After Pandemic Pause, CT Powers Up Biz Recruiting Machine
From the Hartford Business Journal
David Griggs, CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, which is focused on retention and recruitment in Greater Hartford, said his group’s coordination with DECD and AdvanceCT since last year has been “hand in glove. We communicate on a regular basis, we coordinate our efforts and messaging,” Griggs said. “We are all out trying to do the same things, just at different levels.”
Recruiting companies to Connecticut with the help of private-sector ambassadors was a key piece of Gov. Ned Lamont’s economic strategy when he took office in 2019.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new and unforeseen challenges to that effort.
Heightened uncertainty about the future has delayed or canceled many companies’ relocation and investment decisions, and traveling to meet with company executives or tour properties has largely been put on hold. Meanwhile, taxpayer-funded manpower normally dedicated to recruiting efforts was diverted during the spring to help respond to the unfolding pandemic.
However, as COVID-19 vaccines start rolling out in a matter of days and Connecticut inches closer to what many hope will be a post-pandemic world, the state’s recruitment and business development machinery has been freshly oiled and is back in service.
That’s according to Peter Denious, CEO of AdvanceCT, which under Lamont’s direction last year was restructured, infused with industry leaders and given an expanded relationship with the state’s economic development agency, the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).
“We are back at it,” Denious told HBJ in an interview this month. “We are laser-focused on taking the assets we have and being super aggressive, in partnership with DECD, on helping businesses that are here to grow and expand, and recruiting new businesses.”
While the pandemic has required constant attention and hurt business-development efforts, Lamont said in a recent interview that outside recruiting with the help of AdvanceCT — a group he called “an enormous plus” for the state — remains a key piece of his strategy.
“We had a lot of momentum before COVID, we had a number of companies that were ready to go,” Lamont said. “As you can imagine, a lot of things are on pause right now but we’re getting knocks on the door again.”
With an influx of new residents into Connecticut from places like New York City over the past six months, Lamont, Denious and others are all hoping some businesses will soon follow suit.
While Connecticut and many states have long sought to draw new corporate blood, Denious said the current approach is akin to a more targeted rifle shot, deliberately aiming for prospects seen as having higher odds of expanding or moving here, whether due to customer relationships, workforce needs or industry affiliations. By tapping local companies for advice on potential prospects, the state is trying to avoid a less precise approach of “throwing spaghetti at the wall outside the state,” Denious said.
“We’re trying to turbocharge what the state was doing and is doing and essentially be an extension of DECD,” he said.
Lamont has long said he wants to reduce up-front grants and costly incentives to lure companies to the state, and his position has not changed during the pandemic.
DECD Commissioner David Lehman said the administration during the 2021 legislative session plans to push for various reforms to the state’s economic incentive programs that will move toward a pay-as-you-go system, meaning employers won’t reap state incentives until they create a certain number of new jobs.
“I thought for the last 10 years that we relied too much on incentives, just almost trying to bribe people to come to Connecticut instead of leading with our strengths,” Lamont said.
Last year, AdvanceCT, then known as the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, struck a deal with the Lamont administration to reconstitute its board of directors, installing the former CEOs of Webster Bank and PepsiCo as co-chairs, and hiring Denious, a longtime private equity and venture capital executive, as CEO.
Headed into 2020, the organization had been gaining steam.
It was helping the state prepare a long-term economic strategy that had been set for publication this past spring (but is now on hold due to the pandemic), it announced its new name and brand in February, and was also involved in talks with Indian technology and outsourcing firm HCL, which ultimately decided to establish a new Hartford office to serve area manufacturing clients like Stanley Black & Decker.
Daily corporate recruiting efforts quickly came to a halt in March, as AdvanceCT was called on to gather intel and input from Connecticut employers to help inform the Lamont administration’s response to the unfolding coronavirus crisis, Denious said.
“For three months we were basically pencils down on our day job, so there was nothing really happening on the recruitment side,” he said.
AdvanceCT also played a key role in a reopening advisory group Lamont formed in the spring, led by board co-chair Indra Nooyi (the former Pepsi CEO) and Yale epidemiologist Dr. Albert Ko.
Back to business
As Lamont began to allow more businesses to reopen or expand capacity over the summer, AdvanceCT started to transition back toward its core mission: creating jobs and capital investment through high-impact economic development.
Denious said the daily work of talking to companies and prospects both near and far is crucial to filling the state’s deal funnel, and he believes some of those prospects are going to become wins down the road.
“We have metrics that are focused less on the results and more on the actions that lead to the results,” he said. “It’s eyes and ears, it’s conversations, it’s relationships.”
Getting a final decision from a recruiting prospect can take months, Denious said, and those timelines have only been stretched further by the uncertainties of 2020.
He said AdvanceCT and DECD are currently in talks with a handful of small and mid-sized companies from other states that he is convinced will lead to announced expansions or moves in 2021. He wouldn’t disclose any names.
“We have a pipeline of opportunities that run the gamut,” he said.
Keeping in close contact with local industry is a crucial piece of the strategy. AdvanceCT can help businesses troubleshoot problems and convey them to state officials.
“In return, can they help us think about that supply chain?” Denious said. “It’s sort of a two-way conversation. ‘How can we help you, and by the way, are there any companies you think could be here in the state?’ ”
David Griggs, CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, which is focused on retention and recruitment in Greater Hartford, said his group’s coordination with DECD and AdvanceCT since last year has been “hand in glove.”
“We communicate on a regular basis, we coordinate our efforts and messaging,” Griggs said. “We are all out trying to do the same things, just at different levels.”
Though sometimes people assume the Alliance and AdvanceCT are competitors, Griggs said states that have state-level and regional-level business development entities complementing each other tend to have greater success.
“In a dysfunctional setting, there would be competition,” Griggs said. “I’m very happy to say we don’t have a dysfunctional setting.”
With 2020 nearly in the rearview mirror, Griggs, too, is confident that the state’s recruiting prospect pipeline will bear some fruit in the year ahead.
Setting the table for 2021
Since the summer, AdvanceCT has hired or promoted 11 people and is preparing to roll out new initiatives.
The new hires include business development specialists, each with expertise in specific economic sectors seen as crucial to the state, such as advanced manufacturing, aerospace and defense, and life sciences. A sector leader for IT and software will be hired soon, Denious said.
His team is also working with the MetroHartford Alliance to launch a talent-recruitment program in conjunction with area business partners.
Denious has made other changes not necessarily related to the pandemic. For example, AdvanceCT has nixed its long-running Connecticut consumer confidence surveys, which had begun to reveal increasingly negative sentiments last year.
Denious said that change was more about further shifting AdvanceCT’s focus toward business. He noted that AdvanceCT has helped DECD conduct two small business surveys during the pandemic.
“That’s more in our sweet spot, I think,” he said.