Dave Ryan: Creating an environment where people want to live helps business

Tony Weeg Photos

Tony Weeg Photos

During the fall election, adding jobs to the local economy and spurring economic development were themes hammered by candidate Bob Culver.

Now, three months later, County Executive Bob Culver gets to show voters how he’ll do that. The man most in position to help him: Dave Ryan.

Since 1967, Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development has worked to strengthen our local economy through the preservation and creation of productive employment opportunities. The group was born in a crisis: Chris Craft Corp. announced in the late 1960s that it was closing its Moss Hill Lane manufacturing plant, eliminating hundreds of industrial jobs.

In response, business and governmental leaders created SWED. It’s mission was to retain big employers, seek new business and grow resident businesses with long-term potential.

Economies and markets are fluid and therefore, the attraction of new firms and industries are a vital part of our initiatives. New and diverse businesses mitigate adverse effects of economic downturns, reduce a community’s reliance on just a few firms, increase the taxable base and add jobs. The indirect benefits of new industry are perhaps as great as the direct benefits.

In both retention and attraction endeavors, SWED targets those industries whose activities result in the importation of dollars to our community. SWED is pleased to work with all businesses and numerous partners to enhance our economic base and vitality.

From Grumman to Cadista to Labinal Power Systems to Chesapeake Shipbuilding, SWED has played a crucial role in drawing the big employers and weathering their departures.

The current test is Labinal’s exit to Texas and what might replace that top employer in the Glenn Avenue facility.

Ryan succeeded Bob Kiley in the SWED director’s post in 1993. The two men couldn’t be more different: Kiley was a showman, a public personality, the consummate salesman and hawker of all things Wicomico. His style fit a time when no one off the Shore had ever even heard of Wicomico County.

Leery of the spotlight, Ryan — a Salisbury native known locally for his competitive tennis-playing prowess — prefers his product do the selling. His style fits in an economic era where retention is even more important attraction.

Q. Tell us about SWED.

A. SWED is a public private partnership created in 1968.

We’re a relatively small organization but are fortunate to have numerous partners in both public and private sectors at local, state and national levels.

Our goal is the attraction and preservation of jobs and investment in our community.

Q. Luring new businesses used to be the core of your job, but now retention is also something you have to devote a great deal of time to tending.

A. Yes and I can appreciate that observation especially given recent circumstances and the economic environment in which we’ve operated in recent years.

That being said, attraction or retention and expansion of local industry are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

We’re out every day visiting firms and trying to uncover needs, welcome a new plant manager to the area, or offer services to help with the stability or growth of a company.

Retention is important as most new jobs next year will originate from businesses already here and some of the best leads for new businesses stem from our existing base.

For example, in the early 1990s, we saw a rather drastic reduction in Defense spending by our nation that impacted various manufacturers locally.

But out of that came opportunity with new microwave or wireless component operations targeting commercial customers in addition to defense contractors.

Or, consider the enormous direct contribution and the numerous spin-offs from Perdue Farms’ founding in 1920.

So I believe the priority is our existing base.

Q. Tell me why it’s important to always be on the lookout for businesses to locate here.  

A. It’s important because new businesses locating here or being formed here create jobs which lead to economic growth.

But perhaps more than that and in further response to your previous question, we simply cannot predict with certainty what the economic environment will be like in the years to come.

Consider the social, technological or demographic changes we’ve seen over the past 10, 20 or 30 years and imagine the changes in the next decade or two.

So attracting new jobs and businesses either from the outside or from within is essential as various markets change over time.

Q. Labinal Power Systems’ decision to consolidate in Texas was a big, recent blow to our economic landscape. Can you share some background involved in their decision?

A. I can only reiterate what the company told us in that it needed to consolidate to be more competitive. I recognize that doesn’t make acceptance any easier for the community and especially the associates at Labinal.

We’ve had a long history with the firm since it located here as Grumman Aerospace, welcoming the company in the mid-eighties and helping in its transition to a new firm in the mid-’90s when Grumman announced it was closing the plant.

At that time, the county, with much assistance from the state, helped the new entity, Salisbury Technologies — later renamed Harvard Custom Manufacturing — with the acquisition and financing of plant, property and equipment.

And since, we’ve helped the firm with everything from training programs to the expansion of its physical plant.

So it’s especially difficult having worked with the firm so closely over so many years. And that goes double for the associates who work there now.

 Dave Ryan.

Q. That seems like an important site with a lot of potential. What does the future hold for the site?

A. I think that’s a little too speculative at this point, but I will say that real estate is often a key driver in economic development projects. So perhaps we can turn it into an opportunity at some point but much depends on the company’s objective with the facility.

Our primary concern is finding new employment opportunities for the existing workforce, either within the current facility or elsewhere.

Q. People here fondly recall the days in which manufacturing jobs drove the local economy. Explain how that has changed.

A. Well as a percentage of jobs within our community — state and nation as well — manufacturing is less today than decades ago.

The reasons are many and people will have very diverse opinions as to why.

But certainly technology, productivity, globalization and the growth of the service sector have played a role.

Not too long ago, I met with an organization and after a presentation about the recent recession and its aftermath, a very wise man suggested — and I paraphrase — he said: “Dave, I don’t think some folks have recovered from the closing of Campbell Soup, let alone the most recent recession.”

I think a similar sentiment can be found in communities across the nation and it speaks volumes as to where we are in terms of manufacturing’s composition of our economic base today versus that of years past.

Q. I remember Ed Urban talking about the research Grumman did before deciding to open a plant here. I have been told many times that one test was that they subscribed to The Daily Times to gather a sense of community pride and public interaction.

A. Well with no offense to my friend Ed, that was also a different era. So it took more time and different investigative initiatives to learn about a particular community.

Not so today as information is readily available and easily accessible.

But your question offers insight as to what firms often look for in a particular area. Make no mistake, a fair tax and regulatory environment are most certainly part of the equation, as is available infrastructure and area amenities.

But a business is an entity and it is people who make decisions.

And while people have loyalty to a company, somewhere along the way they’ll ask the question: what does this mean to me? If I start a business here, or relocate a business here, where will I live? Where will my kids go to school?

What kind of education will they receive? How safe is this community? What recreational opportunities are available? And the list goes on.

So creating a great environment where people want to live is good for business.

Q. Is our economy today better, worse or just different?

A. Well it’s definitely different as we’ve moved toward a more service sector economy.

One constant over many years has been a foundation in agriculture and poultry.

We’re also blessed to have fairly stabilizing institutions in health care and higher education which are a larger part of our economic base today than say 20 or 30 years ago.

And I’d suggest that our economy is more regional today than ever before.

Q. Is our area one which can attract high-tech or technology oriented businesses?

A. Sure and they can be found here now in agriculture and within the poultry industry or manufacturing sector or software development firms or health care and many other sectors.

Many of these operations begin wherever the founder is living at the time so entrepreneurship can mean new businesses and jobs.

And while we can’t make entrepreneurs be born here, we can create an environment that promotes innovation and new business formations.

I had the pleasure of meeting a gentleman recently who moved to the area from the west coast where he not only taught entrepreneurship, but also founded a rather large software firm earlier in his career.

From an outside or objective third party perspective, he seemed genuinely surprised at the number of initiatives currently in place here to promote entrepreneurship ranging from close collaboration of partnering agencies to the enhanced business plan competitions at SU.

More can be done but all of this adds to an ecosystem for entrepreneurship.

So yes, and not just high tech, but new business formations in general, are opportunities going forward.

 Dave Ryan.

Q. Jubilant Cadista is showing some real growth. Is that the kind of business suited for our region and our labor force?

A. Sure and as in the case of Cadista, there are pockets of growth within the manufacturing sector and it continues to be an important component of our economy and targeted efforts.

Cadista, as in the case of other, similar firms, offers a variety of jobs requiring different skill sets, imports dollars into the community, and is a terrific corporate citizen.

The company is making a significant investment in plant, property and equipment and through this project, is adding a couple of hundred new manufacturing positions in Salisbury, which is also its corporate headquarters.

The firm is one of the fastest growing generic pharmaceutical companies in the nation and we’re happy they’re here and involved within the fabric of the community.

Q. What is the most difficult and rewarding part of your job?

A. The most difficult is clearly learning of a closure. Typically, we’ve worked closely with personnel involved over a number of years. Impacted employees are our friends, neighbors and relatives in some cases.

Companies rarely telegraph a closing and so it’s especially difficult and even more difficult for affected personnel.

And to the second part of your question, it’s rewarding to see projects come to fruition and working with interesting people along the way.

Q. Why have you chosen to make your home here? What is the root of your attraction for the Shore?

A. Well first, it is home. I’m originally from Salisbury, went through the public education system and attended grad school at SU.

But I was like many 20-something’s that accepted an employment opportunity elsewhere that landed myself and small family at the time in Rochester, N.Y.

The move was a very broadening and educational experience and one that I really don’t regret.

But ultimately, and with a slightly larger family, we returned home to and for the quality of life the Shore offers.

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