Q&A with Steve Johnson, CEO of the St. Louis Regional Economic Development Alliance
IBJ: Seems like you’ve come full circle, returning to help the St. Louis Regional Chamber, but in a different role.
Johnson: A lot of people say that, but it’s a new organization, affiliated with the chamber, and an independent organization with a board of directors that I will report to.
IBJ: What’s the focus of the alliance going to be?
Johnson: We are going to focus very strongly on marketing and business attraction. And business expansion as needed. I describe this as a purpose-built organization, and our purpose is to market the St. Louis metropolitan area and win competitive business investment.
IBJ: What will be some of your first challenges?
Johnson: We’re going to have our first board meeting (in April). Four weeks after coming on board, we’ll get everything formalized and organized. I just stepped out of a meeting in which we are trying to coordinate with community partners all over the region on a presence we’ll have at a big industry event several months from now. We’re hitting the ground running.
IBJ: I noticed your board is made up of some pretty prominent people on both sides of the river. That’s going to come in handy.
Johnson: One of the reasons I took this job was the strength of that board and the commitment of the business community.
IBJ: So, you can see what you’re doing being an advantage to development on both sides of the river?
Johnson: Absolutely. Just last week our senior vice president was up in Chicago with economic developers from Southern Illinois doing an event for about 15 to 20 site-selection consultants and foreign trade associations, just trying to tell the Southern Illinois story.
IBJ: I imagine making a pitch is going to become a regular thing for you. What’s that pitch going to be?
Johnson: I’m still working on it. For the last four years, I was working on a Missouri pitch (for the Missouri Partnership). And that’s almost not the right question. The pitch is going to be different based on every company you visit with. Their needs are different. Every industry is different. We won’t have a dog and pony show. We’ll try to understand what your business or your client’s business is all about.
IBJ: What about types of industries? What do you think we are ripe for?
Johnson: I am excited to start looking at opportunities for manufacturing, logistics and distribution. The Illinois side of the metro has world-class transportation logistics — big, big sites, some of them rail served. Those are hard to find. You market the heck out of those.
For the metro as a whole, probably no surprises, but you look at where the St. Louis area has world-class assets — ag tech, life sciences, financial services.
IBJ: Kind of following the direction of what’s been happening the last 20 years or so?
Johnson: Yeah, sell what you’ve got. And, there’s a lot of change going on. The whole issue of the National Geospatial- (Intelligence Agency) project is an industry that over the next decade or so could help redefine the St. Louis area. The same with cybersecurity, which is so strong at Scott Air Force Base. I think we haven’t begun to realize the potential of some of those industries.
IBJ: Tell us about the budget you’re working with and the infrastructure of the alliance, how it’s all set up.
Johnson: We were established as an independent subsidiary of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and the reason for doing it that way is we take advantage of what I call the architecture of the chamber. We don’t have to find office space, and we have shared services agreements for accounting, HR, payroll and that sort of thing. Rather than spend time and money trying to recreate all that like a true startup, we just have agreements with the Chamber. That allows you to hit the ground running, even faster.
I inherited a team, counting myself, of seven. So, the economic development team plus the two researchers that were at the chamber as of March 1 became employees of the St. Louis Regional Economic Development Alliance. Most of those folks I worked with when I was at the chamber four or five years ago. We anticipate building our team up to about 15 people over the next year. We’ll have a working budget of over $4 million, which is a very competitive budget to do what we need to do. (It is financed by regional business leaders).
At the Missouri Partnership, we were a 14-person organization and had a budget of just over $3 million.
IBJ: Economic development has always been a goal of this region. What are you bringing to the table that’s different than what’s been done before?
Johnson: I think we will have the capacity and the ability and the resources to tell the story of the 15-county area in a bigger, bolder, broader way than we ever had before.
This is a way for us to create more opportunity for the entire metropolitan area. Economic development site selection is a ruthless process of elimination. You get into the top end of the funnel and it’s a winnowing process, companies looking for any reason to cross you off the list until they get down to three, four or five finalists. That’s when you really start competing for a project.
IBJ: Just look what happened with the defense mapping project and the Amazon headquarters … .
Johnson: The Amazon process, thank goodness, was a real anomaly. Not many take that kind of approach to the process.
IBJ: It might it be somewhat easier if you have a strategy group like yours in place.
Johnson: Yes, and we will be working with all of our regional partners to come to an agreement. It basically exists now, but just to codify how we’ll do business and what we expect from each other. Kind of smooth out the process. Take friction out of the process. You’ve got to make it easy for the client to explore all the opportunities that can meet their needs. They start picking up on it if they sense tension among the players. It’s a reason for them to cross you off their list.
IBJ: Who do you see as your regional partners?
Johnson: All the economic development professionals in the 15-county bistate area, including the state economic development organizations.
IBJ: Tell us what you’ve been doing the last several years.
Johnson: It’s hard to admit this because I think my official bio says “for more than 30 years …”
I’d say that for 35 years this is what I’ve been doing — leading business attraction efforts. I started in my hometown of Jefferson City with the Chamber of Commerce there. I spent about five years in Mobile, Ala. Then, I spent 11 years leading the business attraction team for the Kansas City Development Council, an organization very similar to what we just started with the Alliance. Then I spent 11 years working the business attraction team at what we used to call the RCGA (now the Regional Chamber). Then, I spent one month shy of four years, leading the Missouri Partnership, which is a public-private economic development partnership that does all the business attraction for the state of Missouri.
IBJ: What is your town of residence these days?
Johnson: We now live in Chesterfield (Mo.)
IBJ: Did you have any successes in your career that people would recognize?
Johnson: I’m hesitant to call them ‘my’ successes, but ones that I’ve been part of included a big Harley-Davidson project, and a TransAmerica project where we relocated about 600 people from L.A. to Kansas City. And we were real involved with what is now Wells Fargo Advisors, moving them from North Carolina to St. Louis. Those are some that come to mind.