Profiles in Business
He’s Kept His Focus on Job Creation and Retention
Allan Blair says his passion for photography started taking form just before his first son, Colin, was born in 1978.
“My wife was getting close with him, and I said to myself, ‘you better figure out how to take pictures,’” Blair recalled, adding that he bought a camera and managed to gain a degree of competence just as he was also becoming a father.
Over the years, he’s taken his hobby to a different level — and many different places — as the walls in his office attest. There are some framed photos from a trip several years ago to the town of St. Andrews in Scotland (the famous golf course, the world’s oldest, appears in the background in one of them), where Colin studied for a year. There are also a few scenes from Amsterdam, which Blair visited as part of a contingent from Western Mass. on one of the first international flights out of Bradley Airport in 2008 — a short-lived program, as it would turn out. And there’s an intriguing shot of an indoor mall in Melbourne taken while Blair was visiting his younger son, Justin, while he was studying in that Australian city.
“My wife, Sheila, has a better eye than I do,” he explained, “so she’ll often identify subjects or approaches to subjects that I don’t see, and I execute the photograph; it’s good teamwork.”
While some friends and colleagues are aware of Blair’s proficiency with a camera, most are more attuned to his efforts with regard to another form of big-picture developing. Indeed, as president of the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Mass., Blair is the individual most closely associated with the region’s overall economic health and well-being, and efforts to improve it.
This is a job that comes fully loaded with rewards, challenges, and expectations (many of them inherently unreasonable, he said, but more commentary on that later). It is also what Blair calls a complex, multi-faceted extension of his first real job, as a vocational counselor with the state Division of Employment Security, now known as the Division of Employment & Training, and subsequent work administering the Springfield chamber’s jobs program.
The common denominator, he said, is putting people to work, an assignment he finds both tremendously important and quite fulfilling.
“The one common thread that always stuck with me was that the importance of a job to a person’s feeling of worth is almost inestimable,” he explained. “Every person, no matter how down and out and destitute they might have been, wanted to be self-reliant; they wanted to be able to take care of their family.
“It’s somewhat ironic, the circuitous route I’ve taken,” he went on. “Being on the job-creation side, trying to provide the jobs or attract the jobs for people like those I worked with all those years ago, seems like closure, coming full-circle. Instead of working with individuals, I’m working with companies and regions and municipalities to create jobs and retain jobs.”
This task of putting people into employment situations has evolved considerably over the past 40 years, said Blair, speaking to his tenure in the broad realm of economic-development-related work. “It’s a different mindset; it’s not so much real-estate-based any more as it is business-to-business growth,” he explained, noting that in the past, much more emphasis has been placed on selling the region and recruiting companies here. “It’s a transition that’s been taking place over the past 30 years or so, and it has accelerated in the 21st century, where technology has been adopted to products and processes.”
And it has become much more difficult, he continued, as the cost of doing business in this region becomes an increasingly negative factor, as the regional and national economy moves increasingly away from manufacturing, and, perhaps most important, as the gap widens between the skills necessary for today’s technology-centered jobs and the skills most area residents possess.
The size of this gap became readily, and disturbingly, apparent with the deep economic downturn that started more than three years ago, said Blair, and it now looms as the biggest challenge for the region moving forward.
“In all my career, I’ve never seen such a dislocation between the skill preparation of the worker and the skill requirements of the new jobs,” he said. “There are going to be some who can make the transition and retool, and there are going to be many who can’t.”
For this, the latest in the ongoing series called Profiles in Business, Blair talked at length about this gap and the challenges it presents, as well as the many ways in which economic-development work has changed over the years.
When asked for his working definition of the phrase economic development, Blair gave a slight smile and a nod that indicated he’s been asked that question quite often over his career, and had a well-thought-out answer.
“I’ve given my definition of economic development to different groups over the years, and the more experienced I get, the more that definition morphs a little bit,” he explained. “Economic development, as I see it, is creating increasing investment in our region — and, ultimately, a city or town — that generates increased tax revenue to the municipality and the state and creates jobs; that’s my simple definition.
“But if I were to expand it, I would say that it is really also community development,” he continued, “because in order to have an environment that is conductive to those investments being made, you need to have a municipality as a host that can provide adequate services to the company and municipalities where the workers live that provide good school systems, public safety, and neighborhoods to keep those employees in our market. I see it as two sides of the same coin; the growth in taxes for any city or town enables that community to improve and increase the level of service it provides to both companies and residents, and as a result we all benefit, if it all works.”
Blair has been honing this definition since not long after he graduated from UMass Amherst and took that job with the Division of Employment Security, one that made a lasting impression and, in many ways, set a tone for his life’s work.
“That job with DES probably had one of the biggest influences on my future career and my perspective,” he told BusinessWest. “I was responsible for dealing with unemployed teenagers and trying to help them determine some sort of vocational choice, and often it meant referring them to the [chamber’s] jobs center, where in those days they got a stipend to go to school and either earn a GED or learn a trade.
“Over the years, as I’ve experienced the downsizing of our manufacturing sector and the big job losses at the Van Norman plant, American Bosch, and the Armory, those good-paying jobs that were family-supporting jobs were lost,” he continued, “and I never forgot the lessons I learned in those first four years after I was out of college about the importance of work.”
From his work with the chamber’s jobs center, Blair went on to become the organization’s vice president of administration and finance, a post that involved considerable legislative work. He eventually became executive vice president, and left in 1984 to become president of Westover Metropolitan Development Corp., which manages several industrial parks on land that was once part of Westover Air Force Base.
In 1993, he added the title of president of Westmass Area Development Corp. after that entity, which developed a number of industrial parks first in Springfield and then other cities and towns, successfully emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And in 1996, Blair became the first president of the EDC, an umbrella agency that includes a number of economic-development groups, including Westover, Westmass, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, and other organizations.
In the mid-’90s, while doing all this, Blair took on another challenge, or detour, as he called it — earning his juris doctor from Western New England College School of Law. The four-and-a-half-year odyssey of night school was a learning experience on a number of levels, he told BusinessWest, adding that his pursuit of a law degree posed some challenges and taxed his schedule, while also providing him with career flexibility and, ultimately, some acquired analytical skills for his chosen day job.
“Just as I finished, and I got notification that I’d passed the bar, was when the EDC was created,” he explained. “I had to make a choice between a law career and this career, and I chose this. But the experience in law school provided a unique framework for looking at things, and in the world I’m in, with a lot of real-estate work, there were immediate applications for what I was learning at night.
“I found it to be really exciting and interesting,” he continued. “That may sound crazy to people who went to law school right out of college and probably hated the experience, but as a mid-lifer doing it with all my life experiences to date, it was really interesting to see how it all fit together.”
He credits his family with helping him to manage what was an even more complicated process of balancing life and work, and providing needed inspiration. “I wasn’t around much in those days, but I used to make it home for dinner, even on law-school nights, just to look my kids in the eye and give my wife a kiss on the cheek and say, ‘I’m still around, and don’t forget it,’” he said. “There were many nights when my kids and I were studying in the same room together, and that was pretty neat; Colin graduated from high school the same year I got through the bar, so that was a major celebration.”
It was a capped off with a trip to Wimbledon, where the tennis-loving Blair family took in a few matches — and Allan took several hundred pictures.
There have been some celebrations in his professional life, as well.
Indeed, Blair listed off a number of accomplishments from his career, including the broad category of industrial-park development, or creation of those neighborhoods that sparked the kinds of investments he spoke of. Such parks have been created in Chicopee at Westover, and also Agawam, East Longmeadow, Westfield, and other communities, resulting in the creation or retention of thousands of jobs.
Individual success stories include the recruitment of Emery Air Freight to Westover in the mid-’80s early in his career (another short-lived triumph, as major players FedEx and UPS soon dominated the market); bringing Sundor Brands, later to be acquired by Procter & Gamble, to Airpark West; attracting C&S Grocers to the north side of Westfield, where it built a massive freezer warehouse, in the mid-’90s; and the improbable rescue of Westmass from bankruptcy.
“In 1991, when they filed, I got involved with a number of people in the effort to salvage their properties and holdings because of my belief in having these neighborhoods available for expansion,” Blair told BusinessWest. “This was the first not-for-profit bankruptcy in Massachusetts that was successful, and it took a lot of hard work and imagination to make it happen.”
In recent years, the major economic-development triumphs have been fewer, different in nature, and more difficult to quantify and qualify, said Blair, adding that the recession has taken a hard toll on development efforts in this region and many others. Meanwhile, much of the workload for groups like the EDC has evolved and diversified over the years, becoming less real-estate focused. This is a process that really began in the ’70s, he explained.
“The source of jobs today is very different from when I started with Westover in the early ’80s, or even when I was with the chamber in the ’70s, when we were relying upon a number of very large employers, particularly in manufacturing, but also in financial services,” he told BusinessWest. “And most of those companies grew here — they developed out of someone’s garage into these great things or they fell from the Armory as intellectual property that propagated around the region and grew. Almost none of them moved into Western Mass.; they grew in here.
“The job-creation strategy in those days was to attract another big manufacturer that wanted to be around this big nest of companies, but even then, the growth was incremental,” he continued. “The difference today is that, while we’re still going to try to attract that prospect that’s looking around the country or the Northeast — we still need to have that flag out and about in front of those decision makers — most of our growth is going to come from small businesses, and with them, growth is in fives, 10s, and 20s at a time.”
And to accomplish growth of this nature, the region needs to have a different infrastructure in place than the one that has existed in recent decades — one that nurtures entrepreneurship and innovation, he explained, adding that, ironically, the region grew into a manufacturing mecca more a century ago because of such an environment.
“Most all of the big companies we have today — and that list includes MassMutual, Smith & Wesson, Big Y, the hospitals, and the colleges — and the plethora of smaller companies all started when someone had a good idea and took a risk,” he continued. “Today, we’re spending a lot of our time working on making sure that we have a robust infrastructure that supports new-business formation, provides ample capital for growth, and has plenty of mentorship and interactive opportunities for people to nurture their good ideas, because that’s where our future is.
“We’ve turned a lot of attention to the process of understanding it, figuring out what can enhance it, and then trying to put these things in place with partners who have more interest or more resources to bear,” he went on. “The problems of small businesses are different, and we need an infrastructure that can address them.”
Getting the Picture
Accompanying these changes in overall philosophy with regard to economic development have been several factors — many of them beyond the control of leaders in this region — that have made the tasks of job creation and retention much more difficult, said Blair as he addressed the subject of expectations regarding the EDC, and how he believes many of them are not realistic.
The biggest of these factors is the recession, which is over from the textbook-definition standpoint only, he said, adding that the prolonged downturn has created stagnancy and quiet — in both a literal and figurative sense — unlike anything he’s witnessed in his lengthy career.
“The phone literally stopped ringing for almost three years,” he explained. “Those phone calls from brokers, site selectors, and real-estate people inquiring about opportunities to invest in the region just stopped. And with growth literally halting and corresponding layoffs and contractions happening, the ranks of the unemployed grew exponentially. And probably the most compelling comment on this period as we look back on it is going to be that the rebound that’s coming is going to be more of a jobless recovery than anyone anticipated.
“It’s not just that the number of jobs may be down,” he continued, “but that the new jobs created will be very different from the skill sets of the people who are unemployed.”
This sizable gap poses a dilemma for economic-development leaders, he went on, noting that it creates questions about whether the region should continue trying to attract knowledge-based jobs for which many residents are simply not qualified, as it has for several years now, or shift the focus to industries with lower-skilled jobs, such as distribution.
“And this has implications for everything,” he told BusinessWest, “implications for marketing, land use — if you decide to go after more distribution than manufacturing, for example, the amount of land used is greater, so you’re chewing up that resource faster — and other factors. I don’t have the answer, but this has created a need for us to re-examine some of our strategies and targets.”
Another factor is the cost of doing business in this region, he said, adding that, despite the efforts of state and local officials to mitigate the overall impact, those numbers are more of an issue than ever before.
“By virtue of where we are in the world, those costs are higher than in lots of other places,” Blair explained. “In the ’50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, it wasn’t that far out of whack with the rest of the country, and it didn’t matter anyway because the products were being produced here and companies wanted to stay.
“Today, if we as a state are not nurturing businesses that are producing high-value products that can absorb the underlying costs of doing business, we’re going to lose the manufacturing that we currently have,” he continued. “And the only way for companies to create those products is to be constantly innovating, finding that new thing, putting that new tweak on an existing product, designing a machine that makes something 10% cheaper so they can continue to stay on top and be unique and competitive.”
All this brings Blair to perhaps his most critical observation — that effective economic development requires more partnerships than ever before, with players that can assume key roles in creating an environment that fosters entrepreneurship and innovation and then provides the support network needed to help businesses get to the proverbial next level.
“The economic-development effort is much more of a partnership today than it ever was,” he said. “It always had to be, but there was a lot more room for lone rangers to go out there and make a deal, drag a company back, and put it in a building. Today, it’s such a complex decision-making exercise as to where a company locates that there has to be a broader circle of partners. That includes the planners, the municipal economic-development people, and higher education and other workforce-talent-development people, because that’s the biggest issue companies face.
“The circle of those of us involved in economic development, the collaborators, is much bigger today than ever before,” he continued. “And it has to continue to be flexible because of the sheer complexity involved. We’ve done a good job of responding to this change, this evolution, and we have to continue doing so, because if we don’t, we’re going to lose.”
While coping with all this change and evolution, Blair said he also has to deal with the high expectations for the EDC, a situation magnified by the recession and the critical need for jobs, especially in urban centers trying to reinvent themselves.
“When things are this difficult, people look to organizations like ours for solutions,” he explained. “They expect, because we have the leadership of our region involved, that we’re going to figure out some solutions and somehow put the resources there to make things happen. But those solutions are not easy to recognize.
“I’m sure that people are disappointed that we haven’t been able to create more jobs and attract more jobs to this region,” he continued. “I can say definitively that it’s not for lack of effort and it’s not for lack of trying to find a new, smarter, better way of doing what we do; things have just changed, and it’s going to take a while for us to get back in the game. And if misery loves company, we’re certainly not the only ones facing this.”
A Developing Story
Now 62, Blair told BusinessWest that, while he’s not fixated on the subject, thoughts of retirement and what it might be like enter his head every so often.
“At some point, you turn the corner,” he said, “and realize that you won’t be here for the next cycle of whatever it is you’ve been working on for years and years — someone else will be doing that.”
There will be several options if he decides to stay active professionally when that day comes, he continued, referring to his vast experience in real estate and other economic-development matters, not to mention that law degree he earned 15 years ago.
For now, though, he is focused on that career-long devotion to putting people into jobs and leading the region’s response to change in how that assignment is carried out. “I love what I do, and I’m still totally committed to working with our region for our economic growth and benefit.”
As the economic-development landscape continues to evolve, and recruitment of companies to Western Mass. absorbs less of his time, there will likely be fewer opportunities to add to that collection of photos in his office.
But then again, his attention has always been on the really big picture.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]