By Scott Robertson
(Editor’s note: When Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership met with The Business Journal for this article on Jan. 21, there was half a foot of snow on the ground outside the NETWORKS offices and Walker was, in his own words, “eating cough drops like candy.” Shortly thereafter, he entered the hospital, missing the Pure Foods grand opening he’d worked so hard to facilitate, Jan. 29. The Business Journal thanks Walker for speaking with us when he was under the weather and we hope our readers will join us in wishing him a full and speedy recovery.)
The old adage, “it’s not what you know, but who you know” is true in most business, but to hear Clay Walker tell it, that truism is the golden rule of economic development. It’s appropriate then, that the economic development organization Walker has run for the last two years is called NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership.
In 2016, Walker plans on taking Sullivan County’s economic development efforts up a notch, by networking on a higher level than has been done in some time. That effort will be marked by two keystones. The first is Walker’s acceptance of the position of chair-elect of the Tennessee Economic Partnership. The second is NETWORKS participation in the Site Selectors Guild Conference this month in Nashville.
The Tennessee Economic Partnership is dedicated to marketing Tennessee as a prime location for business relocation and expansion. It is a public-private partnership of the state of Tennessee, the TVA and Tennessee’s business and economic development community.
“I had been involved in the Tennessee Economic Partnership when I worked in middle Tennessee,” Walker told The Business Journal. “I was on the board of directors at that time, and on the marketing committee. It was very helpful and has been a great asset to me in so many ways since I came to Tennessee.”
It came as a shock to Walker when he arrived in Northeast Tennessee to find no community economic development professionals in the state’s northeast corner were members of the TEP.
“I said, ‘We have to join TEP,’ and we did,” Walker said. “There happened to be an opening for Northeast Tennessee on the board as well. They have X number of regional seats and then at large seats as well. They had an at large seat come open, so I was nominated and I took it. This past year I got a call asking if I would consider being chair in two years, chair-elect and secretary-treasurer this year. They do that typically, letting you become secretary-treasurer while you’re chair-elect because it gives you a lot of insight into the finances and helps prepare you better for your chairmanship.”
While holding the title of chair-elect is certainly a nice feather in Walker’s cap, the real value lies in what it can mean for Sullivan County.
For instance, NETWORKS has gotten help from the TEP in its own efforts to showcase the county through its Bristol Motor Speedway Red Carpet Tours for site selectors. “You can do that on your own,” Walker said, “but to get the strength of the state behind you, you need to do it under the TEP umbrella, and they also have some cash grants for that. We have been awarded $1,000 per consultant to help with expenses both times we have done that.
But it’s not just the grant funds that come in handy. Properly leveraged, TEP membership can boost an organization’s reputation immensely, Walker said. “I jumped at the chance to be chair-elect because you want to show that your community is a meaningful partner in economic development in Tennessee, that you’re not just along for the ride.”
Playing a prominent role in the TEP also helps keep Sullivan County top-of-mind among decision makers in Nashville. Most major prospects come to communities through the Department of Economic and Community Development. Sullivan County is geographically about as far from Nashville as one can be in Tennessee. So having a consistent professional presence in the state capital reinforces the idea that Sullivan County deserves to be considered a real player when site selectors come calling.
“That’s where you’ve probably heard us talk about our recruit-the-recruiter strategy,” Walker said. “We have to be sure we are constantly giving the folks in the Department of Economic and Community Development information about product development, new buildings opening up, anything with economic development newsworthiness that can help them sell so they have a good understanding of what we are and what we offer. It has to be persistent and consistent so they understand what our brand is and from where it grew. It’s a constant process.” And that process, Walker said, is accomplished most easily from a seat on the TEP Board.
The second keystone to NETWORKS’ 2016 networking efforts is its leadership role in the Site Selectors Guild Conference in Nashville. The Guild’s conference has gained importance in the last few years because site selectors have, in large part, stopped attending conferences hosted by third parties (many of which no longer exist as a result). They now host their own event, and space is at a premium.
Between 40 and 48 of the nation’s top consultants are at the Site Selectors Guild’s meeting each year, Walker said. “It’s hard to get into because they limit the seats so the communities that do participate can have good face time with the consultants who handle the projects. So it’s a great group to get in front of.” There’s even a competitive bid process to host the conference, with an attendant news conference reminiscent of the announcements of World Cup or Olympic host cities.
Walker’s previous tenure in middle Tennessee helped NETWORKS line up its sponsorship of the conference. A former colleague let him know Nashville would host the event before that knowledge became public.
“Courtney Ross, who is in charge of recruiting for the Nashville Chamber said to me, ‘I’m trying to get key organizations from across the state to commit.’ I jumped in. I believe we were the first commitment she had. I said, ‘would it be within our budget?’ She said, ‘I believe the top level you would be eligible for would be $10,000.’ I said, ‘We will do that. That’s a no-brainer.’”
“If you went to the conference as an attendee you’d have to spend $4,000 to $5,000,” Walker explained. “So we spend $10,000 and we’re a sponsor. We get plugged in. And we make that statement to all the economic development organizations across the state and to the consultants coming in that these are the economic development players. When your name is up there with Clarksville, Chattanooga and Knoxville, they know you’re for real.”
The buzz about Sullivan County shows the state now considers NETWORKS to be “for real,” Walker said. “Before we get leads, we might hear from the state saying, ‘You know, we can only give this company our top four leads, but we wanted to talk with you first to feel you out and see whether you’ll really be one of those four…’ The numbers for those calls are off the charts. This stuff is working.
“The more you work with the state, and the more you show you will not embarrass them, but instead you will make them proud of the job you did, the more they will call you,” Walker said. “We’re excited right now because they’re calling us all the time about projects.”