Important now: Use your best assets to lure global companies to your region. If you don’t your competitors will steal them.
Why would a European toilet tissue manufacturer invest $400 million to build a plant in modest Circleville, Ohio, population 13,928? Because it was just the right spot—not at first a foregone conclusion. It involved a calculated, concerted effort by the region’s economic development team, One Columbus.
And the effort was well worth it.
Now Sofidel America, whose parent is headquartered in Porcari, Italy, will employ 700 people at full capacity in its 1.4 million square foot manufacturing plant that opened in October 2018. The company was lured to the county seat of Pickaway County because the city’s specific characteristics benefitted its operations.
Bringing more foreign-owned companies into its sphere has been a mission for One Columbus over the past 10 years. As the region’s economic development arm, it works in lockstep with 11 counties to make economic growth and globalization a reality (see related interview with CEO Kenny McDonald in CityRevive).
“Every year, 20 to 30 percent of our clients that decide to locate in the region are foreign owned companies,” says Deb Scherer, managing director of global trade and investment. “Anywhere between 25 to 45 percent of pipeline companies evaluating whether to locate here are foreign owned companies,” she adds.
Achieving that success rate involved a multi-faceted strategy which has evolved and been refined over the years. Now, over 302 foreign owned companies employing over 60,000 people have chosen the Columbus region as a location for their operations.
Grow Globally or Lose Out
For a midsized region, Columbus was earlier than most when it decided to pursue economic growth globally. Now city-regions of its size can’t afford not to.
“There used to be 60 global cities known as hubs of international finance and politics now there are 600 of those places—large and midsize—that are all competing for cross-border transactions in goods, services and capital,” says Marek Gootman, nonresident senior fellow for the Brookings Institute. He notes that roughly 40% of all global GDP is generated by these cross-border transactions.
“It’s important to engage internationally and for Columbus to not just be a large economic hub in the Midwest but one that is attractive beyond North America,” he says.
Rapid changes in urbanization, technology and innovation and the flexibility to locate are forcing midsized city-regions to compete for talent, commerce and investment. And it is a phenomenon that is spreading across the world. “Columbus, for example, ends up competing with Barcelona or locations in Oceana or China, instead of worrying about how they are positioned against Cleveland and Cincinnati,” says Gootman.
“If a city-region cannot effectively project its assets, then it is going to be less competitive and less able to take advantage of globalization versus being taken advantage of,” he says.
The Region’s True Self
One key element underpinning Columbus’ success is its avowal to “know thyself.” The region undertook a rigorous self-analysis to thoroughly understand its best assets, discover its true identity and determine how all of it could benefit companies in other parts of the world. It was a necessary process and is considered one of the most difficult but vital components of an effective global plan.
The process is challenging enough that the Brookings Institute issued a report on the matter—The Global Identity of Cities: Seven Steps to Build Reputation and Visibility for Competitiveness and Resilience (see figure 1 below).
The Brookings group, which specializes in helping metro areas develop global trade and investment plans, notes that the metropolitan areas with the most success globally are those with, “a combination of appealing identity, high standards, reputation, and global relevance in specific markets. To be heard, they project a unique, consistent, and authentic message that differentiates them from other cities,” according to the report.
But don’t confuse identity development with marketing and branding activities. “It’s about defining the special characteristics of a place and creating a consistent story across all those involved so there are no mixed messages,” explains Gootman. “There needs to be intentional communication about what you’re authentically representing and why this place is economically distinctive and attractive.”
The Columbus region possesses several unique characteristics that helped define its identity. It has an extensive network of colleges and universities, which continually contribute to a high-quality workforce. Its geographic location gives it the ability to reach a large percentage of the US population from its manufacturing base. The cost of doing business and cost of living is below the US average because there is no corporate income or property taxes.
Notably, understanding what a region has to offer is as important as understanding the core of the international companies being pursued. In the case of Sofidel, Scherer understood the needs of the company, the product lines they were producing, where their “pain points” were and how the Columbus region could benefit them.
For example, she knew transportation costs are a major factor for the companies in the industry. “It can be very expensive to transport to population centers with product that’s very light but bulky. We knew they would have a certain distance before they would incur costs that were too high from a transportation standpoint. We also knew this particular type of facility would generally be a large water user.”
Circleville became the clear answer. Geographically, it has the ability to reach large population areas cost effectively and the location of Sofidel’s plant is where two water aquifers are joined.
Perception versus Performance
In unearthing a region’s true identity, a determination needs to be made about whether actual performance is out of sync with perceptions of the outside world. “This is where you have the ability to influence an accurate view of what you as a region have to offer,” says Gootman.
For example, when San Diego wanted to emerge from the shadow of San Francisco and Los Angeles and become an entity of its own making, Gootman and his team initiated an evaluation of how they were perceived and whether it matched how they were performing. The region also recognized the need to transition from a visitor’s economy to a talent based one.
A large group of diversified stakeholders were assembled to identify the region’s distinctive qualities and differentiation in the marketplace. Unlike other regions, San Diego wanted to focus principally on retaining, expanding, and attracting talent versus boosting business activities and used that as a starting part, according to Gootman.
“They blended together what makes San Diego economically and historically and what it is mostly known for,” he says.
The culmination of those activities resulted in a focus principally on the life sciences, a distinction where San Diego is extraordinarily high performing but less known for.
Tips for An Effective Plan
After helping dozens of city-regions develop global plans, Gootman says there are several key elements in the approach and execution. He emphasizes the following:
For more information contact Amy Harman: firstname.lastname@example.org