New Business Oregon boss praises cooperation and innovation but plays down handouts

“Oregon: where life ignites work.” That’s the slogan that Sean Robbins favors.

He happily admits he brought it from his last job as head of Greater Portland Inc., where he borrowed it from someone in marketing who got it from who-knows-where.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Business Oregon's pragmatic new boss Sean Robbins is here to sell Oregons quality to the world, and its value to the regionRobbins has been the Director of Oregon’s economic development agency, Business Oregon, since June 1. Many see him as the bright, young thing brought in to light a fire under a sprawling state agency during a slow recovery.

He sat down with the Portland Tribune’s Business section to bring the message of job growth through public-private partnerships. It’s the same message he honed in his last job, and at Thrive in Madison, Wisconsin before that, and in commercial real estate before that. Only this time he has more reach, and more complexity to deal with.

“I’ve spent my career at the intersection of public and private entities, directing traffic,” he says, sitting in One World Trade Center in front of the Oregon and U.S. flags, near a photo of Governor Kitzhaber. “And there can’t be just one solution (to economic development). I have to create a dialogue.”

That dialogue is happening this summer as Robbins and his team tour the entire state, visiting two regions a week to ask business leaders about what they need. His team meets with regional economic development groups, such as SEDCOR in Marion and Polk counties, or his old pals Greater Portland Inc., (GPI), who in turn have feelers out to the business community.

The tour is in conjunction with the Oregon Business Council, the statewide business policy and educational association that runs the Oregon Business Plan. It’s more than just a wonkfest combined with a meet-and-greet with craft-brewers-and-bicycle-makers.

Robbins recently learned that ConAgra in Boardman (650 workers processing food, much of it potatoes at Lamb Weston) and the Port of Morrow (4,000 workers) are faced with a housing shortage. There just isn’t enough mid-range housing for all the people flooding in for jobs.

“Because we’ve changed our mindset to be outcome-focused,” he says, using a popular buzzword, “We ask, ‘Who do we talk to to address that economic imperative?’”

In the Boardman case, he doesn’t have an answer yet, but the idea is to “connect the dots” to get housing built so the companies can flourish.

“If you’re thinking about it from a program perspective, you’ll ignore (a problem) because it doesn’t affect your programs,” he says.

A modern state economic development agency can’t just be a transactional entity any more, handing out money.

“We are not just the sum of the transactions we do, that’s a business model that stopped being efficient in the ‘90s.”

He says of the patchwork of economic development agencies, nonprofits and private and public partners, who are spread over 11 nodes, “They do an incredible job of collaborating. There’s very little poaching, because we all gain by getting new businesses. We all gain if these companies are paying income taxes.”

Since so many business owners find taxes toxic, he’s quick to add a benefit statement.

“It’s those businesses that provide the money for those quality of life assets we love. It’s hard to have bike lanes, parks, great schools and public safety without tax revenue, and that tax revenue is provided by business and people who have jobs.”

Robbins sees states such as Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas offering cheap land and subsidies to lure business and the jobs they bring. Oregon offers “a quality play,” in contrast.

“If it’s most important for your business to be in the cheapest state you shouldn’t be in Oregon. But if you’re looking for talent, innovation, a place that talent wants to be, this is a place to invest.”

This applies to the whole west coast. But within the west coast, Oregon has the added advantage of being, well, cheap.

“We have some value to add to people in California and Washington who simply can’t afford to live there any more.”

“We have advantages: reliable, clean, less expensive energy, a fantastic port with connectivity, an international outlook, it’s a place where goods can be made here and you can get them out…We’ve got the big companies like Nike and Columbia, and the medium like Leatherman. For a state our size we punch way above our weight.”

In partnership with Travel Oregon, selling the brand of Oregon and the Oregon lifestyle is all part of the job — whether it’s at trade shows in Germany or Brazil, or on the web. As for any residual whiff of slackerdom that may have...

“’Lifestyle’ has a connotation in the economic world," says Robbins. "It suggests ‘You checked out man, you don’t really need to go to the next level and make your business competitive. That’s not true of Oregon.”

The other part of the message is, job growth is way more likely to come from existing companies than luring new ones from other places.

“Seventy percent of job growth comes from companies that are already there. The economy is recovering at a healthy clip, but the quality of jobs we’re creating aren’t as high paying or as sustainable as we’d like them to be.” He adds this is part of the recovery cycle, and that wages should rise as unemployment drops.

“But the market is the market, we can’t pretend we have control over all aspects of the marketplace. We can only figure out what levers was can pull.”

The biggest lever he’s pulling is dubbed the Grow Your Own approach. Helping a company go from 50 employees to 150 is where the future lies.

“I can help that company create 100 jobs a lot faster than we can go out and recruit 100 new jobs. They are already in the community, they have a culture here, they're sticky.”

The two Portland sessions on the tour will convene the high tech, innovation, research and higher ed players in the city. But there are also the oft-overlooked stalwarts.

“Standard Insurance has been here 100 years, employs 3,000 Oregonians and is a major traded sector company. I'm also thinking of semiconductor supply chain companies such as Biamp Systems in Beaverton, Leatherman, foundational companies like that. We’ve got to retain them. You don’t want to wake up tomorrow and find Standard is leaving.”

As a midwesterner who has been here three years, more impressive then the summer weather and the lack of mosquitos is how cooperative business leaders are. He was recently at a dinner to welcome new CEOs to the area. The newbie list included Patrick Criteser, President and CEO of the Tillamook Creamery, Eric Vines, the Executive Director of the World Forestry Center, Tracy Curtis of Wells Fargo, the Rev. Mark L. Poorman, University of Portland's new president, and Robbins’s successor at GPI, Janet LaBar.

“It was existing and new executives breaking bread together and saying welcome to Portland. It wasn't glad-handing, business cards and blah blah. It was an authentic conversation around what it means to be an Oregonian and do business around Portland.”

Some CEOs have taken it as a personal mission to be connectors.

“It’s a legitimate desire by the business community to welcome and help people succeed here. It’s hard to market that.”

He is still amazed that competitors would have each other’s backs.

“But they know, we’ve got to create economic conditions which create taxes, which pays for the quality of life infrastructure we all enjoy.”

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