When Dirk Draper was approached about applying for president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, he had only one caveat: It couldn’t be business as usual.
“In my career, I’ve looked for three things when I choose a job,” he said. “It has to be challenging; it has to be meaningful; it has to be impactful. This job had all three in spades.”
Draper took on the leadership role at the Business Alliance in the wake of the sudden departure last November of Joe Raso, the first CEO of the organization that combined the former Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and the former Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp. Raso held the job for two and a half years before tendering his resignation.
Draper intends to use his diverse background to take a broader approach to economic development — as an economist and former project manager for the Colorado Springs office of CH2M Hill, a global civil engineering firm.
“There’s a logic to it,” Draper said in an interview Tuesday with the Business Journal. “I spent the first 10 years of my career in banking. I did Main Street loans, small business lending. That equipped me to know exactly what small businesses need — I have a broad spectrum of knowledge about the complexities of business.”
After that, he worked as a regional economist with the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife, which he says gave him a regional perspective.
“I understand the interconnectedness of business, I understand we have a regional economy — not just a Colorado Springs economy,” he said. “And at CH2M Hill, I worked as an advocate to build the community, sometimes literally.”
All that experience gives Draper, who spent 13 years at CH2M Hill, a different perspective from his predecessor.
“He was a specialist,” Draper said of Raso. “And I have a staff of specialists. People who are experts at economic development, at military development. Great people who are really good at what they do. My job isn’t to specialize. My job is to lead this organization to a place where we can make an impact in the business community.”
Draper has a big job ahead: addressing ever-lower membership numbers, reconnecting with business sectors that feel removed from the RBA’s focus, building an economy less reliant on the military.
“So that’s one of my challenges,” he said. “Clone myself. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Meeting the expectations of the wider business community with a small staff is the other major challenge, he said.
“There are so many people with so many great ideas,” he said. “We just can’t address every one of them.”
And then he leans closer, and confides: “I kind of like that challenge. Whenever there are so many ideas, so many creative people, whenever there are so many ideas to sift through — that’s when great things happen.”
Under Draper’s leadership, the Business Alliance plans to pass on some of those ideas to other organizations. The goal is to be a catalyst within the business community, to create partnerships and to move the region’s economy to more stable ground.
The alliance’s board of directors will meet this fall to hammer out a strategic plan for the future. Until then, Draper plans to focus on rebuilding relationships in the community, getting better acquainted with the RBA staff and working on the external face of the organization, developing a strategic communication plan.
“I want to introduce myself in this new role,” he said, “and do a lot of listening about what role the Business Alliance should take in the community.”
Then, he said, he wanted to make sure the message is clear: No business is unimportant to the Business Alliance.
“I can’t do this alone,” he said. “It’s really a team sport. And we need to involve every single business sector in the community to be successful. It’s not all about recruitment of new business. It’s not all about primary employers who export their goods out of town. It can’t be.”
Draper, who has already met with about 250 people in his first two full months, acknowledges that small business owners have felt disenfranchised by the RBA’s positions and directions.
That led to drops in membership, he said.
“It’s a slow trickle,” he said. “We lose two or three or four a month. We need to make sure we’re providing a return on their investments. Business people don’t just write a check and go away. They need to know they’re getting value. And we’re going to give them that value.”
As news about Army personnel cuts, including at Fort Carson, loomed over the Tuesday afternoon interview, Draper said the goal isn’t to make the military less important to Colorado Springs.
“It’s an easy answer; it’s a tough strategy. We need the military; we don’t want it to be smaller,” he said. “We need to grow the size of our pie. We don’t want the military to go away; we want everything else to be bigger.”
To do that, Draper said he intends to invite as many people as possible to the table.
“I think that might be different than in the past,” he said.
“We need a whole lot of people involved in the community; we need to pay attention to all businesses. That’s our key message.”