by Karen Brune Mathis
Regional business relationships, access to capital and sustainability rounded out the final set of presentations March 9 to a Jacksonville Community Council Inc. study group.
Starting this week, the “Recession Recovery and Beyond” study committee will review the findings from the presentations that began in October.
It will develop conclusions and recommendations over the next several weeks before publicly releasing its report.
The committee wants to determine which industries and jobs should be developed and recruited that will best sustain the regional economy through future recessions.
Parvez Ahmed, associate professor of finance at the University of North Florida Coggin College of Business; Bridget Merrill, vice president of targeted opportunities with Tallahassee-based Enterprise Florida; and Cleve Warren, president and CEO of Essential Capital, spoke at the meeting last week.
Ahmed emphasized the importance of sustainability, which encompasses environmental, social and economic practices.
He described sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without jeopardizing the ability of the future generation to meet its needs.”
Ahmed told the more than 30 JCCI committee members that the UNF business college will start a Center for Sustainable Business Practices that he and Associate Professor Dag Naslund will direct.
He said sustainability drives innovation and allows businesses to sustain their profits for a longer time.
Ahmed cited a study in which 93 percent of CEOs surveyed said sustainability issues will be critical to business success.
Merrill focused on sustaining local and regional businesses.
“No community, no county, no city, no region within the state of Florida stands alone,” she said.
Areas such as Northeast Florida that combine their assets and market their collective strengths fare better in economic development, according to Merrill.
Merrill offered three suggestions to the seven counties of Northeast Florida participating in the study.
• Remember that you are a region.
• Remember that all politics and all business is local. “What your local business feels about the region is the biggest reason local people will stay or leave,” she said, advocating for existing industry support programs.
“Your local businesses need to know that you thank them for being there,” she said. “Saying thank you goes a long way.”
• You must have infrastructure. Merrill defined that as roads, water and sewage connections, broadband Internet access and people with the proper skills. “You have to have people with the right skills and abilities,” she said. “Your educational community has to work” with businesses to develop the work force.
Warren focused on the ability of small businesses to sustain their operations.
He advised them to “retrograde,” meaning to retreat, retool and re-arm in order to survive and grow in today’s economy, which continues to recover from the recession of December 2007-June 2009.
A veteran banker, Warren said it was difficult for companies of any size to find financing. “It’s tough now for even big businesses to borrow,” he said. “It’s tough sailing out there.”
Warren said lenders can’t take risks and look for the “five Cs” in making loans: The capacity to run a business, creditworthiness, collateral, cash and character.
Warren said that while the tight lending environment “will not last forever,” it will challenge small businesses to find the working capital “to keep the lights on.”
“Save your money,” he said quipping advice to “put it in your mattress.”
Warren also cautioned that small businesses should not rely on contracts with the government. “Government is out of cash,” he said. “That opportunity is dead.”
Ahmed said governments should follow a public policy of creating a division of sustainability, define clear and measurable goals and recruit “a big-name champion for the cause.”
In Jacksonville, Mayor John Peyton created the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, whose five focus areas are:
• Green building and energy conservation
• Vehicle replacement and operation
• Materials and waste management
• Water conservation
• Sustainable maintenance practices
Ahmed said sustainability of resources includes students and people, including “our ability to recruit the best and the brightest.”
“We are facing a brain drain,” he said. “The best and the brightest are using our resources and leaving,” said Ahmed.
He also tells students that their competition isn’t across the street. “Your competition is in Shanghai, in Mumbai.”