Think Strategically: Act Locally

When I was a child, my family often visited my grandfather in Anaheim, California. We always went to Disneyland, and my grandfather always gave us all the tickets we wanted. I always wondered why my grandfather received so many free tickets to the park, and I later learned that he was the business development officer for Anaheim in the 1950's. He had helped Walt Disney secretly buy 22 parcels of land in Anaheim in order to have enough property to build Disneyland. Mr. Disney was so grateful to my grandfather that he'd given him a lifelong supply of tickets to the park.

Almost every community has a business development officer whose job it is to bring new businesses to the community and to help existing businesses prosper. These individuals are influential in their communities. They know all about the local economy and, more importantly, they know all the movers and shakers in that economy. They're the ultimate connectors in the community. Interviewing them is an excellent way to discover hidden opportunities in your city or county. An hour with a business development officer could easily be worth a week in the library and months of networking.

You may think you know your community leaders, but the local business development officer and business journal editor know more. Get their help

In my twenty years in the financial services industry, I have found that most financial advisors have no idea how wealth is created in their communities. But every community has its engines of capital formation. They are usually large companies or major economic activities such as ports, factories, refineries, or mines. Think of the maps you used to study in high school, with icons of oil wells, shafts of wheat, or cattle in various regions of the country. They were depicting the biggest economic activities in the area. It's critical for you to know the dominant economic activities in your area if you want to focus your marketing on the highest payoff opportunities.

Recently, a financial advisor and I interviewed the business development officer for Long Beach, California. The process we worked through and the information we received are testaments to the power of research interviews. Because it's their job to help businesses in their area grow, business development officers are generally quite accessible.

You can identify who the business development officer is in your area by talking to your local Chamber of Commerce, regional economic development council, or other business development organization. You may have more than one business development officer in your area. There may be a regional, a local, and perhaps a state officer.

You can usually identify the person you need to speak to with one or two telephone calls. Call the individual, identify yourself and your firm, and tell them you're interested in learning how you can contribute to the local economy. You may want to offer to take him to lunch in order to get his insights.

Before the meeting, develop a series of questions that will help you learn more about your community. Try to keep your questions general in nature. Allow the conversation to evolve naturally.

The really important information and contacts will be discovered throughout the conversation. Typically you'll want to begin by telling the business development officer that the purpose of the meeting is to learn how you can contribute more to the local community. An effective question to start the conversation is, "Could you give me an overview of the local economy and the primary economic drivers?"

Local Economic Drivers

During our interview with the business development officer of Long Beach we discovered that the Port of Long Beach is one of the largest in the world. It's a huge economic center that generates billions of dollars in revenue for the local economy. In addition to the port, a number of major companies and a large hospital contribute significantly to the payroll of the Long Beach community.

The business development officer mentioned that the port authority had a billion-dollar fund set aside to purchase land around the port for future expansion. Bells of opportunity immediately went off in my head. I knew that many of the blue-collar millionaires who own the businesses that serve the port started them right after World War II. I knew that this was a prime time for those people to sell their property and cash out, consequently netting for them perhaps millions of dollars. But I also knew that many of them would be very reluctant to sell because of the capital gains tax.

The obvious solution was a charitable remainder trust and other planning strategies to reduce taxes. I asked the business development officer whether or not the tax issue had been a challenge. He indicated it was, in fact, a major issue that made it very difficult for the port to purchase property. Many times the port had had to go to court to condemn the property and acquire it under eminent domain.

I asked him if the people who were involved in purchasing these properties for the port would be interested in learning how the current owners could reduce or eliminate taxes when they sold their businesses. His eyes lit up. If we could do that, he said, we'd solve one of their biggest problems. He gave us the name and telephone number of the person who was responsible for purchasing land for the port as well as permission to use his name. I figured we had just discovered a billion-dollar opportunity for the advisor.

As the conversation continued, we learned that there was an economic development advisory council to the port authority and the city council. This private business group was advising the government agencies on their needs so that everyone could work together. The president of this private council was also the president of an environmental engineering firm and a very wealthy, influential woman in the community. Again, we were given her name and we asked for permission to use the business development officer's name when we contacted her.

Opportunities Abound

The conversation progressed and the business development officer mentioned that each year the Chamber of Commerce organizes a "How to Grow Your Business" workshop for local businesswomen. Since the financial advisor I was with was a woman, it made perfect sense to explore this opportunity further. The event could be the perfect forum to showcase her ability to solve problems for local business owners, and would also enable her to meet more people within the community.

The final opportunity came when the business development officer mentioned that the local Chamber had formed relationships with various consultants to whom they would often refer local business owners. Currently, they didn't have a financial planner to refer individuals to. He asked her if she would be willing to do a financial planning workshop for business owners in Long Beach if the Chamber of Commerce did the mailing and provided a location.

The chamber would provide the advertising and the location? I immediately thought of all the financial advisors who spend vast amounts of their own money on seminars, with no endorsement from a credible organization. This was a fabulous opportunity to create a series of ongoing financial planning workshops for local business owners with absolutely no cost. It would be a free and easy way for her to meet business owners in her community, and ultimately select the ones that would benefit most from her services.

We left the meeting with a better understanding of how wealth is created in the area, and new knowledge about which industries were growing and which were declining. We also left with some excellent contacts.

Professors, Business Journals, and Industry Leaders

In addition to business development officers, a tremendous amount of information about your local economy can be gleaned from local economics professors. These individuals often work in conjunction with other local organizations to research and write economic reports.

Reporters and editors of business journals are also excellent sources of information and referrals. You can visit a business journal's office and search through its archives for previously published articles and profiles on local events, companies, and entrepreneurs.

One advisor in Orange County, California, arranged with a local business journal to write an annual article on the fastest growing companies in the area. It provided him with a reason to contact and get to know some of the most connected and successful business people in his county. Many times, after he conducted an interview, the CEO would ask the advisor about his company and the services he offered. Many of these conversations yielded great clients.

Once you identify the key industries in your local community, interview the leaders of those industries. People who hold offices within associations can be key players. It has been my experience that if you're well referred and if you're truly trying to determine how you can help your community, most people will be glad to talk to you.

If they like you and feel you are sincere, they will refer you to other influential people in the community.

As you build relationships and identify opportunities, you will begin to see where you should invest your marketing resources. Be aware, all of the opportunities will not be obvious. Many times you'll have to read between the lines and ask the person you're interviewing for more details.

As you build relationships one interview at a time, you'll eventually become one of the best connected people in your community. Each interview gives you more insight, deeper relationships, and a better understanding of where specific opportunities are for you to build a profitable business.

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