The Van Hool presentation at the 2018 Governor’s Conference in Nashville included background details from three of the key players in the Morristown success story, all of whom are women.
Benedicte Gruwez serves as the Van Hool project lead for the U.S. venture; Victoria Hirschberg is the TNECD director of business development and Ann Thompson is TNECD director of workforce development.
The presentation, a discussion panel, was facilitated by Allen Borden, TNECD’s deputy commissioner of Business Rural Community Development and attended by ECD staffers, along with city and county representatives from across the state.
“There will be a few things that you can take with you when you are working on prospective deals in your own communities that will help you land a great project like the city of Morristown and Hamblen County,” Borden said.
Hirschberg served as the project lead for the state, the first person with whom Gruwez made contact. She went to Borden in June of 2015 and said, “I need to go to Belgium.”
“I have a real hard time saying no to Victoria for anything, because she is quite the producer. So I said, ‘sure, jump on a plane; let me know how it goes,” Borden said. He added that Hirschberg helped the state develop a strategy for the Van Hool recruitment effort.
“I remember a lot about this project,” Hirschberg said. “No. 1, it was wonderful to work with the Van Hools over the three years – no joke; I have a screen shot of when I first arrived in Belgium on June 15, 2015. So when people talk about economic development projects, this is a great example of the fact it does not happen overnight, as we would like it to. I remember telling Allen, ‘I think I need to expand my trip to go to Brussels,’ and he said, ‘OK.’ I literally spent less than 24 hours on the ground.”
The preference for a sense of community by the Van Hool family was evident during that first visit.
“One thing I remember so much about that trip was getting in a taxi from my hotel in Brussels and going to their factory and seeing the small town, the beautiful town, that they are located in, about 40 minutes north of Brussels,” Hirschberg said. “I also remember having lunch in the family home across from the factory and learning about the history of the company. And when we understood that the project was moving forward, Benedicte and I met at Select USA (an ECD summit held in Washington, D.C.) a year later and I continued the conversation.
“People talk about relationships in this business; and it’s absolutely important, because you don’t know where you’ll end up and where projects will end up. When we finally went back in April (2018), I took those details that I remembered from all of our interactions, especially that first visit, and really shared.”
Earlier in the discussion, Borden joked about the initial code name for the recruitment effort: “Project Bus.”
“Project Bus was not my most creative code name; although someone really did ask me, ‘So what do they manufacture?’’ Hirshberg said, earning laughs from her counterparts in the room.
“That first visit was so important, because that was able to give every community in Tennessee the direction and feel; and I think that’s what made Morristown very successful,” she said.
The knowledge of what the Van Hools were seeking was essential because the recruitment effort pitted Tennessee against a number of other states.
“I would hear, ‘the governor of Utah just called me the other day,’ and I would think, ‘OK, this is not just Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, this is the entire country,’” Hirschberg said. “They have a network in Florida and it was very competitive. It was really putting on our best and really thinking about it. It was the ‘feel,’ I really sensed that. There was the finances, the bottom line, but also how do we show our communities, and the state, in the best light and give that ‘feel.’”
Borden discussed the elements necessary to attract an industry to a particular site.
“If you really think about it, with any successful economic development project, you absolutely have to have two ingredients. You have to have an address: a greenfield site, a brownfield site, an existing building that can be expanded on, you have to have a place to do business. You can even have the first ingredient, a fabulous site that meets all the client’s criteria; but if you don’t have the second ingredient, workforce – and by workforce, I mean delivering to the client company the number of workers they need, when they need them, with the skillsets they need – you don’t have a successful project,” Borden said.
The responsibility of getting those skillsets into the hands of Van Hool was given to Thompson. An initial phone call was made to her which included TNECD Commissioner Bob Rolfe and Borden.
“I remember exactly where I was. It was the Thanksgiving holiday and I was in Charlotte with my entire family and my extended family, so it was very stressful,” Thompson said.
“They told me, ‘Basically, we need a point person.’ We need someone who can work with workforce development and not just on the higher education side, but all the different parts of workforce development. On the higher education side, what can we do in the space of labor and workforce, how are we going to get the people together and get them aware of the positions? In going down to K-12, working with the Department of Education, how are we going to get the continual pipeline of workforce development in place?’
“It was right before Thanksgiving, and I was feeling really good, so I said ‘Sure, we can do this,’” Thompson said, earning more laughter from the audience.
“We quickly put together a strategic plan and I have thoroughly enjoyed working this company and working on this project; there’s something special about this,” she said.
Gruwez commented on the competitiveness that Hirschberg experienced.
“Of course, you compare different places and what the states offer, and they all have their own specific targets: employment, schooling. You understood clearly that’s what we wanted; and we do appreciate that you have Ann there in a position that you created, basically because we said that’s something other states offer us,” Gruwez said. “And I think the positive think is that you listened to what we said and you listened to what other states were able to give to us, and you were able to give the same thing and even more.”
Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain was one of several local stakeholders who attended the presentation on Nov. 2.
“We in Morristown-Hamblen County have a great economic development team. Everybody knows their roles, and they work well together. All the participants are very professional; they know what they are doing, and they know what’s good for our community. What I learned during this process was how closely we need to work with the state,’ Brittain said. “The state got them to Tennessee and it was up to us to get them to Morristown — to show them what our assets are, what the workforce is and what kind of community we are. And so it was such a team effort, and I think that’s the most impressive thing. I’m a team guy, and I think you get so much more done when you work as a team. And that’s evident in the recruitment of Van Hool.”