Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. persistent in developing local economy

July 12, 2015

Yvette Hammett, Tampa Tribune
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Sleuths are at work in Hillsborough County, digging up information on out-of-state executives and their businesses.
Their goal: To entice top-paying companies to the shores of Tampa Bay.
Economic development guru Rick Homans leads the charge. Since 2012, Homans’ organization, the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., has attracted more than 10,100 new jobs to the county and more than $816.7 million in capital investment for new and existing businesses.
“The key is to keep that pipeline of jobs and capital investment flowing into our community,” said Homans, president and CEO of the EDC.
These days, at least part of Homans’ focus is on finding and luring a Fortune 500 headquarters here, lining up with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s $1 billion plan for downtown redevelopment.
Most of the EDC’s work — about 80 percent — involves expanding local businesses and retaining them. The other 20 percent involves recruiting, a daunting task that can take years to land a company. It’s not cheap. The EDC is a public-private partnership. This year, Hillsborough County will contribute $700,000 and the City of Tampa another $538,000 to fund the EDC. Private partners will add another $1.4 million.
In the early stages of recruiting a company, it’s all very hush-hush. But once the deals are done, when offices get furnished and new employees pour in, the trickle-down to the community can be huge.
“The first people it impacts are the real estate people, the brokers and land developers, then architects, contractors, vendors, those who sell food, even the bars,” said Mark House an executive with The Beck Group, a commercial, architectural and development firm that contributes to the EDC annually.
When corporations such as Citigroup, JP Morgan and Amazon roll into town, tax revenue increases, landscape companies prosper and other local businesses can even get a piece of the action, said Larry Richey, senior managing director and Florida market leader for Cushman & Wakefield commercial brokers.
“Winning those projects doesn’t just happen because we have nice weather, we live on the water and don’t have state income tax,” Richey said. “You’ve got to go out and win those projects by selling the Tampa Bay area.”
The EDC does that, which is why local businesses are willing to back it with investment dollars, he said. Beck and Cushman both contribute $25,000 annually to the EDC.
Finding a company that is the right fit for this area is the daunting part.
In its quest to lure a corporate headquarters here, Homans and his staff started with a list of 2,000 corporations.
“We started to look at which ones had any level of operations here in Tampa Bay and started to look at certain criteria like, has there been a merger or acquisition, has there been a change in executive leadership, has there been something that’s happened in their market that would prompt discussion about relocation.”
An example of that is the recent failed move by the Connecticut Legislature to increase business taxes by $1.2 billion over two years, prompting a major backlash from large businesses there. Aetna, Inc., General Electric Co. and Travelers Companies, Inc, all threatened to leave the state, which has one of the highest corporate income taxes in the country.
The EDC also looks at the top executives of a company and seeks out any possible connection — friendships, military service, family — they might have to this area. Did they attend college in Florida? Do any of them own a second home here?
The EDC’s list of 2,000 corporations narrowed to 350, mostly from the northeast, some from the Midwest, that match one or more criteria, which may include access to direct flights from their existing market to Tampa.
“We don’t want to waste time on a company that is rock solid with deep community roots,” said Homans, who gets a salary and bonuses totaling $275,000. “We look at whether there’s a high level of pain or a higher level of loyalty” to where they currently have a headquarters.
For downtown Tampa, it needs to be the right company, one that will become the signature brand for the area and lure other businesses in. Once that headquarters comes, Homans said, others will likely follow.
Sometimes, it is the company that finds Hillsborough County. In all cases, confidentiality plays a major role in the process.
In one instance recently, a site selection consultant — the person responsible for scouting new business locations — called to announce that a Fortune 500 company wanted to come for a visit.
“It was a high intensity visit and we pulled out all the stops,” Homans said. “We picked them up at the airport, had gifts waiting in their hotel rooms. We didn’t know who they were, what their real names were. They had narrowed the list down to four communities. We were one of them.
“We had a general description of the company. We didn’t know the industry, but we knew the type of jobs that they were looking for. With 500 to 1,000 employees, the last thing they want is a story in their hometown paper saying they are looking to relocate. All of a sudden all the employees are updating their resumes. They don’t want their competitors to know, either. And it could affect their stock if they are publicly traded.
“Our credo is confidentiality,” Homans said. “If we ever break that promise, we have destroyed our credibility as an organization.”
That deal is still alive, after the EDC treated the executive team to a dinner at the Tampa Museum of Art, catered by Mise en Place. During that event, community leaders stepped up to share what they love about doing business in and living in this area. The out-of-town entourage was impressed, Homans said.
“The fact that we can assemble all these people in one room is something that sets us apart from other companies,” he said. “The level of collaboration that exists here is unheard of in most communities and it is a strong selling point.”
The EDC’s role in expanding and retaining local companies has close ties to the area’s educational institutions, from the Hillsborough County school district to the University of Tampa, the University of South Florida, Hillsborough Community College and others.
“The educational connection is the No. 1 job we perform with companies to help connect them with a trained work force,” Homans said. “A great example is Citigroup and the anti-money laundering programs at USF. When we went to New York a few years ago and met with the CEO of North America for Citi, he told us ‘if you want to know where we will be hiring in the next three to five years, it’s in anti-money laundering.’ ”
The EDC worked with USF and the university now offers a bachelor’s degree in this field, with a master’s specialization. That translates to local students ready for the Tampa work force, he said.
Citigroup has its global hub for anti-money laundering in Tampa, along with more than 5,000 employees. The company employs workers in fields such as information technology, auditing, HR and risk management.
“We also have a true partnership with Career Source Tampa Bay and with Pinellas County’s economic development team, the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Tampa Bay Technology Forum” and others to make sure people here are trained to fill vacancies or new positions in businesses that establish here, he said.
On the recruitment side, the EDC attends a lot of conferences and other events around the country where business leaders gather. Homans’ group bid on and won the 2017 conference for the Industrial Asset Management Council, the premier gathering for manufacturing and distribution businesses.
Corporate decision makers will attend the conference at a time “when our skyline should look markedly different in the downtown and we should have a stronger story to tell,” Homans said.
The EDC also has an international focus, meant to grow both exports and imports. It works closely with the Pinellas County Economic Development Department on that focus.
“We have a strong, robust international program where we work hand in hand with the Hillsborough EDC on trade missions to connect our companies with the right people in those markets,” said Suzanne Christman, senior manager of business development for the Pinellas EDC’s county-run office.
In October, the Pinellas County team will join Hillsborough’s for a trade mission to Ontario. The two have also joined together for trips to Chile and Brazil, as well, and deals were made.
“We formed the Tampa Bay Export Alliance so we could work together on international deals,” Homans said. “Just to be average, we should double exports out of this market, which translates into thousands of jobs.” Marketing the area as a whole is more effective than marketing it as separate counties, he said.
In other ways, the Pinellas County operation is much different from Hillsborough’s, Christman said, “not only in land mass, but also in our focus. Pinellas County is primarily a built-out community. Our agency’s first mission is to retain our current employers and help them to find the tools and land they need to expand.”
Its program is a success, she said, noting that since 2012, the economic development department has attracted 6,997 jobs and helped pave the way for $436 million in capital investment.
Its focus is on retaining high wage jobs within targeted industries such as life sciences, medical device manufacturing and financial services, Christman said.
Since its formation five years ago when it split away from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the Tampa Hillsborough EDC has a long list of successful deals.
Hercules Fluid Power Group, a leading international distributor of hydraulic and pneumatic seals for heavy equipment, announced plans last month to open a new manufacturing and distribution center in Hillsborough County.
Just last week, Apollo Beach’s BlueGrace Logistics announced plans to expand its headquarters here and add 100 jobs.
In May, Ashley Furniture announced plans to open its e-commerce headquarters in Ybor City and immediately hire 100 new employees.
“We found everything we were looking for here: a rich supply of local e-commerce professionals, the perfect building to house our e-commerce headquarters as well as other retail operations, and the opportunity to contribute to the revitalization of Ybor City,” Ashley’s CEO, Todd Wanek said in an EDC press release.
The Ashley operation is expected to become a hub for thousands of employees who will come for training and stay at hotels, eating at local restaurants. Retailers and vendors will also come here to do business with Ashley.
Fitlife Foods, a local company specializing in healthy, fresh-prepared meals, announced in June that it is opening a commercial kitchen in Plant City and adding about 100 jobs. The EDC and Career Source Tampa Bay will help the company fill those slots.
“Those dollars come in in the form of salaries, benefits, capital investment and then get spent in this community,” Homans said. “This is where the multiplier effect comes in.”
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