As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce hosted a business forum at which four leaders in the business community discussed their thoughts on the business climate in Georgia and specifically in DeKalb County.
The panel, moderated by United Way of Greater Atlanta Chief Marketing Officer Yvette Cook, was composed of Gregory Baranco, president and CEO of Baranco Automotive Group; Becky Blalock, managing partner at Advisory Capital; Craig Lesser, consultant and former Georgia commissioner of economic development; and Bob Voyles, founder of Seven Oaks Co., a commercial real estate firm.
Panelists generally agreed that the economy would be helped by increased availability of investment capital. Baranco told of his efforts to build his Mercedes dealership in 2008, when the economy was in a deep slump. “The banks just weren’t interested,” he recalled, “but I found some investors and they did very well. Now all those banks that turned me down are calling wanting to lend me money. And as for the people who invested with me before-they’re asking ‘what’s our next project?’”
Voyles said a slumping economy can sometimes present opportunities for small businesses. “When the banks are offering very low interest rates, people are looking for investments that will provide a greater return. If they see a business that has great potential, they may be willing to put their money there instead of with more traditional investments,” he said.
Lesser commented that success doesn’t necessarily depend on the state of the economy. “Often it depends on what business you’re in, where you are and how smart you are,” he said.
Blaylock, whose book DARE—Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage and Career for Women in Charge is scheduled to appear in bookstores in October, said Georgia doesn’t offer a lot of incentives for businesses to move into the state. “Texas is really beating us in that area,” she said.
Voyles quipped, “I just came from Texas; I can see why they need incentives.”
Pointing out that Georgia has relatively few Fortune 500 companies when compared with other states its size, Cook asked panelists what they thought the state could do to change that picture. Several responded that attracting Fortune 500 companies is not the key to boosting Georgia’s economy.
Lesser said the state would do better by growing sectors that are already excelling in Georgia. “I’m disappointed that we don’t do more of that,” he said. “We have lots of people who have great ideas. We haven’t done a good job of supporting them.”
He said the business community should be open to new ideas. “Who would have predicted Google?” he asked.
Blaylock agreed that the business community needs to support innovative newcomers. “Some have great ideas, but have no idea how to implement them. They need mentors with business savvy. We all need to get involved in mentoring,” she said.
Baranco said those who are new to the business world may need help understanding how to get things done and how much work it takes to get a new idea into the marketplace. “We want to help those who are just getting started, but we want to see that they are totally committed,” he said.
Panelists agreed that Georgia has both assets and liabilities as a place to do business. “Education is ranked near the bottom in the nation,” Blaylock commented, “That doesn’t bode well.” She added that traffic is an issue in the metropolitan Atlanta area and voters’ rejection of the TSPLOST (Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) initiative to pay for transportation improvements suggests to outsiders that Georgians aren’t interested in solving the problem.
Lesser said politicians at the local level “have some work to do.” He said the inability of politicians to work together is harming the county and the state.
Panelists also noted that the area has strong assets and should, Voyles said, “do a better job of telling our story.”
He said the education picture is not all negative as the area has excellent colleges and universities. “Georgia Tech is a tremendous resource,” he said.
Baranco acknowledged that were problems a few years ago in some state colleges, “but that’s been fixed,” he said. “We now have a network of state schools anyone should be proud to attend.”
People care about quality of life and that’s a real asset here, Lesser said. “Decatur has one of the greatest downtown areas you’ll find anywhere,” he said. “Young adults especially love living in an area with lots of wonderful specialty shops, interesting restaurants and pedestrian and bicycle friendly areas.”
Asked what types of employees they look for their businesses, panelists agreed that they want those who go beyond their job descriptions. “We want to select the best, then invest in them. It should be a win-win for everyone in our organization,” Baranco said.
Voyles said he looks for flexible people who are “prepared to wear multiple hats. They should be able to perform three or four functions, depending on where they’re needed.”
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