Businesses need to collaborate, CEO says

Grow your own.

That’s the idea behind economic gardening, a more innovative approach to economic development that’s being pushed in Florida.

With $10 million in state dollars dedicated to a pilot program to grow the concept, the Economic Development Council of Collier County is looking to make it a bigger focus in its effort to create jobs and diversify the local economy.

At the EDC’s annual meeting Thursday, Steve Quello, an economic development consultant and president and CEO of Nexus near Orlando, explained economic gardening and how it can help a community.

“These are tough times and economic gardening is more than just a catch phrase,” he said.

Economic gardening is targeted at entrepreneurs whose companies are in the “second stage,” with prospects for growth. Their companies aren’t start-ups or small businesses. So they often fall through the cracks, finding it difficult to get the same kind of assistance from local economic development offices or through state programs.

“It’s very lonely at the top, especially at the second stage,” Quello said. “The second stage is typically unrecognized and underserved.”

These growth-oriented companies have different needs than companies that are just getting started. Their focus is no longer just on survival.

“The needs are always greater and the risks are always greater,” Quello said.

He’s hopeful that Florida will develop one of the best statewide programs for economic gardening and it will become a model for others around the country.

“Hopes are high. But it’s still a pilot. We have to be patient,” Quello said.

He describes second stage companies as those with 10 to 99 employees and revenues of $1 million to $50 million. Nationally, 10 to 12 percent of all companies fall into this category, providing 35 percent of the jobs in the country.

“The takeaway from this should be this is a different way of looking at the economy and the numbers can be quite compelling,” Quello said.

He encouraged the nearly 100 local leaders gathered for the meeting a the Hilton Naples to collaborate with as many people as possible to meet the needs of the chief executives of these growth companies. He said local leaders need to target the right companies, find the right tools to help them and give them immediate treatment by responding quickly to their needs.

Quello shared the story about Littleton, Colo., a small town in the Denver area that has used economic gardening to nurture its entrepreneurs. In 1989, the area stopped offering incentives to attract new companies. The focus turned from hunting for new businesses to helping businesses grow in its own backyard.

The town spent four years “stumbling” before identifying practices that worked, Quello said. Other areas can learn “on their nickel,” he said.

He pointed to the statistics that demonstrate the town’s success. From 1990-2005, employment grew by 21.4 percent in the U.S. In Colorado, it increased by 47.2 percent. In Denver it was up 64.2 percent and in Littleton it rose 135.3 percent.

He discussed how economic development leaders in Littleton helped Novus Biologicals grow from five to 15 employees and reach new markets. The company sells antibodies to biological researchers.

Economic development officials taught Novus how to use Twitter to develop new relationships and promote sales. With their help, the company was able to open an office in England.

Quello suggested ways to get economic gardening going in Collier County. He said there needs to be CEO peer groups and mentors so they can help each other.

He said one of the first steps is to identify the companies that need help. There should be an inventory taken of growth-oriented businesses, Quello said.

“Find them. Serve them. Keep them,” he said.

He suggested that a steering committee be created to lead economic gardening efforts. The Economic Development Council is doing that.

Quello also encouraged the council to collaborate with other economic development groups in Southwest Florida.

Theo Etzel, the CEO and owner of Conditioned Air of Naples, came out of the audience to tell his story. His company is just the type that’s targeted for economic gardening.

Etzel said his company might not be glamorous or high-tech, but it is a needed business. It’s one of the largest air conditioning contracting and service firms in the area with more than $17 million in annual sales and more than 100 employees. When Etzel took it over in 1993, it had sales of $2.7 million.

Etzel found his own private CEO mentoring groups, which have been a great help in fostering his growth, he said. It has helped him “short cut” his decision-making. But it was tough going when he didn’t have the support of others in his same shoes.

“I know I banged my head on the wall every so often,” he said.

If he could have found help sooner through an economic gardening program, it could have maybe saved his forehead a little bit, he said.

Some might ask, ‘Why help a company that is already successful get more successful?’” Quello said the answer is simple.

“A job is the best social program you can have, especially in this economy.”

The pilot program approved by state legislators will provide $8.5 million in loans and $1.5 million in technical assistance to growth companies in Florida. Florida First Capital Finance Corp. has been chosen as an administrator for the loan program.

Low-interest loans up to $250,000 will be available.

The economic gardening program is expected to kick off soon. Collier’s Economic Development Council wants to be ready. “As far as gardening, it’s an important element and thrust for the coming year,” said Bill O’Neill, the council’s chairman.

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