Monday, April 18, 2016

Choices and real changes: Quality of life and place now top executive wish list

By J. Mac Holladay, founder and CEO.

On February 9, 2016 the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Eliot Brown titled “Office Glut Strains Suburbs.”  Brown reflected on many corporate headquarters “moving out of the leafy campuses and moving to downtown high-rises.”

He noted that the old Western Union campus in Saddle River, New Jersey, 30 miles from Manhattan last occupied by Pearson Education moved to Manhattan, New York and Hoboken, New Jersey.  The reasons: to be near “public transportation and a younger urban-dwelling workforce.”

General Electric left Fairfield, Connecticut for Boston and Con Agra went from its Omaha, Nebraska campus to downtown Chicago.  Weyerhaeuser left its huge campus in Federal Way for downtown Seattle, Washington, which is about a 30 minute drive north.

Closer to home, we see the same pattern being followed in Atlanta.  Kaiser Permanente moved its 900 person IT operation to midtown Atlanta.  Their Chief Information Officer, Dick Daniels, said this: “it was important to have a great location with the ability to walk to restaurants and shops and a location that was close to public transportation.”

NCR Corporation is moving its headquarters and 1000 people to be close to Georgia Tech and MARTA.  Mercedes is building its new headquarters next to the Sandy Springs MARTA station and State Farm moved operations to be near the Dunwoody MARTA station.  Veraforce, a leading insurance software provider, is moving to midtown from the suburbs.  Its location in One Midtown Plaza takes advantage of their internship program at Georgia Tech and the Technology Association of Georgia.  Veraforce’s Vice President of Development, Neil Snowdon, said “Midtown Atlanta is an ideal location for meeting with East Coast clients and strengthening our position within Atlanta’s dynamic tech community.”

After reading the various articles reporting these moves mentioned above, an interesting thing happened when I reviewed the 30th Annual Corporate Survey from Area Development magazine a few weeks ago. Even though the mix of corporate executives in the survey still represents many “traditional” sectors, the results of the survey tell a very different story than past years.  

Hopefully, to no one’s surprise the “availability of skilled labor” came out as a strong number one. Almost 93% of these executives rated it as important or very important, with over 58% ranking it as very important.

Highway accessibility came in second, but the real surprise is in the third slot is Quality of Life. Just barely below the highway number (88% to 87.6%), Quality of Life vaulted up to the third spot. That is FAR AHEAD of corporate tax rate (#7), state and local incentives (#9), and tax exemptions (#11). None of those were within 10 points of Quality of Life on importance to corporate executives. What was in days of old a key factor, right to work, came in a distant 16th a full 20 points behind Quality of Life.

These numbers reflect the reality that quality of PLACE AND LIFE is now at the top of most executive’s wish list along with the quality of the workforce. I am hopeful that Area Development and others will acknowledge that there needs to a much broader analysis of all the factors that make up quality of life. They certainly include health care access and affordability, public safety, open space and recreation options, downtown attractiveness, and quality public schools. As the recent headlines have proven, it is also vital to have an open and welcoming community and state. Discrimination will not be tolerated by the nation’s CEOs.

The message is clear.  Quality of place matters.  So does talent, openness, and access to public transportation.  These are becoming the top considerations for the best jobs in the economy.  Just another real change along the way.