Alan Tio is currently Senior VP for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. In his role, Alan leads teams involved in business development, marketing and regional initiatives. His focus is strengthening Brand Indiana. Prior to this assignment, Alan was President of the Whitley County Economic Development Group. I had an opportunity to get to know Alan when he booked me to speak at an event for Whitley County. It was clear to me then that Alan was an emerging leader in the economic development profession. It is great to see him recognized as such with the DCI 40 Under 40 win. I am confident you’ll find his thoughts about where the profession is going very insightful.
If somebody were interested in becoming an economic development professional, what are the top 2 or 3 work skills you would tell them are critical to success?
Three skills that have helped me to advance in this profession are an entrepreneurial mindset, problem solving skills, and sales training. I have cultivated an entrepreneurial mindset to look at an economic development organization as a business, no more assured of sustainability nor success than any other business venture. I get a lot of funny looks when I explain that I have a liberal arts degree, but the critical thinking skills I gained there have been helpful to solve problems for clients and to keep evolving as the “tools in the toolbox” have changed. Finally, the most important professional development I have pursued is sales training to learn how to “get rid of myself” and focus on uncovering my clients’ real concerns.
As you think about how the economic development profession works, what is the area you believe it could and should do a better job in?
We need to do a much better job working with clients to plan, build, and equip their businesses at every stage. So often we focus on selling our communities, rather than “rolling up our sleeves” to develop an appreciation for what are clients are dealing with in their businesses, where they would like to go next, and (perhaps most importantly) what they are really capable of accomplishing at that point in time. As a result, I think we focus too much on transactions and move too quickly to cost-reduction factors such as business incentives, rather than value creation and growth creation strategies.
What role do you believe regionalism plays in economic development and do you see the role expanding or contracting?
I recently joined the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership in the newly established role of Senior Vice President, where I lead our teams involved in business development, marketing, and regional initiatives.
Our organization was formed nearly 10 years ago to focus on business development, but our role has expanded to include community development-related initiatives focused on 21st century talent, business climate, entrepreneurship, infrastructure, and quality of life.
We have cultivated a spirit of collaboration that has led regional stakeholders to think “bigger” about what we can accomplish working together. With that in mind, I see our role expanding in the years ahead to involve regional priorities such as how to improve our entrepreneurial ecosystem or how to expand our workforce development capabilities.
What are the similarities and differences you see in the approach to attracting foreign direct investment when compared to attracting domestic investment?
Our team at the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership has found success working with mid-sized companies ready to expand into the US market. There are similarities to our domestic business development in how we start with a focus on relationship building. We look for business owners and managers who share our industriousness and resilience. Of course, there are also challenges of cultural and language barriers, but we can demonstrate to clients that our region is one of big-hearted hospitality that is quick to welcome visitors with a helping hand.
Can you share a couple stories of ah-ha moments you’ve experienced in the profession and what you learned from those moments that helped you going forward?
I point to the fall of 2010 as a watershed sort of “ah-ha” period in my career in economic development. I lost a lot of sleep during that timeframe because a leading employer was moving toward a decision to relocate its operations to an adjacent county, which I felt at that time reflected very poorly on our economic development efforts. While that company was moving out, I was also working with a foreign company to locate its first US operations in the community (the first of its kind in the state), which to this day is talked about as a significant “win” for our region. So the lesson for me was that I need to be able to choose who I work with and dedicate time and resources toward those clients. In other cases, I need to be able to help clients move quickly toward the best decision for them.
Up to that point, I had led a two-person staff at the EDC. My colleague left unexpectedly in late-summer, which for the short-term meant I was left to work on these projects alone, but in the long-term led me to rethink how to staff an economic development organization, so that by the time I left the Whitley County EDC this spring we had eight team members involved in numerous program and initiatives. The “ah-ha” was that we were limiting our scope of work to the capabilities of an economic developer and an administrative assistant, rather than understanding our clients needs and responding with value-added programs and services.
What are the challenges you believe the economic development profession is going to have to address in the next few years and why?
At the risk of coming across like a broken record, I think a lot about how we can expand the capabilities of our team members so that we are equipped to develop local and regional approaches to issues such as entrepreneurship development and workforce development. What I am working toward is developing business models for proprietary programs and services so that we can change our conversations from cost reduction to value-formation.