Chamber, city care for existing firms

Published in the Feb. 6, 2012 edition of the
Columbia Regional Business Report

By C. Grant Jackson
Senior Vice President/Community Development
Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce

On one of his very first business calls, John Mikula, senior vice president for existing business retention and expansion at the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, learned of a problem at Nucor Building Systems in Swansea. Then plant manager Al Behr told Mikula that he was having trouble hiring welders and CAD operators.

Mikula put Nucor together with MEBA, the Midlands Education and Business Alliance, and Midlands Technical College to create a program to fill the company’s labor pipeline.  MEBA would bring high school teachers to the plant to show them what manufacturing was really about. Nucor would send welders and CAD operators into high schools for a show and tell that would include students actually doing some welding. Midlands Tech would supply the programs to teach the skills.  Those skilled workers can make upwards of $80,000 a year.

Nucor now has an ongoing program to keep its pipeline full.

Taking care of existing businesses is critical to any community’s economic health. Multiple studies have shown that the majority of jobs in any community are created by existing businesses. A report compiled by the Lowe Foundation’s Institute for Exceptional Growth Companies found that existing businesses generated 71% more new jobs than startups between 1990 and 2008.

“Coordinating existing and future business growth requirements,” is one of the goals of the Navigating from Good to Great Foundation. Under the direction of the foundation, the Columbia chamber approached the City of Columbia in 2008 about collaborating on Business in Motion, an existing business retention and expansion program.

More than 300 businesses across the region have been interviewed using a standard questionnaire. The city paid for a database that is used to analyze results of those interviews. City economic development employee Ryan Coleman helped develop the program and handles the interviewing and data input and analysis along with Mikula. But note that businesses don’t have to be located within the city limits to be interviewed and have their answers entered into the database.  Kudos to the city.

“From the beginning we saw the value of a regional approach to the BR&E program, a vital part of our economic development strategy. The Chamber has proven to be a fantastic partner with its access to businesses throughout the community,” said Jim Gambrell, director of economic development for the city.

Coleman and Mikula have been able to uncover problems at individual businesses, such as the workforce issue at Nucor, and help find solutions. But the database analysis has led to problem-solving on a larger scale.  Reports based on data gathered in 2008 and in 2009 showed significant concern with business services, i.e. zoning, permitting, licensing, inspections, etc., in both Columbia and Richland County.

The result of those reports was to establish a Business Services Review Task Force, comprising three members each from the city of Columbia, Richland County and the chamber of commerce.

The task force, which is chaired by David Brandes of Genesis Consulting Group, hopes to release recommendations in a couple of months that will focus on improving customer service, overhauling some procedures and changing some regulations. Recommendations will be for both the city and county and will be aimed at making it easier to do business within each jurisdiction.

While continuing interviews with many businesses, Coleman and Mikula have taken on some targeted projects.

A Business in Motion analysis of the Columbia area’s insurance technology and services industry revealed a regional industry with 12,000 jobs at an average yearly salary of $62,000. The study was undertaken at the behest of iTs|SC Columbia’s insurance technology and services cluster to gather hard data on an industry segment that anecdotally we’ve always believed was quite impactful. But until the Business in Motion study, iTs|SC had no hard data to back up that claim.

Recently, Business in Motion has undertaken a study of the nuclear industry. Within 15 years $40 billion will be invested in nuclear power generation within 100 miles of Columbia. With SCANA’s construction of two reactors in Jenkinsville and the Westinghouse nuclear fuel production facility in Richland County, the region has a significant nuclear base.

The care and feeding of existing business is indeed a critical piece of our economic development puzzle. Solving real problems for businesses in our region means those businesses are much more likely to stay here and to grow here.

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