There are lots of people in the Salisbury economic arena who can see what’s going on. A few of these people even understand what makes the area tick business-wise.
There is only one figure who can see, understand and actually explain it all: Dr. Memo Diriker.
Dubbed by many as the “Business Guru of the Shore,” Diriker is the founding director of the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network, known by its appropriate acronym, BEACON.
The premier business and economic research, and consulting unit of the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business, BEACON is home to initiatives such as Community Visioning, ShoreTRENDS, GraySHORE, ShoreENERGY, GeoDASH, GNAppWorks and Bienvenidos.
Known for his use of “Scenario Analysis,” and in “Demographic, Business, and Economic Trend Forecasting,” Diriker advises a large number of private, public, and nonprofit sector organizations.
He is, in a sense, the chief of the region’s Think Tank.
In his unique role, Diriker has served as the principal investigator on numerous grants and sponsored research projects, totaling over $10 million in awards. Business leaders, politicians and fellow academics go to him for advice and insight on the local economy.
Uniquely, Diriker doesn’t confine his energy to the SU campus — he is heavily involved in the community, having served as a president of the Salisbury Sunrise Rotary Club. He is the current president of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce and the recipient of many honors and awards, including a University System of Maryland Board of Regents Award for Outstanding Public Service.
Q. How would you assess the overall economic conditions in the Salisbury community right now?
A. There is definitely a lot of good news on that front.
Salisbury has always enjoyed being the business and economic hub of the Lower Shore. Even with Ocean City’s domination of the tourism sector, Salisbury has been the support system to most, if not all, sectors of economic activity in our region.
It is thanks to Salisbury that, together with Wicomico County, the surrounding counties have been designated as a Metropolitan Statistical Area by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Throughout our MSA, we see new businesses being created, existing businesses expanding, and healthy profits being realized.
We are still a little bit behind in job creation and income growth and our real estate and construction sectors are not yet back to their high points of 2007. In the aggregate, we are doing better today than at any time in the past five years.
Q. What are the over-the-horizon prospects/projections?
A. On the Shore, we tend to be economic-cycle laggards. Recessions usually get here later and recoveries happen even later.
The last recession was an unfortunate exception.
It got here at the same time as everywhere else in the nation and it hit us bad. To make it a double whammy, the recovery is also taking its sweet time getting hold here.
That makes me a bit worried about the inevitable next recession. As good as we seem to be doing now, if the next recession comes sooner rather than later, and if it hits us just as fast and hard as the next one, the whole picture will change dramatically.
We have not yet had time to build sufficient resilience for a downturn. If we are spared for another year or two, we will have some of that resilience built in.
As I frequently state in my presentations, if “Nature” and “Nation” leave us alone for a while, we will be fine.
If, on the other hand, a bad hurricane or a bad snowstorm hits us, or if a national economic downturn pushes us into the maelstrom, we will suffer.
Q. What sort or business should local officials concentrate on encouraging?
A. I am a huge supporter of manufacturing. I am an even bigger supporter of being opportunistic.
Our economy in Wicomico County is nicely diversified. There is not a single economic activity sector that dominates our local economy.
This allows us to be very agile and flexible.
The current trends favor “brain” powered entrepreneurial endeavors being launched by very connected individuals who tend to fall into the age range of 25 to 50.
For our “brawn” powered ventures, the trends favor expansion and acceleration rather than new venture creation. These two categories of growth require two very distinct types of economic development support.
Fortunately for us, the state, the county, the city, the Chamber (of Commerce), and our educational and workforce development organizations are aligned like never before to work in harmony, towards a shared vision.
Q. There’s always a lot of discussion about the decline of manufacturing in this area. Has there been a decline?
A. The decline has been in the traditional manufacturing sectors. In today’s — more broadly defined — manufacturing sectors that include technology, pharmaceuticals, and food processing, the trend is in the other direction.
Science, technology, and new production techniques are feeding a newer and healthier manufacturing sector. The changes in supply chains and in workforce development mean that there are new and growing opportunities.
Q. Is the region’s business balance diversified in a way that ensures a likelihood of continued expansion and growth?
A. Yes and no.
In Wicomico County, as I mentioned earlier, there is a very nice balance that helps to protect the local economy from sectorial crises. In our beach areas, the domination of tourism is a boon in good times and a burden when weather or national economy reduces the number and the expenditures of visitors.
Similarly our agricultural sector in our rural areas is sensitive to changes in weather and in regulatory requirements.
Q. Tell me what BEACON does.
A. Imagine for a moment that the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University is a medical school instead of a business school. BEACON would be the clinic where students get to practice on real patients and where their professors get to conduct community-based research.
In a business school context, BEACON does the same thing. Our students, under the capable supervision of faculty and staff, work on client projects with fairly important amounts of money, risk, and opportunity at play.
Our clients rely on the business, economic, community, and workforce development research and consulting work done by the BEACON teams in making critical business decisions.
In addition, our faculty and staff conduct community-based research that business and public-policy decision makers in our region use for a very wide variety of policy and business decisions.
Our BEACON alumni find excellent jobs, frequently ahead of their competition from premier schools, and at higher starting levels of compensation. They go up the career ladder faster and tend to be more successful than their age peers.
Then, there is the fact that over 80 percent of the project fees paid by BEACON’s clients go to paying tuition for and stipends to our students.
To me, that is the icing on the cake.
Q. What would the community do if we didn’t have your community visioning ideas?
A. When we look at communities that are very successful elsewhere in our country, we see that a shared vision is the single most important common denominator.
Truly successful economic accomplishments rarely happen spontaneously. Opportunities can only be turned into success if an infrastructure is put in place to exploit those opportunities.
Building such infrastructure, whether they are hard, such as roadways and facilities or soft, such as workforce and software, takes time and a lot of resources. Without a common vision, the public policy decision-makers will not have the mandate to make such long-term plans and to commit the resources needed.
All we would have is a patchwork of less than perfect endeavors that come and go from our economic landscape without any lasting benefits.
Q. Do our local leaders seek your input routinely? Do they understand things in an academic way?
A. Yes they do. In fact, the input BEACON provides has a much larger footprint than our own back yard.
We have been sought out by decision makers in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, parts of the federal government in D.C., states as far apart as Wyoming, Oklahoma, and New York, as well as many counties and cities in our very own Maryland.
As for the language of BEACON, from our creation 26 years ago to this day, we served as a “Boundary Spanner” between the world of academe and the world of everyday business.
We benefit from the technology, knowledge, and know-how created by the very best mind in academe on our campus, and on many other universities, to do the community-based research and consulting work that benefits our clients. We understand the language of academe and we speak the language of our clients.
Most of the time, our clients are just as good as we are in understanding the language of academe but there are times when a little adaptation goes a long way. When those occasions arise, our BEACON teams are ready, willing, and able to connect the dots.
Q. What do your out-of-town students and researchers think of the Lower Shore business and governmental culture? Is there anything that routinely surprises them?
A. To many outsiders, the Lower Shore sometimes looks like a region with an identity crisis.
Are we rural or metropolitan? Are we agrarian or diversified? Are we rich or poor?
Do we seek a simpler life or are in pursuit of a more sophisticated lifestyle.
Well, the answer to each and every one of those and other similar questions is “YES!”
It is this polychromatic nature of our “Shore Life” that takes some of our out-of-town students and researchers by surprise.
Those who choose to embrace our diversity fall in love with all that is the Shore. Those who cannot wait to go back receive what we have to offer and become part of our greater network upon their return to their home environments.
We welcome and embrace both groups because we have much to learn from and much to give to each other, today, tomorrow, and long into the future.
Q. Tell me about your “Three Es” assessments (Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Evidence).
A. Anytime we embark on a venture, a project, a program, we have a starting point, a desired end point, and a limited amount of resources to get from one to the other.
The “Three Es” approach adds to the traditional measures of “Effectiveness” and “Efficiency” by adding a “Business Intelligence (BI)/Data Visualization” component that we term “Evidence.”
So, when we set out to assess the outcomes of any venture, project, or program, we use BI/Data Visualization to help provide the “Evidence” that we have reached or desired endpoint (“Effectiveness”) by using our limited resources in the best possible way (“Efficiency”).
And if we have not, the BI components of the “Evidence” show us what can be done to deal with any shortcomings.
In addition to being descriptive, the “Three Es” approach can be prescriptive as well. In other words, we can use it in the planning stages to help determine how best to get from point A to B, and for making course corrections during the journey, as needed.
Q. Your roots are in business, as opposed to academia. Tell me about your transition.
A. From a family business to Fortune 100 corporations and from engineering school to business school, my transition happened in a way that, looking back, seems pretty logical and well planned.
At the time, however, logic or planning had no role in what actually happened. Political disturbances in Turkey, my country of birth, closed down my engineering school for an extended period of time in 1976, prompting me to continue my studies in England and the U.S.
Also, a profound philosophical parting of ways with my Dad made me realize that we were better off as father and son than as colleagues in the family firm, which started me on the path to becoming a U.S. Citizen in 1990.
An incredible job offer made possible by the generosity of the Perdue Family in endowing the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business, and the opportunity to launch what today is BEACON, brought me to the Shore 26 years ago. My wife, Veronique, and I have now become a part of the fabric of our beloved Shore.
We might not be from here, but we know what a great gift we were afforded in being allowed to call the Shore our forever home.
Q. Maryland is often decried as not being business friendly. Is that true? What can be done to change that — or change the perception?
A. I am going to give another “yes and no” answer.
In Maryland, we have so many opportunities for business and economic development that sometimes we take them for granted. Yes, there are other states in our region with what seem to be better regulatory climates.
Yet, Maryland’s investments in business and economic development far surpass the investments of those other states.
When combined with our geographic location and the rich creation of technology, knowledge, and know-how for which our universities and federal labs are well-known, Maryland does not play second fiddle to anyone.
I also am pleased to note that many of our local counties, including Wicomico, Worcester, and Somerset, are heavily involved in improving the local business climate. Sometimes, we tend to forget to praise while we are busy complaining. I guess that is human nature.
But, fairness demands that we acknowledge the progress that has been made in the last five to ten years.
Q. Some years ago, you issued a report that there was an overabundance of retail space in Salisbury. Is that still the case? Is it a problem?
A. The retail landscape is clearly looking better these days than it did a few years back. There are still certain dark spots in different parts of our town, but even those are more gray than black.
The improving economy is clearly a help. If we are able to improve our job creation and income numbers, the retail sector will be even better.
My one concern is linked to what I discussed earlier about the threat of another downturn. I fear that if the inevitable downturn gets here before we build on those jobs and incomes, before we improve our resiliency, some of the improvement we have enjoyed will be lost.
Q. You’re the new president of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce. What do you hear about most from Chamber members? What are their concerns/problems?
A. At the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, we are committed to being of high relevance to our members and having a positive impact on our community.
Through our five divisions, over 30 networks spanning all of our local business economic activity sectors, we try to be in close contact with our members and with the community at large. We hold monthly luncheon meetings, economic forums and forecasts, legislative forums, and other events and surveys to get the pulse of the membership and the community.
Everything we do is based on what we glean from these contacts. Our members told us they wanted the Chamber to be a stronger advocate for the business community and to become more involved in public policy dialogs.
I am pleased to report that our Advocacy and Government Relations Division has done, and continues to do, exactly that. We were asked to help with the improvement of the local business development process.
Our Economic Development Action Team has worked with the state, county and city to do exactly that. We were asked to take a leadership position in creating a regional coalition of business organizations. Our Regional Economic Development team will be joining forces with the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce to host a summit of many chambers of commerce from our region in the very near future.
These are just three examples of what we are doing to meet the needs and wants of our business community.
Q. It seems like the Chamber has been through a bit of a renaissance, and is more of an important player in local issues. How has that happened?
A. What we are seeing today at the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce is the vision of several past-presidents and their boards bearing fruit.
These business leaders who are dedicated to improving the local business environment and our quality of life have been working diligently over the past few years to make the Chamber more relevant, more responsive, and more proactive.
They have listened to the wishes of the members, they have worked with other leaders throughout our community, and they have used the very best business practices to reinvent the Chamber as a 21st century business advocacy organization.
They developed the first truly Strategic Plan for the organization, they rewrote the bylaws, they updated the organizational structure and they have created an agile and highly responsive organization that is effective and efficient.
I am humbled to be following in the footsteps of these giants in our community.
Q. What makes for a good local Chamber?
A. In one word, Impact! The Chamber, through its leaders, has to know how to listen, how to respond, how to represent, how to plan, and how to build and sustain a vision.
For all this to happen in a cohesive and constructive way, the ultimate goal has to be to make a positive impact.
If the Chamber fails to make such a positive impact for and on behalf of its members, it risks becoming irrelevant. I am delighted that we were able to make great progress.
We, collectively, took an excellent organization and made it even better. The growing impact of the Chamber means more and better things will get done, in collaboration with all, by all, and for all, in and around Salisbury.
Q. What’s next for the Chamber? Where would you like to take it?
A. I am in a very fortunate position that the Chamber is at the mid-point a well-planned journey. I am surrounded by Council and Board members, Network chairs, and countless volunteers who are leading the Chamber in this journey.
We are making excellent progress with investing in our affiliated Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation under Past-President Brad Gillis’ leadership. We are delighted with the way our Young Professionals organization is bringing the next generation of leaders to our Chamber.
We are becoming a strong regional partner with our universities, local governments, and economic development organizations to enhance entrepreneurship and business expansion/acceleration on the Lower Shore. We are partnering with other chambers to create regional synergies.
Above all, I am delighted that we a strong group of leaders who are poised to take the Chamber into the future. With the strong and highly efficient staff we have under CEO Ernie Colburn’s leadership and with the vision of our next Board Chair Tony Nichols to guide us, we have a great future ahead of us.
Q. Talk about the progress/changes that you’ve seen in your time at Salisbury University.
A. As I start my 26th academic year at Salisbury University, I cannot help but feel a great sense of pride for all that my colleagues have accomplished over the years.
Today’s Salisbury University is truly a state-of-the art campus with outstanding schools and degree programs. Our students, our faculty, our staff, our facilities, and our technology enable us to compete at the highest levels.
The generosity of our donors and the investments of our state have transformed a small state school into a regional powerhouse.
We have so many signature programs that it is hard to pick one or two to highlight. From our MBA program to our medical simulation facilities; from our Perdue Museum to our Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, and from the success of our Lacrosse and Soccer teams to our evolving sports facilities, I have seen many good things happen.
Our music and theater performances, our fine arts exhibits, our outreach centers such as BEACON, ESRGC, MAY and PACE, have all made me proud to be a “Seagull!”
Q. We hear a lot about the local Brain Drain. Is it real? Can the community somehow change that?
A. This is a very real and harmful demographic phenomenon. We steadily lose some of our best and brightest young people to this phenomenon.
It is normal for a percentage of our young people to seek opportunities and experience elsewhere. If we are to build and sustain a healthy and resilient economy, we have to pursue two related goals to mitigate the negative effects of this phenomenon.
We must first make it attractive enough for our next generation to want to stay on the Shore. And, second, we must make it even more attractive for those who left to pursue educational or career opportunities to come back.
Both of these goals require the creation of well-defined career ladders with attractive income opportunities. The days of building a community’s future on “cheap labor” are over. We must invest in building an educated, trained, and trainable workforce.
We must build the social and economic foundations on which the younger members of our creative classes can build our future. This requires shared vision, collective investment, raised public awareness, and patience.
Q. A theme of these interviews is that Salisbury is on the brink of a renaissance, that could things are happening politically and primed to happen economically? Do you agree?
A. Yes! I have been a keen observer of the political and economic evolution of Salisbury for over a quarter century.
I can safely say that this is the first time I am seeing so many good things happening.
The business community, our educational institutions, our elected and appointed leaders, and our community-based organizations are more in harmony than ever before in the past 25 years.
There is more of a shared vision than has been the case in decades. But, the road in front of us has a fork.
The better option is to stay on the path that will allow us to build on what we have already accomplished. This will require us to concentrate on those things that we do well, and those vision elements that we share.
The other option is a path that I sincerely hope we will avoid. This is the path where we would focus on our differences.
This is the path where complaining and finger-pointing will be the norm. Unfortunately, this is also the path of least resistance.
It is so much easier to put the efforts of others down than joining forces with them to remove the obstacles in our way.
As an eternal optimist, I am betting that we will take the more difficult road that will eventually lead us to a better Salisbury, a better Wicomico, and a better Shore.
Q. You are a pretty sophisticated personality. You could probably live anywhere and practice your business and academic skills in any community. Why do you choose to live here?
A. Love! My wife and I came to the Shore 26 years ago for a career opportunity that we thought would keep us here for two or three years before moving on to the next opportunity.
During my first semester at the Perdue School, I met Frank Perdue at a reception he and Mitzi hosted for our students at their home. During our brief conversation he told me that If we gave the Shore a year, she would demand a lifetime from us and that we would be happy to give it.
He was right!
In that first year, we fell in love with the Shore and its wonderful people. Now, 25 years later, that love is stronger than ever.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org