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2020 In Biz

Publisher's Note: Looking Back, Finding Gaps And Reaching For A Summit

By Rob Kaiser, posted Jan 3, 2020
(Photo by Suzi Drake)
I met recently with CastleBranch CEO Brett Martin about this 2020 In Biz project – looking back and ahead 20 years at our community.
 
What I learned is he likes talking about mountains (which I suppose isn’t surprising for the founder of tekMountain).
 
He drew a mountain and then two horizontal lines, segmenting it into three sections.
 
The base of the mountain represented the beginning of modern entrepreneurship in our region. He wrote “Beach” in that section to signify that people like himself, PPD founder Fred Eshelman and Live Oak Bank founder Chip Mahan moved here for lifestyle reasons and the community benefited when their start-ups became sizable employers.
 
Today, Brett puts our region on the middle of the mountain. Several entrepreneurial ventures have grown into sizable companies, and an increasing number of upstarts are percolating at tekMountain, UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and other parts of the community.
 
But Brett is concerned.
 
He ticks off a list of issues – there’s significant competition with other regions, which are better positioned for success. While the beach is a draw, it also limits how much talent is around our region. And the threat of hurricanes will keep away many large companies.
 
Right now, he said, we’re doing “horizontal climbing,” drawing squiggly lines up and down the side of the mountain. “Everyone is moving, but you’re not gaining a lot of altitude.”
 
“Our path to success is not paved,” he added. “We could easily slip back.”
 
What would that look like?
 
Imagine, he said, a couple of our major employers leaving town.
 
“I think we’re in an avalanche moment, and the community doesn’t see it,” he said.
 
Brett thinks the community should undertake two visioning exercises – one where we reach the summit and the other which is a worst-case scenario.
 
I think of this as the Charleston and Myrtle Beach extremes.
 
Charleston, which is a community Brett places atop the mountain, is a shining example of a region that found a way to blend tourism, manufacturing and a technology scene into a thriving economy.
 
Myrtle Beach is primarily a tourist draw, which is likely where we’d head with a loss of major employers.
 
Brett emphasizes the need for our region to have a vision and define our summit. That way we can see the gaps between our present location and the top of the mountain.
 
“To climb up, we have to organize,” he said. “We’re not organized.”
 
This captures what I often hear – our region does okay because we’re a tourist and retirement destination and because entrepreneurs like Brett, Fred and Chip have grown businesses here.
 
But we don’t have a coordinated strategy to try to reach a summit. We don’t market our region as a destination for business. And our region isn’t working together on gaps we need to fill because we’re not headed toward a common destination.
 
Looking back down and up the mountain is pretty much the point of our 2020 In Biz project. We’re taking the year of the Business Journal’s 20th anniversary to look back at where our community has come since 2000 and where we want to go by 2040.
 
We’ll do this with a range of stories, opinion pieces, large events and small discussion groups.
 
We hope you’ll be a part of it. Please let us know what topics you think we should address and if you have ideas you’d like to share.
 
We’ll look at where are region has been as well as current conditions, but our main goal is to help spark conversation and actions toward where we want to go.
 
Please share your thoughts with me at [email protected] and Editor Vicky Janowski at [email protected].

Rob Kaiser is the publisher of Greater Wilmington Business Journal.
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