites.
As CEO, what did you feel that Palm Beach County needed to change to be more competitive with other counties?
I saw a tremendous amount of focus on bringing someone in from other states, when really, a job is a job whether you bring it in from the outside or you create one here locally — it’s the same opportunity for our area residents.
I saw too much of a focus on that outside effort and not enough focus on nurturing those companies that already call Palm Beach County their home. So we traded more of a balance internally to grow what’s in our backyard. As a result, about 70 percent of our job growth in this county comes from companies that already have an existence in this county and 30 percent come from the outside.
How did you begin redirecting the county’s job growth efforts?
First of all, I had to build the best economic development team. Hiring great leaders that were well-experienced in economic development was No. 1. Two, I had to educate my own community — my own public and private leaders — about the value and importance of economic development and how to be well-versed in what CEOs are looking for when they are selecting a location for expansion, retention or relocation.
Starting with your internal leadership, what were the key steps in building a strong economic development team?
If you study economic development organizations throughout the county, the challenge is that a lot of these people are selling counties — they are very good at it — but they don’t know their county the way we know our county because we are products of this county.
Building that team of VPs here who are very passionate about what we are selling is No. 1 — hiring the best economic development professionals. Our average tenure in this organization is 10 years, very rare. … A quarter of our staff was either born or raised in the county that we are charged with selling.
No. 2, making sure that we subscribe to the highest levels of economic development principles. We went through what’s called an accreditation process. There are only two accredited economic development boards in the state of Florida, and we are one of the two. There are something like 25 in the United States.
We didn’t go for accreditation until we knew we had reached certain fundamental goals in this organization, a five-year strategic plan, the highest level of leader on our board, strong financials — most not-for-profits are strong financially — and more private support than public support.
So how did you apply those principles across the county’s 38 cities?
We created something called Economic Development 101. We started training our elected officials and municipal stakeholders on how to answer questions from CEOs looking at their city.
It was very surprising how much elected officials didn’t really understand about economic development and what would be the highlights of promoting their areas: understanding the major employers, the taxes, the cost of doing business, knowing what the strengths are of their cities from a business perspective and being able to speak very articulately about what makes their city one of the best business locations.
How did you develop the Economic Development 101 curriculum?
Once we did three municipalities, we really got a much better understanding of what the learning gap was, what they clearly understood and what they didn’t understand. We changed that accordingly and continue to build upon that. Every time that we go to an election we go back to those cities and re-educate those people. It’s made a very big difference.
Another key part is making sure that economic development is a top priority of the municipalities. If you have strong economic development, your retail thrives, your mom-and-pop businesses thrive and your residential does well because now you have people with expendable income who can purchase your homes and apartments and frequent your restaurants and your retail establishments.
We really try to get them to understand that it’s the high-end economic development that’s going to create the trickle-down and fuel the other types of business operations in their community.
Why is it so important for economic development boards to work closely with city leaders?
Too often, economic development boards focus on their organization and don’t understand that they really represent their entire geographic region.
They have to get out there and make sure that their entire geographic region has tax incentives, that they are moving quickly in expedited permitting, that they are cutting down on the layers of bureaucracy and they can speak the languages that businesses need to hear, that they put out a warm, friendly welcome mat.
Sometimes it’s not about the amount of money or incentives that you send to a CEO; it’s about how warm your welcome mat is.
I can only sell the product that I’m given by my cities. So if they don’t understand how to make their area attractive to businesses, it doesn’t matter how strong my organization is. I have to make sure that the product is strong, and the product is the comprehensive component of 38 cities.
Once you get everyone on the same page, how do you keep them there?
You form an economic development stakeholders council that brings them all together on a regular basis to communicate, share best practices internally, inform them of what new programs have come through the state that are available for all municipalities and that they can integrate into their respective areas.
Some of the things that we’ve brought to the table that many of our municipalities have taken advantage of are Ad Valorem Tax Exemption, passing that through their cities, and expedited permitting ordinances.
This is very large county, and one of the new things that I implemented when I became the leader is, ‘You are visible if you are present in their community.’ The county is about 40 miles long. It’s the largest county east of the Mississippi River and larger than a couple of states. It’s a very big, massive land area.
What I did was to establish satellite offices in the north, central, south and western part of our county. I went from one office, to one office and three satellite offices — big difference. Now you’re present in the community working side-by-side with your teammates and other city officials.
What results have you seen from PBC’s newest economic development initiatives?
Too many presidents of economic development boards are quick to get to that ribbon-cutting ceremony when really we’re in there to help them through the entire process until they turn the key and then for many, many years down the road. That’s why we’ve had companies come back to us five or 10 years beyond our initial relationship to help them with their expansion.
If you have an entire community that is working in the same direction toward creating jobs and you eliminate the competition internally and you get everyone on the same page, you end up with entire group of public and private leaders that are all working toward the same goal.
That may seem very fundamental, but it has taken years to get to that stage. If you look at other communities throughout the U.S., you will find very few where all public and private leaders have the same end goal in mind. ●
How to reach: Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, (561) 835-1008 or www.bdb.org
The Smallridge File
President and CEO
Business Development Board of Palm Beach County
Born: West Palm Beach, Fla.
Education: University of Florida
What would your friends be surprised to find out about you?
For the most part, I keep my private and professional lives separate. Therefore, my friends would be surprised to see what a normal business day is like for me. Every minute of every workday is usually booked solid with meetings, speeches, interviews, prospecting, traveling, deadlines, with absolutely no downtime until Friday afternoons.
How do you recognize new business opportunities?
I do not like to perform or develop a product or program that I’ve seen out on in the market. If I see it, then I tend to steer away from that and try to figure out what is really going to be the ‘wow’ factor in the way that we present a product. It distinguishes us among our competition.
What happens when you don’t close a business deal that you wanted?
One of the keys to any leader is that you’ve had numerous failures. Every one of those I’ve look at as character building exercises. We’ve lost some deals that I thought that we should have won. I don’t sweat over that too much, but instead, evaluate the situation very quickly, figure out what we did wrong and what we did right, and move toward developing some sort of resolution that ensures to the best of our ability that it won’t happen again. We’re quick to take a look at ourselves and be our biggest critics.
What do you do for fun?
I am a firm believer that in order for my mind to stay healthy and make good business decisions, I must find time for fun. As a mother of three boys, all of my free time is spent with them at football, basketball or family vacations. We love to cruise to the Caribbean a couple of times a year as a family. In addition, I am blessed to live within a few miles of my parents, my brother and my sister. Getting together at least monthly with the whole family, especially during football games, has been a source of great memories.