Episode 11

Episode 11  |  Spurring Economic Growth in Northeast Ohio:  A Conversation with Bill Koehler of Team NEO -  Frantz Ward is proud to partner with Team NEO, the business and economic development organization focused on accelerating economic growth and job creation throughout the 18 counties of Northeast Ohio. Bill Koehler, the organization's CEO, joins the podcast to discuss the economic outlook for the region, how the public and private sectors are working together to both attract new businesses and help existing businesses, and the resources that are available to companies in their growth initiatives.
Podcast First Aired: June 30, 2021

Guest & Host



Chris Koehler: Welcome to another episode of Frantz Ward's podcast series, Shoveling Smoke. I'm Chris Koehler, a partner at Frantz Ward. Today's podcast is another effort by us to present our listeners with information they can use to help their businesses. While many of our discussions have centered on legal perspectives, we're doing something different today, focusing on business and economic development issues that affect us all on Northeast Ohio, whether you're a business owner, service provider, or employee. Today's guest is Bill Koehler, who just happens to be my brother. Unless you think this is a cheap attempt to boost our ratings among that very hard to please demographic, the Koehler family, Bill is uniquely qualified to let us know what is happening in Northeast Ohio on the economic development front. Since 2015, Bill has been chief executive officer of Team NEO. I'm sure Bill will give us more detail about what Team NEO does, but in short, it is a regional economic development organization focused first on attracting businesses to Northeast Ohio and second, assisting companies who are already operating in Northeast Ohio with their growth initiatives. Before that Bill was an executive at Key Bank for many years and spent some time on Wall Street after college. He currently serves on the board of directors or advisory boards of multiple companies and is deeply involved in the local nonprofit community with a particular focus on education. He served on the boards of Breakthrough Schools, College Now of Greater Cleveland, Urban Community School, and Saint Ignatius High School to name a few. His greatest accomplishment, so I don't get in trouble with them, are his wife Jean who is similarly passionate about nonprofit work and in making an impact at Urban Community School and his two wonderful daughters who are currently doing great things in Boston. Bill, before we talk about Team NEO, why the focus on education in your nonprofit work?

Bill Koehler: Well, thank you Chris, and thanks for having me. I got involved in education early on for a very simple reason. Our parents thought of education as a priority. They supported us and honestly, it was a bit of a sense of obligation to give back in areas that matter to me, matter to Jean, and mattered to Key at the time. What I've learned is over time through my work at Team NEO, how important education is as an economic driver of our economy, of our talent in the region, and the critical need as our economy evolves to help build a vibrant talent pool that supports the businesses that operate here. So in that sense, I'm glad I got involved early on and the work has been highly valuable as we have at Team NEO have been working on the workforce space in general.

Chris Koehler: And it sounds like when you talk about education, it's not just college or grad school, for instance, it's education at all levels that's so important to the economy.

Bill Koehler: Yes, for many people, the conversation naturally goes to a more traditional experience, a four year maybe graduate degree, that kind of thing. But these days, so many people experience education in non-traditional ways. Some sort of work for work or education experience balance where they're in and out of the workforce, getting training, getting credentials. And so being more flexible in the way they think about building a career and building a body of knowledge through education to support that career pathway is really, really important. And of course, with the focus on STEM as a series of disciplines that are becoming more prevalent, more important in our economy, getting into the middle schools, getting into the high schools earlier and talking about STEM disciplines and their relation to good, in demand career opportunity is critically important. If you wait till sophomore year in college to decide that you like physics, that's a problem. You don't have the foundation you need because you didn't build it in middle school and high school.

Chris Koehler: This is a good transition. It sounds like there's some overlap with your interest in education, with what you're doing at Team NEO. For those who might not be familiar with your organization, what does Team NEO do?

Bill Koehler: Thank you for that. We are an economic development focused on helping companies grow and prosper throughout the 18 counties in Northeast Ohio. And so that includes Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown, Lorain, and some neighboring communities around that. We are the Jobs Ohio network partner. Jobs Ohio has six partners throughout the state that they leverage to help bring local insights, local relationships to the table. And what we do is build a network of economic development, private sector, public sector communities together so that we can work together to drive growth and prosperity throughout the region.

Chris Koehler: Bill, from what I've learned about Team NEO from you, it sounds like you're very oriented towards growing the economy, growing businesses here, and getting new businesses here. Do you have any other focuses?

Bill Koehler: Thank you for asking that point, Chris. It is true that we're focused on growth and we have been for a long time. Growth in employment and growth in GDP in the economy. But we've also learned that growth alone is not enough. If the economy is growing and the community overall is not able to share in the prosperity associated with that growth, then that impedes the long term sustainability of the economy. So what we've begun to think about is the notion of vibrancy. How do we create a more vibrant economy that is better diversified, better able to take advantage of the many opportunities to grow and broaden our economy as technology plays a bigger role in the economy? And in the context of that, we have developed six pillars that we think are really important to create vibrancy. Number one, you have to be more prosperous. We've got to be more resilient. It's got to be more innovative. It's got to be competitive. It's got to be equitable and it's got to be talented. If we create an economy that has those attributes, we think it's going to be much stronger over time.

Chris Koehler: And I suppose that vibrancy leads to growth in itself anyway?

Bill Koehler: We think it supports growth itself, but also it creates an environment in economy where more people can participate in the growth and that creates a better experience for our community, but also a more resilient economy over time that is able to withstand the cycles and continue to grow through the cycles.

Chris Koehler: Any specific examples of projects you've accomplished or things that you're working on, to the extent you can talk about them, so that our listeners have concrete examples of how they can take advantage of your expertise?

Bill Koehler: Sure. So for a little context, philosophically, we believe that when companies are thinking about making an investment here, they're thinking about two things. They're thinking about the collective might of the entire community, the 25 higher ed institutions, the $240 billion economy, the integrated supply chains that exist all throughout Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown and those neighboring areas. But at the same time, they pick a zip code. They pick a location that takes advantage of local community attributes. So as you think about projects we've been involved in, you can think about why would Sherwin-Williams want to stay here? What did they think about when they chose to maintain a headquarters here and then also create a research set of capabilities in Brecksville? Why did Amazon make an investment in Randall Park Mall or Euclid Square Mall? We've been involved in those kinds of things of very visible projects, but there are any number of projects in Akron and Canton from smaller companies who have decided to invest there because of access to the Akron Polymer Institute, because of access to additive manufacturing capabilities in Youngstown and things like that.

Chris Koehler: So do you provide information to the companies like Sherwin-Williams or Amazon? Or are you connector or both? I mean, I'm trying to figure out functionally where Team NEO fits into that picture.

Bill Koehler: Yes and yes. When companies come here, whether they're thinking about making another investment here or coming here for the first time, many times they need access to resources. We help them build the business case for the investments. So we might help them understand wage rates, different aspects of their supply chain costs, different aspects of their site related issues. All those things we bring together because we have expertise directly on our team from people who've done this kind of thing, or we have access to Jobs Ohio and other state resources that we can bring to the table that can be really compelling for what they're trying to do. A lot of times it's relationship value. Companies want to know other companies in similar industries, within their supply chain. Sometimes they want to talk to the CEOs of those companies or the chief human resource officers of those companies so that they get an idea of what it would be like to operate here. We do all that. And at the end of the day, it's about research insights. It's about connectivity, relationship value, and teamwork. We bring all that together to help create a really good and effective project experience that allows people to feel comfortable. They can generate return on their investment.

Chris Koehler: Do you have any specific current priorities as an organization or is that driven by what companies are looking for?

Bill Koehler: We have maintained a very focused set of strategies. There are five of them. Two of them relate to more shorter term, transactional oriented things. So we promote Northeast Ohio throughout the world. We have people who go overseas in a normal market and will meet with companies in Germany, in Japan, in Canada, Asia, to help espouse the value investment here. And then of course the project work and everything we do in building the network to help support that project work. We do three other things that are more focused on building the overall competitiveness of Northeast Ohio. And they relate to encouraging companies to adopt technology more quickly so that they can maintain their global competitiveness. The second relates to talent. Understanding the talent supply demand gap and working with organizations to help close that gap. And the third relates to sites. We can't attract more business here if we don't have a robust inventory of readily marketable sites where people think that they can come in and make an investment and be shovel ready, up and going, and generating return quickly. And so we do a lot of work in that area.

Chris Koehler: So you currently have sites available for instance, that might be able to be used by a company that's either expanding or coming to the region?

Bill Koehler: Yeah, along with a number of partners in the community, whether they're public sector or private sector, the real estate community, et cetera. And your team has been very involved in this work, and we appreciate that. We have developed an inventory of 40 or 45 sites that we understand really well. We understand the different attributes related to access to roads and other infrastructure, utilities, and access to other relevant assets in proximity to those sites. So that when somebody comes to us and says, "We have an interest in Northeast Ohio," we spend less time understanding the site itself and more time merchandising the site and the relative attributes of investment, the bigger sets of strategy questions that are relevant to companies as they think about whether they should invest here or Columbus or Nashville or somewhere else like that.

Chris Koehler: I assume that you all have developed some research or tools that help guide you and hopefully businesses in how to develop themselves in the region. Do you have those tools that are publicly available to people like our clients?

Bill Koehler: Yes, absolutely. I would point you to our website, teamneo.org. And there is some really good research that we have done over the years with respect to talent. I call it our aligning opportunities library, but it looks at talent supply demand issues. So it specifically looks at the credentials that we are conferring on students, two year, four year, and graduate students, each year and how those credentials relate to the qualifications built into in demand jobs specifications. We've also then leveraged that to look at issues relating to race and other barriers related to race that become obstacles to earning those degrees. And most recently, did some work looking at gender issues. In particular, how the pandemic has impacted women in the workplace. So those are examples. There are two others related to technology. We've done a technology roadmap related to ad manufacturing and smart manufacturing. These are tools to help people understand how we can encourage the quicker adoption of those technologies in a manufacturing environment.

Chris Koehler: And those are all available through your website?

Bill Koehler: Through our website. Yes.

Chris Koehler: And I think we can link to that on our website. We'll do that.

You mentioned some companies that you've worked with, and so those are very tangible and perhaps visible benefits that Team NEO has been able to provide to the region. People like Sherwin-Williams and Amazon and some other companies. Are there other benefits that people might not be so aware of?

Bill Koehler: Let me first stay with respect to projects themselves, you mentioned Amazon and Sherwin, those are large and very recognized and they've been in the media. Our average project ends up having about 40 or 50 new jobs attached to them. So they tend to be much smaller companies. We do about 80 or 90 of those a year. So for your clients, I would say you probably have clients of various sizes who may see value in some of the things we do with respect to supporting expansion related work. If you step back from that more broadly though, a lot of the work we do relates to informing economic development strategy or influencing economic development strategy through our work. And that's where our partner relationships can be very important. And so we are very engaged in a lot of the workforce dialogue and maybe we can make connections to some of your clients who are dealing with talent related issues right now. We know that's a problem in the community. It's a problem across the country. And so that would be an area if you're looking to expand, we have people who understand. You mentioned sites before. There are many ways we can provide some very active guidance on how to go through that process.

Chris Koehler: Generally speaking, what's the outlook for the region economically coming out of this pandemic?

Bill Koehler: I have been very surprised in a positive way and I'm very encouraged by the opportunities we have going forward. As we entered the pandemic, I thought we were going to see a lot of challenges in industry and while companies that were associated with hospitality and restaurants and all, they've clearly had some challenges that I don't want to minimize, industry in Northeast Ohio shined. Because of the way our community, I would give a lot of credit to Jobs Ohio and the governor's office of the way everybody rallied around and supported essential businesses and businesses that were focused on PPE related products and capabilities. They shined. And so there's a lot of growth that we're finding. We had our best year ever last year in terms of the incremental jobs, payroll, and capital that are associated with the projects that we do because a lot of people saw a need and an opportunity to invest. And that momentum has continued forward. There is discussion about onshoring and reshoring and those kinds of supply chain opportunities going forward, and we're talking to companies about those. So we have an attraction opportunity. As we have highlighted the strength of Northeast Ohio and Ohio manufacturing, we have an opportunity to encourage more people to become a part of it.

Chris Koehler: I guess the million dollar question for people out there who are listening is there's a lot you do, a lot you provide, and a lot of tools you have. For those people, how do they take advantage of what you guys have to offer and how could you work with them?

Bill Koehler: Well, first of all, call us. I would point you to myself. And I guess, Chris, you can provide that to any of your clients and your colleagues. My contact information, Dawn Southard, who's a member of our investor relations teams, easy access. But within Northeast Ohio Economic Development, there's no wrong door. If you have a relationship with your local chamber and you're thinking about growth and want to go there, that's fine. They'll call us. That's fine. But between direct contact with members of our team, we'll get you to the right place through the website. But at the end of the day, what we are looking to do is support companies as they're trying to grow, help remove the obstacles and leverage our capabilities in order to do that.

Chris Koehler: And it sounds like you partner with a lot of different organizations, public, private, non-profit, for profit. What is the gamut of the types of other agencies you partner with?

Bill Koehler: So for starters, you were right to observe that we do a lot of partnering. Economic development is the ultimate team game. Nobody has enough resources to do it alone. The capabilities, the expertise required sometimes is highly targeted. So in order to do this well, we need the support of each other. So it is a public sector, private sector, cities, counties, companies, all that. We think we do it well. We can always do it better, but we think that is really important to our success.

Chris Koehler: Well, that's great information. I'm glad to hear that you have an optimistic outlook about the future, the economic future, in Northeast Ohio. Bill, at the end of our podcast, we've been asking our guests to leave the listeners with two or three takeaways. Do you have any final takeaways you'd like to give?

Bill Koehler: So I have a couple of takeaways that may be helpful. Number one, get to know us and get to know economic development. Speak to others at Frantz Ward who you think can provide access or expertise in the areas that are relevant to you and your growth. Frantz Ward is a firm that we know and believes in the value and virtue of the home team and the home game and has a client base that is highly synergistic with the kinds of things that we're trying to do. Our community has significant economic development assets that we're proud to highlight and figure out how we can leverage on your behalf. And in order for us to collectively do this well, we need help. We need everybody, whether it's public sector, private sector, professional service organizations, companies. We need everybody pulling in the same direction and we're here to help make that happen.

Chris Koehler: Thanks. So to recap, know that our community has significant economic development opportunities and a strong network of economic organizations that can help you out. And all it takes is investing your time and seeking out those organizations and they're there to be found. So take advantage of them. Bill, thanks very much for coming on today. I've told many people this. You've always been one of my heroes growing up. So I appreciate you coming on and sharing what Team NEO does, and I appreciate what you're doing for Northeast Ohio. So thanks for coming on today.

Bill Koehler: Thanks for having us, and we look forward to the opportunity to help you, your clients, and any others in the community who are trying to find ways to grow.

Chris Koehler: So that wraps up another episode of Shoveling Smoke. Thanks for checking in with us and we hope you listen next time.

Shoveling smoke is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer and audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Thanks for listening.