From Black Hats and Tails to Best in Business

EDCUtah url 516 206In 2017, EDCUtah will celebrate its 30th anniversary. Working up to that event, the organization is completing a historical review of the key people and events that helped shape the organization from its beginning to the present. This feature story looks back at EDCUtah during the period when Michael Lawson led the organization as its CEO.

When Michael Lawson first got into the economic development business there were only about 2,500 economic development organizations across the country and most of them were private entities associated with local chambers of commerce. That model was about to change just as Lawson became EDCUtah’s CEO in the early 90s.

“Every industry has its break points,” he reflects, “and the economic development industry was experiencing its break point about the time I became EDCUtah’s CEO.”

The break point he refers to was a movement away from private economic development organizations to public-private regional and statewide organizations. What’s more, the industry was transitioning away from reactive economic development, placing greater emphasis on targeting and analysis work that hadn’t been done in the past. Such was the state of EDCUtah when Lawson took the helm: a newly formed, state-wide public-private economic development organization that had transitioned out of its roots in the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. One that was positioning itself to shape Utah’s business landscape through targeted, proactive recruitment and retention efforts.

It was an exciting time, says Lawson, but not necessarily an easy one for economic development. On the larger scale, the country was just recovering from an economic slump that began in 1990. Recovering from the slump created a sense of urgency and focus. Meanwhile, the vision of one public-private economic development organization in Utah had been welcomed verbally in many cases, but not necessarily financially. Investors had joined from both the public and private sectors and the funding model was in place. Nonetheless, most of the financial and support was coming from the Salt Lake and Utah County areas.

“A lot of commitments had been made, but many hadn’t been funded,” Lawson reflects. “That actually turned out to be a really positive thing because I got to work with a number of public and private sector leaders who went beyond the bounds of what you would expect from a volunteer leadership team. They conducted a massive effort to recruit additional financial support and helped put EDCUtah on solid financial footing.”

Early on, it would have been easy to say EDCUtah was a Salt Lake County/Utah County organization, he explains. Or, the EDCUtah board of directors could have made it a Wasatch Front organization. “Based upon the financial support they could have defined it a number of ways, but the board chose to continue the original vision and make it a statewide organization. That was a wise decision, but not the easiest to make at the time,” he says.

Lawson calls out the names of a number of public and private sector leaders who committed “an enormous amount of time” to recruit organizations and funding. Public sector leaders like Salt Lake County Commissioner Jim Bradley, Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan, Murray Mayor Lynn Pett, and private sector leaders like Dick Kieffer, Don Cash, Lou Callister, Harris Simmons and Max Farbman, among others.

“They worked tirelessly then and continue to make the same type of efforts today,” says Lawson. “The cool thing about the leaders that helped get EDCUtah established lies in the fact that they were never self-serving. Rarely was there a situation where someone said, ‘It’s about me; I want to be EDCUtah’s banker, or lawyer, or whatever.’ This was so vastly different than so many other economic development organizations.”

Lawson describes EDCUtah’s focus on job creation as “extraordinarily myopic” during his tenure. “We did nothing but recruit new companies to the marketplace and help existing businesses to expand,” he says. “There had to be a job involved with about every effort we focused on and they had to be long-term and ongoing.”

To that end, EDCUtah began doing things that its competitors weren’t. First was a campaigning effort that involved national and international recruitment and image enhancement. For the latter, EDCUtah contracted with a national firm to assist with image development, especially for major markets like New York, Los Angeles and Baltimore. “At the time people were saying, ‘Where the heck is Utah? Don’t you have black hats and tails?'” Lawson reflects. “Now, if you look at all of the work that has been done, Utah hardly misses a year when it isn’t in the top five on a half a dozen or more national business-related rankings. Utah is recognized for being a strongly run state.”

The national recruitment program was tied to a targeting program similar to what other economic development organizations were doing, but Lawson says EDCUtah took the effort a step further. Using an economic analysis developed from the governor’s office, EDCUtah worked with out-of-state consultants to identify areas of the country where the organization was more likely to find economic development success. Next, EDCUtah wrote white papers so that when economic developers called on businesses in those areas, EDCUtah could provide an analysis demonstrating why it made sense for the business to locate in Utah and why the industry would prosper here.

During Lawson’s tenure EDCUtah also began site location events, working to develop relationships with the site consultants that are so integral to large economic development projects. Chris Roybal, Lawson’s second in command, developed the initial draft of a location impact analysis. “We were the only organization to do so at the time,” says Lawson. “With the analysis, we were able to show site consultants a comparison of the operating costs in our market verses locations like Phoenix, Austin or Albuquerque – where ever the competition was.”

EDCUtah also did national benchmarking, working with economic development leaders from other top programs in the country to leverage best practices and industry knowledge; picking programs that were not competing with Utah, of course.

Lawson is quick to point out that nothing ever works without good people and the EDCUtah team during his tenure, like the team today, was completely dedicated to furthering Utah’s economy. He reflects on the contributions of people like Alan Rindlisbacher, who had just left the organization when Lawson arrived; Nancy Ainger, who served in marketing and operations; Chris Roybal, who led the business recruitment effort; John Hiskey, who ran the existing business program; and Tammy Kikuchi, who led the marketing and imaging campaigns.

Lawson had a goal to help grow economic development organizations in a variety of locations across the country and this passion led him from EDCUtah in 2000 to an opportunity in Indiana. After more than two decades in the industry he returned to Utah, heading up the corporate real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield | Commerce (CWC), which he grew from 50 employees to 275 over 13 years. Today, Lawson is enjoying some well-deserved “time off” with his wife. He took a time out during a recent mountain biking trip in Arizona to say that EDCUtah was and is today the strongest regional or statewide public-private economic development organization he’s experienced. In fact, in his 25 years of economic development work, Lawson says he can’t think of another organization that has received the same kind of support and commitment that EDCUtah has enjoyed. Of course, there are other great economic development organizations, but none that have enjoyed the collaboration and cooperation that EDCUtah is accustomed to, he continues.

“My time at EDCUtah was amazing and exciting. I feel fortunate to have been a part of EDCUtah, first as a CEO of the organization, and then as a private sector investor,” he says.