The best economic development leaders are driven by a passion for people, not profit, says Ron Kitchens, CEO of Southwest Michigan First in our interview. For this regional economic development chief, place branding and economic development are much closer connected than some might think.
Ron serves as the chief executive officer of Southwest Michigan First, a cluster of privately funded economic development advisors who act as catalysts for economic growth.
- How economic development is connected to place branding;
- How jobs can be an attractive component in building a community;
- Why one of the best resources for success is having the right people;
- How to measure the success of economic development initiatives;
- His professional insights as CEO of Southwest Michigan First.
Ron, what made you realize that “the greatest force for change is a job”?
“The greatest force for change is a job” is my passion; it is what I have built my life around and I vividly remember a conversation that clarified it within me.
I began my career in business and had a very successful run. During my time in business, I was blessed with a banker that mentored me, on financial management, cash flow, accounting for future liabilities, the behind the board room door issues, and helped me plan growth strategies. Which are all great things; however, after what was supposed to be an accomplished day of acquiring another business unit he [the banker] looked at me and said, “Ron, you care more about jobs than you do about profit,” I thought “finally, he gets me.” He did not mean it as a compliment, and he went on to say “we need you to focus on the profit and hire fewer people.”
This is where the fundamental disconnect became apparent. I believed I was put here to grow as many jobs as possible, to employ people. I could not find happiness with profit being solely the bottom line; I needed a bottom line that brought a deeper impact to people. And clearly, it is what I am hard wired to achieve.
Why did you decide to co-found the Engage Conference? What is its mission?
I have always coveted groups and organizations, like the Young Presidents’ Organization, that build the capacity to learn from others and I needed that in my own life. If I could have invited 25 top professional into my living room, and was promised they would actually come, I would have done that.
The mission of Engage is to get a room full of brilliant people sharing stories, best practice and building one another up. The only way I am able to ensure this peer support network would happen is to help lead and create Engage.
You are the author of the best-selling book “Community Capitalism” What are the book’s main insights?
Community Capitalism is really the culmination of 20 years of my personal research. After looking through and finding what the best places were doing and what we are doing in Kalamazoo that corresponds to those best practices I wanted to find a way to share my findings.
This book gave me the opportunity to do just that. It is a resource for other communities to learn so we can build this critical mass of growing jobs and wealth, not just in our own cities but in our states, and ultimately our nation.
To your mind, how is economic development connected to the notion of place branding?
When we look at most places in the United States we have them at the top of mind because they either have an incredible landmark or economic vitality. When I say Yosemite, Grand Canyon, The Redwoods you know them by their environmental aspect. If I say New York City, Dallas, Las Vegas, you know them because of the strength of their economy. Those cities are known because of the jobs and wealth being created there.
The economic vitality of a city then creates a capacity in the system for great civic programs to move in, to bring in amazing people, for great churches and organizations to thrive; but before any of that can fall into place you must start with good jobs.
Without great jobs and a strong economy we simply cannot create place branding, we do not have the capacity or the resources. Economic development is the foundational element of place branding.
In your view, which is the best way to measure the success of economic development?
There are a lot of ways to measure the success of economic development, the easiest of all of those being jobs. But I am not convinced that it is the most accurate way, nor am I satisfied with that being the standard.
Here in Southwest Michigan we are at a time of statistical full employment. The breakdown of quantity of jobs being the sole measure of success can be seen in the handful of towns all across America that have full employment but no wealth.
We have to look at how much money people have in their pockets. Once you get people employed you have got to create a system that strives for better, higher skill, higher wage jobs.
Our goal should be to create wealth and jobs. Wealth is different, wealth changes the way of life for people. It gives them decision making power. It gives them a sustained today, but it also gives a future.
Which are your key insights so far as CEO of Southwest Michigan First?
One insight that is often overlooked yet pertinent to great leadership, which I have gained here at Southwest Michigan First, is that the most tremendous resource is the right people. Anybody who doesn’t believe this is a fool.
The team we have today at Southwest Michigan First is exactly the team we need for the times we are in. We built a team around what we have to accomplish and we focus on the work we are doing.
My job as a leader is fairly simple: ensure that we bring on amazing people, ensure we spend time investing in amazing people, and ensure we provide the resources those amazing people need to do their best work. If I can do this well while clearly communicating our organizations mission and vision the rest will take care of itself.
Jim Collins said, “If you put all the right people on the bus, they’ll decide where it’s going to go.” I truly believe this but I like to take it a little bit further. As a leader, you have got to make sure you are taking care of the people on the bus and maintaining the bus to keep each part getting the correct resources to produce their greatest work.
Thank you, Ron.
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