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Diamonds in the Desert

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Gary A. White, Director, Business Retention & Expansion, TRIDEC

There are diamonds in the desert. I’m not talking about those adorning a crown, but rather those adorning the breakfast, lunch and dinner tables. In a previous post I mentioned the incredible potential of the Columbia Basin in southeast Washington State, positioned as a major international food and beverage cluster, based on the area’s reputation as a world-class agricultural region (“if it ain’t tropical, you can grow it here!”), its dominance of the Washington State wine industry, the presence of major food processing companies (i.e. Lamb Weston, Reser’s Fine Foods, Milne Fruit Products and J. Lieb Foods) as well as a generous sprinkling of specialty food and beverage companies.

The area also has desirable infrastructure: air, water and rail, educational and technical training and research and development. Talking about rail transportation, down the road in Wallula, Railex provides dedicated, refrigerated five-day service to Rotterdam, New York and Jacksonville, Florida, addressing Washington State’s remoteness from the populous East Coast. Of course, Washington State is well situated for that other population center to the West…China. The area has a food and beverage culture, historically grounded. It is obvious that the potential is enormous. The first thing I needed to do to develop that potential was to make some friends!

Friends (no, not the TV show)

A successful Cluster Development Program begins with identifying potential supporters. I like to call them “friends” of the program. These organizations are the foundation stones, providing advice and creditability. To date my “friends” are: Columbia Basin College, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Pasco Specialty Kitchen, Port of Benton, Port of Kennewick, Port of Pasco, Prosser Economic Development Association, Red Mountain AVA Alliance, Tri-Tech Skills Center, Washington State Department of Agriculture, Washington State Wine Commission and Washington State University Tri-Cities.

It was relatively easy to get these “friends” on-board. The Columbia Basin is ripe for innovative food and beverage cluster development. According to the Washington State Employment Security Department, food and beverage companies account for 44.80% of all manufacturing firms, 56.90% of all manufacturing wages and 68.30% of all manufacturing employment in the two county (Benton and Franklin) market. Now firmly on-board, I asked my “friends” to help in developing the company database and survey instrument that would launch the program.

Getting to Know You

The first step in developing Fabreo (food and beverage retention & expansion opportunity) Columbia Basin was to meet with cluster participants, to develop a relationship and cluster profile regarding the local industry and determine community strengths, weaknesses, needs and opportunities. This is accomplished by developing a well written survey, conducted in person – if possible, via telephone – if not. The survey was written with the target industry in mind. Approximately 100 companies (70 beverage and 30 food) were identified and targeted. Obviously, this is not a task suited for the faint hearted or time challenged. Prior to the survey meetings, an “introductory letter” was mailed to each of the targeted companies, stating the reason for the survey and thanking them in advance for their participation. The letter makes a cold call a little less chilly. I was actually surprised when a number of companies contacted me to schedule survey appointments after receiving the letter. They were excited, I was pleased.

As of the date of this post I have surveyed approximately 80% of the targeted companies. That target has slightly grown and shrunk over time with new companies discovered and companies originally listed gone or disqualified for various reasons. I began with the friendliest companies, ideally those that I already had a relationship with. The reason being is that the first few surveys are “editing surveys” designed to discover which questions might be confusing, not necessary and duplicative. One often discovers that questions that weren’t asked, should have been and questions that were asked, well….maybe should not have been. It is better to have nice folks tell you that you are incompetent rather than folks you barely know.

Although this survey was designed to take approximately 60 minutes (and most have), some have gone on for two to three hours. I have learned that it is best to give the participating company time to talk, vent and dream. It is amazing how much information one can get by listening, taking one down roads unplanned, but paved with bricks of pure information gold. The original survey instrument was 65 questions contained on eight pages. After approximately five surveys the instrument was edited down to 55 questions on six pages. It became simple and direct, appropriately designed to capture the necessary information while stimulating fascinating conversation, having fun and developing relationships.

Financial Partners with Vision

Good or bad, money is the oil that keeps the cluster development project on track and moving forward. It is often said that money follows vision. Based on my experience, this is true, if the vision makes sense. Not only should it make sense, but with a little stretching of the gray matter and scratching of the noggin, it should be obvious. Apparently, Fabreo Columbia Basin makes sense and is obvious because some excellent financial partners have climbed on board: Artmil, Chervenell Construction Co., Conover Insurance, Impact Washington, Moss Adams, Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business, UPS and Wells Fargo. The ironic thing is that in many ways these financial partners bought a pig-in-a-poke (in this case, a processed pig-in-a-poke), since details of their sponsorship benefits were initially vague, being developed as the program moved forward. But, they realized the potential, wrapped their arms around the vision and wanted to be recognized as a founding sponsor of what eventually will be a very successful, globally recognized manufacturing cluster. A whole industry appreciates their support!

Down the Road

One never knows what one will encounter when one begins a journey. Columbus thought he knew, but didn’t. Lewis and Clark weren’t sure and met with surprise upon surprise, some welcome, some not. Don’t get me wrong, my journey is pale in comparison to theirs. But, it is still a journey. Surely, the road is paved with the unknown, surprises and disappointments. But, just as surely, support, success and accomplishment beyond my expectations. Great things can be accomplished. After all the, Seattle Seahawks, with a quarterback small in stature and huge in heart, recently won the Super Bowl.

I have learned a great deal from the completed surveys. The more I learn, the more excited I get about Fabreo Columbia Basin. We’ve stepped out and good things are happening. We have been approached by the Washington State Department of Commerce about Foreign Direct Investment opportunities from China. Several Asian companies have expressed interest in the project, with one visiting the area. We have a project name, logo, website and a recently launched social media program all designed to position the Columbia Basin as a globally recognized food and beverage processing region.

The Fabreo Columbia Basin story is being written word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter. The end of one chapter is the beginning of the next. Stay tuned. It may be a best seller!

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