Ralph Schulz spent about six years in Colorado Springs during the 1990s as national executive vice president for Junior Achievement.
Little did he know then, or when he left the Pikes Peak region in 1996, that someday he might have an additional influence on Colorado Springs.
But that’s what happened two weeks ago when Schulz, now president and CEO of the Nashville (Tenn.) Area Chamber of Commerce, was invited to speak to the Regional Leaders Trip contingent who had journeyed to Tennessee’s largest city.
Though he wasn’t a high-profile presence in the business scene here because his work was national in scope, Schulz never lost his affection for the city. And when the chance came to offer advice, Schulz jumped at the opportunity.
“People think regionally here,” Schulz said of Nashville, clearly comparing it to Colorado Springs. “We’re collaborative, not possessive.”
Schulz told the 60 visiting civic and business leaders how his operation works to promote and help cultivate Nashville’s business community. In less than an hour, he had as much of an influence as any other aspect of the four-day agenda.
Selling Colorado Springs to college graduates each year is a low-cost investment with a potentially huge return.
He talked about the differences between emphasizing top industries (in Nashville’s case, health care) and the area’s identity (obviously, music). He described how the Nashville Area Chamber has developed “councils” of industry leaders in several categories — sports, health care, technology and music — to cultivate those priorities. But unlike other cities, Nashville’s councils are composed largely of influential CEOs.
It sounded good. But many times on the regional trips, what the Springs delegation learns doesn’t translate at home.
Schulz was different. He came with some applicable points to share.
1. How to measure economic health. So many cities measure economic development efforts in simple terms: how many companies they attract and how many jobs those companies produce.
Nashville obviously plays that game too, but Schulz says his city is evaluated using a different formula: First, calculate Nashville’s cost of living in relation to the national average; second, compare that to the difference between Nashville’s per capita income and the national average.
Schulz cited the most positive statistics available (the specific source wasn’t clear), indicating Nashville’s cost of living was about 90 percent of the national average, while its per capita income was 116 percent of the nationwide average.
That would compute to what Schulz called a “discretionary benefit” of about 26 percent, or plenty of disposable income for the typical household.
Does it make sense for Colorado Springs to follow statistics more than arbitrary “top 10” ratings by subjective sources? Certainly.
Nashville’s cost of living by one credible index, bestplaces.net, actually stands at 99 with Colorado Springs at 101. Our average commute of 21 minutes beats Nashville’s 25. Colorado Springs’ average household income is $54,531, beating the national average of $53,046. In regard to weather and “comfort index” (higher is better), Nashville rates at 35, the national average is 44, and Colorado Springs towers at 67. All positive. So let’s use it.
2. How to recruit most effectively. For most cities, the strategy revolves solely around attracting and luring companies and businesses. Nashville’s idea of recruiting for impact takes a different spin. While 40 new companies brought 5,763 jobs to Nashville in the 2013-14 fiscal year, expansion plans by 81 existing companies added 13,762 new jobs.
Filling those jobs isn’t easy, and Schulz grabbed everyone’s attention with this: “For us, recruiting workforce is more important than recruiting businesses.”
Schulz says Nashville has to improve its workforce, especially in technology, and the impressive vehicle for that is WorkIT Nashville (workitnashville.com), described as “an initiative dedicated to attracting top tech talent to Nashville from around the world.” The website is brimming with information about Nashville, jobs, internships and everyday living, and the Nashville Chamber’s aggressive outreach effort and staff are connected with more than 3,200 young professionals.
What can we do? Focus on selling Colorado Springs every year to graduates from UCCS, Colorado State University’s system and most other state schools. That’s a low-cost investment with a potentially huge return.
3. The “secret sauce” for Nashville. Schulz didn’t hesitate, saying the key is simple: “Our business community is deeply, personally engaged, and not just with money.” In other words, the top executives at the biggest companies are engaged. When they need Nashville Mayor Karl Dean to help, he’s there. And as the Chamber’s website says, “Nashville is a thriving city filled with risk-takers. Positive energy and camaraderie fuel the spirit of the region.”
That was Ralph Schulz’s message, and 60 people from Colorado Springs heard every word. Now, we’ll see if any of it has staying power.