Wednesday, December 16, 2015

JEFF'S TAKE: What's In an Area's Name?

Posted by: Jeff Rea, SJC Chamber, President and CEO on Wednesday, December 16, 2015 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

People in our region have strong feelings about the places they call home. And they have strong allegiances to their neighborhood, their school, and the city, town or county where they reside.

I think it’s a good thing for people to be tireless champions for their community. If everyone shared energy and passion for the places they live, this community would be a better place. If only we could convince everybody to be tireless champions for our region as well.

Recently, some of the media has been diving a little deeper into the Michiana area, the origins of the Michiana name, and whether the name is appropriate or whether we should be called something different.

What does the business community think? Take the organization I work for. Our primary focus is on the communities within St. Joseph County, which include South Bend, Mishawaka, Osceola, New Carlisle, Lakeville, Walkerton, North Liberty, Roseland, Indian Village and Granger.

But we also recognize that the customers who support our businesses in St. Joseph County don’t all live in St. Joseph County, nor do all of their employees come from our county. So we also support what happens in Elkhart, Goshen, Shipshewana, Nappanee, Middlebury, Wakarusa, Bristol, Plymouth, Culver, Bremen, Argos, LaPaz and Bourbon.

In addition, because they also are part of our region, what happens in Niles, Buchanan, St.Joseph, Benton Harbor, New Buffalo, Cassopolis, Dowagiac, Edwardsburg, Vandalia, Marcellus, Berrien Springs, Bridgman, Stevensville, Coloma, Lakeside, Grand Beach, Union Pier, Watervliet and Baroda also matters.

Those 40-plus communities fit together and form the pieces of the puzzle that are our regional economy. No two communities are alike, each offering a unique history and distinctive attributes. We celebrate that. The truth is our businesses and attractions rely on customers and employees who come from every corner of those 40-plus communities, and the five primary counties in our region (Berrien and Cass in Michigan; St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall in Indiana). More than 720,000 people live in those five counties.

Throughout the year, our staff is scattered across the country connecting with site selectors, real estate professionals, company decision makers, and visitors championing the advantages of visiting or doing business here in our region. Indiana has one of the top business climates in the country so those professionals have taken note of the opportunities here in the Hoosier state. Our job is to then help them understand the advantages of being here in our region.

One of the things our customers from outside the area recognize is the name South Bend because of its connection with the University of Notre Dame and because of the South Bend International Airport. Those at least help differentiate us from the 5,000 other communities across the United States that also are competing for the same jobs, capital investment and visitors. Because our customers recognize it, we’ve tried to use it to our advantage.

“Michiana” has worked well internally when describing our area and has given residents of the region a common name to rally around. Outside, our customers have had a harder time identifying with Michiana, because it’s not a real place and can’t be found on a map. Perhaps we have different messages for our internal and our external audiences?

Across the country, our competitors aren’t arguing internally about what the local/regional effort should be called, and instead have focused their time and energy on getting people there. My hope is that we can take a similar approach here.

Source: South Bend Tribune

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How Our Talent Competes Globally

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, November 25, 2015 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (0)

Over the years I’ve been curious as to how people found their way to the South Bend Region. Most came from other places in search of an employment opportunity. Companies such as Studebaker, Uniroyal, Oliver and Dodge sought skilled labor to man their factories and promised a better quality of life for those who were interested.

I’ve heard many a story of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and boarding a train that would bring them west to a new opportunity and a new life. We were historically a hotbed for talent attraction. A robust economy attracted immigrants from virtually every corner of the globe. Those immigrants ultimately planted roots here and many stayed and found regular and gainful employment for decades to follow. Their families followed suit.

But now, times have changed. Advances in technology mean fewer people are working in many of our legacy industries. People have left our area seeking employment elsewhere. Companies are now able to do business from anywhere in the world. People have become more mobile. The competition for top talent is stiffer than it’s ever been and to grow our local economy, winning that battle will be critical.

Indiana leaders have recognized the need to develop, attract and retain that top talent and that is an important element of the Indiana Regional Cities Program. Bold, creative and transformational ideas are essential to attract that next generation of talent. Our communities need to stand out and have some “wow” factor and they need to offer the types of amenities that attract the next generation of worker.

Our area has worked for more than a year on a plan that includes key projects in St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties and is aimed to help attract that talent. Our peers in six other parts of Indiana have taken similar action. Our plan has been well received by business leaders across the state and by mid-December, we’ll know whether state funding will be available to help jump-start key area projects.

An important part of our regional strategy relates to the more than 40,000 students enrolled in undergraduate programs at our local colleges and universities in our region. Retaining some of those students in our region is critical to our future economic growth.

Experts are telling us that quality of life and availability of talent will be the two most critical drivers for economic success. Sound a little familiar? My guess is that if we were to do like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” and hop in Doc Brown’s DeLorean to travel back in time, the Studebaker brothers might tell us a similar tale. For a while, companies like Studebaker and communities like the South Bend region won the battle for talent and were able to grow into one of the top automakers in the world.

But in recent years, we’ve lost more top young people than we’ve won. Young people instead have been attracted to bigger cities, which offer a wider variety of services, more entertainment options, more recreational opportunities, more opportunities for social interaction, and conveniences not often offered in smaller areas. And those young people need jobs.

Leaders in our area understand this and have worked to create and enhance spaces that are cool and unique. Young people are beginning to experience more of this and have been instrumental in helping create some of those spaces. Now we must unleash those young ambassadors to sell the merits of our region to their friends, classmates and social networks.

The work is just beginning. Together, our region can once again be a hotbed for talent attraction.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Now the Real Work Begins

Posted by: Jeff Rea, SJC Chamber President and CEO on Tuesday, November 10, 2015 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

Dear General Election Winners:

We want to congratulate you on your victory in last week’s municipal elections. Your hard work has paid off and the voters of your area have trusted you to best represent their interests and the interests of the community as a whole. It’s a pretty awesome responsibility, but we know you’re up to the task.

So now the real work begins. For new officials, you’ll be inundated with information about the jurisdiction you are representing. You’ll quickly digest that information in preparation for those tough decisions that lie ahead. For you veterans, your victory is affirmation of your previous work and you now are prepared to share your important insight with the “newbies.” Together, you’ll come together, regardless of your political persuasion, to serve the collective interests of the community.

It is our hope that your position will cause you to not only champion your own jurisdiction, but the region as a whole. We hope you recognize that your competition doesn’t come from our neighbors here in the region, but from regions elsewhere in Indiana, throughout the Midwest, across the Country and around the world.

Individually, it’s hard to tell our communities apart as they tend to look like thousands of other communities from all over the country.

Together, the communities in our area fit together like a puzzle, forming a picture of a growing region with a lot to offer potential investors and residents. Please help assemble your important puzzle piece.

We hope you remember the important impression you make about your community. People will make judgments about your jurisdiction based upon your actions and how you conduct your business. We understand you’ll engage in spirited debate and at times, we know you will vigorously disagree with others. In the end though, it’s important that your differences not harden into anger and that you remember those on the other side also have a valuable insight.

Some complicated days are ahead. There is great demand for the services your jurisdiction provides. The expectation exists for high quality and affordable services accompanied by great customer service. Shrinking revenues and swelling costs will challenge your ability to meet those demands. In fact, tough decisions await as to which of those services you will continue to be able to provide and which will fall victim to a budget cut.

The end of this coming term will mean the full implementation of property tax caps, taking millions of additional property tax dollars away from your annual budgets. Communities across the State have already faced a similar challenge and adjusted, with only Lake County and St. Joseph County delayed. The General Assembly gave those two counties ten additional years to brace for the impact, so it’s unrealistic to think any additional extensions will be possible.

New revenue sources won’t be popular. The general consensus is that we pay a lot in taxes already, and the property tax cap will only bring us level with every other community in Indiana. Some different thinking will be required. A close look at our local government system that was largely crafted in the 1800’s and remains relatively unchanged will be essential. Though minor cuts have occurred, they’ve only scratched the surface. Your leadership will be key here.

The business community looks forward to being your partner and stands ready to work closely with you in growing our community. Call upon us if we can be of assistance. Again, congratulations on your victory!

The Business Community

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Jeff's Take: A Look Back at History

Posted by: Jeff Rea, Chamber President and CEO on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at 12:00:00 am Comments (1)

The Chamber is in the process of moving offices. After 30 years at the Commerce Center on the East Race in South Bend, we’re moving across the river into another important, historical downtown building, the American Trust Place Building.

We’ll occupy our new space beginning Aug. 3.

Moving can be a chore. Imagine 30-plus years of accumulation all in one spot. We’ve collected a lot of stuff during that time. Add that to the valuables we had accumulated in our 70-plus years before in other locations and that adds up to more than 100 years of treasures.

Like many of us do in our homes and businesses, we hung on to things just in case we might need it again someday. We also had a great deal of historical information that helps paint the picture of what our communities looked like throughout the years. I’ve had a fun time looking back and a better understanding of some of the key issues our business and community leaders dealt with during their day. Some of the issues may surprise you.

Going back at least 75 years, business leaders seemed to have had great concern about finding quality workers to fill positions within their companies. It seemed that the workplace was changing with the advent of new technology and employers wondered whether the workers of the day had the skills necessary to help them compete. Sound familiar at all?

Transportation was a top priority. Leaders recognized the importance of a strong transportation network to help move goods, services and people, and they sought ways to fund necessary enhancements to the system. Imagine, those leaders being concerned about not enough resources to fix existing roads or build new ones. Another familiar theme.

The tax and regulatory climate was a key concern. There was great concern with our ability to compete with other markets both in and out of the state. At the same time, there was concern about having the necessary resources to meet the increasing demand for public services.

Communities were growing, which was putting great demand on our infrastructure as communities prepared for new growth. I think I’ve heard that one before.

Through the years, the issues of the day popped in and out of files. Everything from time zones to toll roads to taxes.

The late Harry Chapin penned a great song, “All My Life’s a Circle.” Harry might have been right. The issues of yesterday seem very similar to the issues today. Only the businesses and individuals have changed. And each has chosen to approach the issues of the day from a little bit different angle.

But are we making any progress? If we are moving again 30 years from now and reminiscing through our new accumulation of stuff, will our look back be eerily similar? Or will this be the era that changed it all. Will we have redefined our area? Will we have tackled some catalytic issues that helped propel our communities? Will we have put aside political and personal differences for the betterment of our region?

The communities that have thrived have done so because they had bold leaders in the public and private sectors. They weren’t afraid to try new things and tackle difficult or even controversial issues. And they found ways to inspire others to get on board. It’s up to each of us to decide how our future goes; we all play a role. We have an opportunity today to help right what the history books say about this era.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Our Community's Health

Posted by: Jeff Rea, Chamber President and CEO on Monday, May 18, 2015 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

Seven years ago I made the personal decision that I wanted to be healthier. Though I didn’t necessarily feel unhealthy, I, like many, had added a few pounds every year after college to the point where a routine health screening at work had Nurse Connie put me in the “obese” category.

I didn’t like those words, and made a conscious decision to not let my first heart attack be the thing that convinced me I need to be healthy. But I didn’t want to be on a “diet.” Instead, I changed my lifestyle, ate better and exercised. I didn’t try to lose it all at once, and I began a two year journey where I eventually lost about eighty pounds.

Though not excited to be the poster child for the fat guy that got skinny, my journey was very public and gave me many opportunities to share my experiences and the highlights and lowlights along the way. For me, my progress meant I felt better, I had more energy, I was more productive, I handled stress better, I even slept better. The community cheered me on and encouraged me along the way.

Interesting to think how I encountered Nurse Connie in the first place. At the time, like many CEOs, I was concerned about rising health costs in the company and what that was doing to the bottom line. Our health costs had skyrocketed and like many organizations, almost every new dollar was being eaten up by those increasing costs. That left little at the end of the day for other things like employee raises, new equipment or other key projects.

Truth was the only way to really help combat this issue long-term was to have a healthier workforce. So I thought why not do simple assessments for employees where they could better understand their current condition and maybe chart a new course for their own personal health and for that of their family. I had to lead by example and anxiously signed up for my assessment. I’m glad did, it’s what I needed to get me started.

Employee health costs have risen faster than virtually every other cost category for businesses. Businesses small and large have studied and implemented plans to help combat those rising costs. Any while cost is an important factor, it’s not the only consideration for business. Healthier employees have been found to be more productive, are absent less, have less stress, have a better attitude in addition to having less expenditures.

Other benefits include having employees with more energy which helps employees stay more focused when they are on the job. Healthy employees tend to have a higher level of self-confidence in themselves and inspires confidence in others around them. Employees, who set fitness goals and stay motivated to exercise also tend to be more goal-oriented at work.

Indiana traditionally hasn’t fared well when comparing health statistics with other states, usually ranking in the bottom ten. Smoking and obesity are two of those categories where we score the worst and studies indicate a high prevalence of physical inactivity as being a major contributing factor to our poor rankings.

For Indiana and our area to grow as we desire, we all have to make a conscious decision to be healthier. The health of our communities is being evaluated by people considering Indiana as it says a lot about our state, who we are, and what is important to us. Let’s change what the rest of the Country thinks of us.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Takeaways from Triangle Visit

Posted by: Jeff Rea, President and CEO, SJC Chamber on Tuesday, January 20, 2015 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

I had a chance last week to experience some great southern hospitality with a visit to the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area. I joined other business and community leaders from our area with the mission of meeting with key leaders in the area known as The Triangle to learn some best practices that have contributed to their success.

The Raleigh Chamber and the Durham Chamber served as gracious hosts. Both have great passion for their areas and have been key drivers to the economic success experienced in the region. They work closely together, and both were eager to share some insight into how they have gotten to where they are today, some of the key decisions the community made along the way, the leadership required to inspire change and the lessons they have learned.

Some may argue that our area/region is nothing like Raleigh-Durham and hence not the right place to study. I agree there are many differences, but I found as many similarities as I did differences and some key takeaways that I hope help us here in our pursuits.

First, I found many individual communities that have worked hard to grow their own areas, while at the same time touting a shared vision for the region. I did not know where Raleigh started or Durham ended, or when I was in Chapel Hill, Cary, Zebulon or Fuquay Varina. I just knew I was in the Triangle area and when I talked to individuals, they all “owned” and touted the benefits and amenities of the region in addition to their own community.

Imagine if South Bend, Mishawaka, Elkhart, Goshen, Plymouth, Warsaw and each of the other smaller communities thought and worked in a similar fashion. As a region we have wonderful assets. Individually we are limited.

I found a great deal of trust between the leaders of the different communities. Leaders first were worried about landing projects in the Triangle area and then about where it landed in the region. For example, leaders in the region meet at least monthly to share business leads, talk about opportunities and develop strategies to move the region forward. I didn’t see any time wasted fighting among the different jurisdictions over the trivial matters that often hold our region back.

I saw a region that placed a high priority on creating an environment for entrepreneurs to succeed. That environment encourages people to take risks and has a supportive environment that includes everything from counseling to space to financial support. The emphasis on quality of place and the physical features of a community that are attractive to young entrepreneurial types also was a real advantage.

I saw universities like Duke, UNC and NC State play an important role in the development of the community — from the things the students do to volunteer and support the community, to their role as a large employer, to the major investments the universities make in the area, to the research happening on campus that is growing out into real business opportunities in the region.

The high concentration of college students in the area makes it an attractive talent pool for potential employers.The Raleigh-Durham area has some wonderful things going on in their two downtowns as well as at NC State’s Centennial Campus, at the Research Triangle Park, at the former American Tobacco Warehouse, the American Underground and at many other locations in the region.

But we, too, have many wonderful assets to build upon here in our region. It’s up to us now to do what that area did to ensure future success. We must work together on a vision for this region and we must all “own” and champion the great assets available here. Our future depends upon it.