Interview with Joe Raso, CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance

In 2012, Colorado Springs, Colorado leaders combined two local organizations, the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corporation, into one entity, the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance (RBA). Many are hoping this change will end cronyism and usher in a new era of meritocracy. Joe Raso, President and CEO of the RBA, was hired to merge these disparate entities due to his track record. He’s been lauded for his visionary, community-centric approach to business relations and economic issues.

In a richly informative interview I recently conducted with Raso, he clarified the progress, mission, and goals of the RBA. During our conversation, he expressed his frustration with many of his statements being politicized or taken out of context by local media. He also pinpointed one key problem we have between entities in the Colorado Springs business community, discussing how we put businesses into geopolitical “silos” so they cannot interact or communicate effectively. Raso’s eloquence and openness regarding the actual day-to-day operations of the RBA served as a refreshing contrast to the emotional responses so often encountered in local news stories.

——————

Deen: Since you began working with the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation in May of 2012, what would you say are the RBA’s proudest accomplishments?

Raso: There are a number of things that could highlight the success of the organization as it became one back in February of last year, and I really want to look externally instead of internally since there have been a lot of organizational structural changes that are hugely important to the future of how we do the work that we’re doing. But that doesn’t sometimes have that “sexy” appeal of what our mission is as an organization.

Deen: Yes.

Raso: So I guess the best thing to do is give you some framework around what we’re focused on. We’re focused on really driving four leading components of business and economic development. The first is how we support the business community in our region, those thousand companies that are, every day, producing products and services that they’re selling nationally and globally. We define those as base sector companies. Those are the businesses that are bringing billions of dollars into our market place. When we reorganized, we wanted to make sure we had infrastructure in place to go out and serve those companies. And, again, that doesn’t sound very sexy, but really what it amounts to is meeting constantly with hundreds and hundreds of companies, finding out what their specific needs are, and then working to address those needs.

For example, we’ve probably done more than 250 interviews with businesses here, these base sector companies, and of those, there’s been probably around 30-35% that have had or required a specific issue to be addressed, [by either] us providing assistance or one of our partners. So the utility company might be addressing a transformer issue for a business that might be having some reliability concerns. A company may be challenged with recruiting people. For instance, Xerox announced they were going to be adding a few hundred jobs. So we ask, how do we help them to communicate in the marketplace so they can get those employees with the skill sets that they need.

Deen: Ah. I see.

Raso: Likewise, there’s a business development component, and we also assess how we go out to attract business into the marketplace. Just recently, we announced the attraction of a company called fuseSPORT, which is an Australian company that moved their international headquarters here. They’re in the sports economy, specifically a software development company in the sports economy. But we’ve also helped a number of local businesses. In fact, we’ll be making several announcements over the course of the next couple of months on some projects. I apologize I can’t tell you who they are yet.

Deen: Oh, I understand. No worries.

Raso: So we’re seeing a lot of project activity with companies looking out of the state at us, but it starts first and foremost with our existing businesses. I mentioned that there are four areas. That is one area of business development: Existing Industry and Attraction. The other is Defense Development because the defense industry is 1/3 of our economy. How are we helping them?

Deen: Definitely important.

Raso: Hugely important. So for example, we work closely with Ft. Carson and help to develop a rapport on the value of Fort Carson and its opportunities that was used by the Army as they started to look at restructuring of their forces, and that was kind of led in many ways through our office. We worked with a lot of legislative things at the state level. Are you familiar with an organization called PTAC?

Deen: No. Could you elaborate?

Raso: PTAC works in procurement and technical assistance for government contracts, state and federal. We helped to get them the funding they needed to continue to operate and support our businesses who want to do business with the government, both with the military and education, all government agencies.

Deen: Well, that’s awesome, actually.

Raso: Yeah, and it’s not like the wildest, coolest stuff, but it’s really the blocking and tackling that has to happen for you to support an economy.

Deen: Yes, well, our economy definitely needs to be supported. We need more tax revenues coming in. It sounds like you’re working to bring in those large businesses, and also military as well since they’re such a big part of our economy.

Raso: Yes. You said large businesses, and really, our focus and most of our attention, in fact, 80% of the companies we serve are businesses that are local. Many companies that are interested in maybe moving operations / headquarters here, are small businesses. Most of them have employment sizes of under 50 employees.

Deen: That’s pretty average for small businesses, these days.

Raso: Yeah. I just wanted to stop there and make sure you know that we’re not focused on large companies though there are, at times, large businesses. We’re focused on two things: one, those companies that drive money into the economy, they could be 5 employees or 5000 employees. Second, is how do we support our local business community. About 95% of our businesses are what I would define as local businesses. Meaning that their survival is based on how strong the local economy is.

And you can think of that as a coffee shop with five employees or you can think of that as Memorial Hospital with over 1,000 employees. These are institutions that, if the local economy isn’t doing well, their business suffers. I think it’s a bit of a misnomer to describe our economy based on “small” or “large” business.  I think it’s better to talk about it by local business and base sector business.

Deen: Yes, that definitely makes sense.

Raso: So, when you think about how we’re structured, we’re structured around Business Development, which includes local business support and existing industry attraction, Defense Development because it’s just such a big part of our economy—its unique because of our need to deal with the Department of Defense and our elected officials—and Community Development is the third kind of leg to our chair. And that is primarily in two areas, one being our legislative affairs. We go about at the local, state, and federal level helping to influence and create policies that are going to allow our business communities to be successful.

And we’ve done a lot of stuff in that area. We were the leading organization to help get passage of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority Extension (PPRTA) extension, which is sales tax for roads. The extension of that was led by our organization.

Deen: That’s really great. We need to fix our roads and all the potholes.

Raso: Exactly. We were significantly involved in the vote for the lease of Memorial Hospital. We were significantly involved in the passage of Sheriff Terry Maketa’s ballot initiative to support safety in the community. We were one of the lead organizations to get $10 million in federal funding to support flood mitigation efforts because of the fire. In fact, we’re in the process right now of planning our follow-up trip to Washington DC this year in mid-September [regarding this issue]. I feel very good about our efforts on a legislative front to work with the city, county, state, and federal government to support businesses in our region. And I’m probably forgetting a few things, there’s just so much stuff that we’re doing, it’s just constant.

For instance, on the military side, we led the effort with representatives Lamborn and Gardner to effectively address the issue of Pinon Canyon, which is the Army’s maneuvering site south of here. Every year, there was a piece of legislation that came up that was a kind of black eye to the Army in terms of concerns about their ability to use that area for maneuvering activity, and this year we were able to work with our delegation and other partners to get that resolved at the federal level, thus creating less political fever, so to speak, around that issue. In addition, we’ve assisted half a dozen companies that have created or expect to create nearly 800 jobs and about $30 million of capital investment just this year. And we hope to have some significant announcements between now and the end of the year.

So it’s a question I can’t give you a short answer to because there’s just so much activity taking place. Right now we have well over 200 volunteers who are engaged in the organization in very targeted economic sectors, sports economy, aerospace and defense, healthcare, higher education, medical innovation, nonprofits, just to name a few of those sectors, and those volunteers are helping us to drive leads on projects to help us better message both internally and externally. Again, that seems, that [doesn’t sound] like a very sexy thing, but its hugely helpful so as we have companies come in, we can grab people from these teams.

And just to give you a perspective, if you go to our website, springsbusinessalliance.com, up at the top there’s a drop down menu, [Economic Development > Key Industries] with our industries. In each one of those, there’s a pdf that gives you a profile of the industry sectors and members of the team. All of that is part of an infrastructure that is pretty important for us long-term.

Deen: Absolutely. Well, it sounds like what you’re doing is reaching out to the different businesses in the area, and ones who are interested, creating personal connections with them, and also enabling them to be successful. I think that’s a very important thing for our economy, and it’s something that we’ve needed in this community for years and years. Now we’re finally getting it, but I don’t think people are hearing about all the great stuff you are doing because you guys operate, oftentimes, outside the limelight.

Raso: Well, we do. And also, sometimes we have our heads down going forward 900 miles an hour in doing the work. We have to constantly be saying, “How do we communicate this out and let people know?” Because when these two organizations were separate, you had a Chamber of Commerce that had a real strength in its relationship with the military, with local business, and a growing legislative affairs capability, and you had an Economic Development Corporation (EDC) that had a real strength in its recruitment and its focus on the base sector companies. And the merger of those is really what the leadership was intending to see this happen back almost two years ago.

Deen: So putting the power into a more effective use is pretty much what you guys are doing?

Raso: Absolutely. We’re just much more effective and efficient because we have the knowledge base and the connections with our business sector. In the past, these goals weren’t aggregated because there were separate organizations, separate boards, and separate cultures within one community. In order for us to compete nationally and globally, we’ve had to work to change that, and that’s a process. It takes time. You’ve got to really get clearly understood criteria and have a lot of clarity for what you’re doing and what you’re not doing. When these organizations merged, and you asked people what we should be and you wrote it down, there were probably a dozen things listed. And you can’t really do a dozen things really well.

Deen: No. You need to have one guiding principle. Otherwise, it just gets [organizationally] crazy.

Raso: Yes, and these are the types of organizations that can get unwieldy because you have a lot of people who have expectations of what was, and so one of our biggest opportunities is to spend the time telling people, “Here’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.” And it starts with that foundation of understanding what drives your economy. Because if you don’t understand that, with anything else you do afterward, people aren’t on the same page from the beginning, and it’s very difficult.

Deen: Yes. So you guys have been breaking down all the economic factors in Colorado Springs and figuring out where there are areas for growth. Is that right?

Raso: Yes. I’ll tell you, right now we’re working with Summit Economics, and they are helping our economics sector teams to benchmark who they are economically. For instance, they might ask, “What’s the size of the sports economy? What’s the makeup of industries? What infrastructure is there to support it?” Without knowing that, how do you judge or view over time and decide whether you’re better or worse off? So we’re really data driven in what we’re doing. That guides our legislative affairs, that guides our marketing, and that guides everything we do. We care a lot about good information and good processes, which allows us to be more effective and use our investors’ resources more efficiently.

Deen: It sounds like you are really getting down to the nitty-gritty, figuring out what’s wrong, and figuring out how we can fix it, and that’s what we need. There are some serious issues in the Colorado Springs economy.

Raso: There are. And it can’t be about what Joe thinks. It has to be about the aggregation of what the business community thinks, and then having that data to support the position so that this is not a conversation from emotion. It’s a conversation on what really needs to be done to drive our marketplace. We’re not there yet as a community or a region. And over time, my hope is that we can give our elected officials and our business leaders the ammunition in terms of good information so that some of these hard decisions can be made. We do have limited resources, and we can’t be devoting our time and effort into what I call a “peanut butter” approach, where we just cover everything thinly, and in doing so, we don’t do anything really well.

Deen: Yes. I think that’s actually a really good approach. I’m really glad I got to talk to you because I know when I viewed Mayor Bach’s information about the city budget, I was worried to hear how our revenues, even though they’re growing, are not growing enough in the city for us to really support ourselves in another three or four years unless some changes occur in our community. It sounds like you guys are on top of this and really are looking at some ways to bring more money in.

Raso: Absolutely. Our approach is one of abundance in our city. If we’re going to make investments, and by investments I mean all dollars—public dollars, private dollars, all dollars–where’s the best place to put them for the highest return for our community? And sometimes, those investments are in public infrastructure. Like PPRTA, or storm water, or the airport. And some investments are in appropriate tariffs for certain industries, or appropriate incentive programs that give us a return on investment for the right companies we want to have here.

And, the biggest piece I haven’t even talked about: our need to identify the demand workforce needs, and then working with higher education, K-12, the Workforce Center, and state legislative policy to make sure we have an available and capable workforce for our marketplace. The workforce issue is the second item under our Community Development focus. We have the legislative side, but it’s the workforce side that we have to really pay attention to, and in fact, before you called, I was finalizing a trip that our organization was putting together with Pikes Peak Community College, the Workforce Center, and UCCS to do some benchmarking of some of the top workforce systems in the country.

So those are things that are being driven right now, the results of which won’t be seen for a while, but we have to really understand the following question: What does a truly successful demand-driven workforce system look like and how can we start implementing something like that?

Deen: Exactly. So what would you say is the most pressing issue in the workforce, right now?

Raso: Well, part of it is a data gap. We have to ask whether we really understand the demands of our businesses, their occupations, and what they need skill-wise for those occupations. So part of it is just creating the knowledge base to know exactly where we want to put our resources for education and training. And so that’s key. Then, the second is we talk a lot about we need to create more jobs. And we don’t disagree. But let’s not forget that we have hundreds and hundreds of companies [that] right now have job openings they’re not able to fill.

Deen: Would you elaborate?

Raso: These are companies across all levels. These are automotive dealerships, these are call centers, these are engineering firms, and these are even software development firms. Pikes Peak Community College had a career fair probably two months ago now, and the minimum requirement of the employer that would be at the job fair was that they had to have at least ten job openings, and there were more than 120 companies at that job fair.

Deen: What?

Raso: We have 120 companies that, at a minimum, have at least ten job openings, so you can venture to guess that it could be upwards of 1500 jobs. We know that if you go on job boards right now, there’s probably some 4-6000 job openings in our region. Yet we have 25,000 people who are unemployed. So it’s about creating a system that can help educate, attract, and retain people with the skillsets that our companies are needing.

And that leads to what I like to call a “macro” issue for any economy, and that is [creating] an environment, a culture, of innovation that’s going to allow you to keep, attract, and retain young-minded talent.

Deen: Exactly.

Raso: Now understand that I didn’t say “young” talent. I said “young-minded” talent. There’s an important distinction there.

Deen: Yes. There certainly is.

Raso: And so, what are we doing as a community, as a region, is to create the spaces and the events that allow people to engage one another in a way that excites them, educates them, and allows them to drive more business here, more company creation so that we can be a place that is seen in other regions of the world as being an attractive place for doing business and for living.

Deen: Yes. Colorado Springs should be known as a beautiful place to live not only for the scenery but also for the economy.

Raso: That’s a very good way to put it. That’s something that as a region, it’s been talked about a lot, and there are efforts that are being made in some ways, but it’s probably not as aggressively addressed as we need to as a community. And again, that’s not a responsibility that falls on us [the RBA] alone, but we hear it from our companies all the time.

Deen: Yes, but we really have to engage the population to do that. We have to get people on board with your mission, onboard with what you’re doing and supporting you in order to create that sense of community and togetherness.

Raso: Yes. And that’s what we [have] with the Rising Professionals. We’ve got a group of young leaders. Some are working inside companies in middle management and moving up, some are entrepreneurs wanting to start and run their own companies, and some are just wanting to get better connected into the community. As they’ve matured over the last six / seven years—and by the way, when they were started, the intent was that one day they would “move out of the home” so to speak, and graduate—they have said, as an organization, “We feel the time is right, with your support, to help us take those steps.” Like someone graduating high school, and now they’re moving on.

We’ve been very supportive of that as staff, as a board, and we’ve worked and continued to work to help them through this transition. We brought in expertise with the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, to really get them to understand what kind of 501(c) structure do we want to form? Because those different structures allow them to do different things and limit them. The Rising Professionals asked, “How can the Business Alliance help us through that transition, both with connections, financially and otherwise? In response, the RBA asked, “How can we as an organization support them as a separate entity?” Which we will do.

And in fact, I’ve told everybody that we will always support the most creative organizations that are out there doing green events and connecting people. We support the Rocky Mountain Young Professionals Summit that will be in October. We just supported the “What-if” event. We’re looking to support different organizations that are doing different things that add to the creativity and the connection of young-minded people in our community.

Deen: That’s something that a lot of people don’t hear about your organization, and I think that has a lot to do with the “old-school”  perception of The Chamber of Commerce. Just as a Colorado Springs native, that’s what I see.

Raso: Yeah. And I think that’s very true. We have a responsibility to work on explaining that more. We recognize that there are so many different channels of communication, and people come with a preconceived notion of what we are.

Deen: Exactly.

Raso: I was just up in Denver with three of my board members at the Governor’s Colorado Innovation Network Conference talking about innovation as a community, as a state, as companies, in higher education. What are we doing to drive innovation in our state, and what does it take at those different levels to make that possible? So we’re not just saying it and not acting on it.

Deen: You’re actually going to these events and getting the information before you try and apply it. Good idea.

Raso: Now, there are a lot of people who are saying it’s going to slow, or you’re not paying enough attention on this or that. Well, the reality is that we have a big undertaking in front of us. We have a big mission. And we have a lot of people who, whether it’s the Mayor, the Council, the County Commissioners, established businesses, or the local business community versus the base sector, [demand] our time, and that’s why [we have] a very focused mission, very core areas of work that we’re engaged in, and a complete change to how we do and fund our work. All that’s happening as we speak.

Deen: That’s great, though. I’m really glad to hear that you guys are taking some steps to change the culture of Colorado Springs. It’s not necessarily getting rid of all the things we had in the past, but instead building on it.

Raso: Yes. This is not an “or” conversation. This is an “and” conversation.

Deen: Exactly. And that’s another thing that people aren’t used to in this community. It’s something that I want to try to foster as well. Can we work together, can we have these conversations, and can we actually do real things with the words that we say?

Raso: Yeah. It’s ultimately about action, results, and doing things. And then we correct as we move forward. But we must always be mindful that we must be acting. There’s a lot of inertia that sometimes makes this hard, and maybe, in this market, a little harder than other places, but it’s not an impossibility.  There’s a lot of what I call “under-leveraged assets” here. And I think it’s our responsibility to kind of move those different silos and bring people together.

Deen: What would you say some of those under-leveraged assets are?

Raso: You have a higher education community here that’s 40,000+ students strong. You have a sports economy here–that’s kind of what I call under the “wellness cluster umbrella”–that’s very strong yet doesn’t probably get communicated about enough. You have a strong military community, but what’s interesting is that some of the assets within our military don’t seem to get recognized and viewed in what I call “an innovative” way. And you also have a nonprofit community, 1 ,000 to 2,000 companies worth three billion dollars, and we tend to view it very narrowly.

Deen: Yes. We aren’t inclusive in our thinking. Nonprofits and regular business are separate, somehow.

Raso: Yeah. You know, a lot of people talk about the nonprofits as faith-based organizations. Well, that’s only 14% of the nonprofits. 12-13% are in education. Some are in healthcare, in sports, and in other sectors. And they’re very important, all of them, but we tend to isolate them and put them in the silos.

I think that one of our jobs is to see a cross section of those goals happen over time. We’d like to see people who are in one part of our community understand what’s going on in other sectors. Again, it’s not an overnight resolution that can happen, but we have to start somewhere, and ultimately, it starts with how you form your organization, how it’s structured. That kind of boring stuff.

What’s important about it is that as staff move on, as board members move on, and as community leaders move through the organization, if that structure is really sound and the foundation’s there, then you can really work from it. And when you go through a merger, that’s really just your first year or so of work.

Deen: Yeah. It’s rough because you have to completely redo all the systems that you once had or figure out better ways to do those things.

Raso: Yes. With people who felt like, “It’s okay for you to change, but don’t change my part.” But I think what allows us to make those changes without disrupting the organization too much is if we can provide real good clarity as to the foundation of why we’re doing what we’re doing, and [if] we can get people to agree that it’s accurate and supported.

Deen: Yes. Communication.

Raso: Yeah. Moving some cheese. It doesn’t cause the world to end for people.

————————–

As the interview ended and I thanked Mr. Raso for his candid and detailed explanations, I thought about Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson. The little people (humans) trapped in the maze failed to search for new sources of cheese when their supply ran dry. Instead, they moped and bewailed their fate. I hope, for our community’s sake, we can be more like the mice, who sniffed around and found new cheese. We have the resources and the will to change the Springs economy, but the change begins with conversations.

A significant trope reverberated throughout this interview. The “silos” Raso discusses serve to compartmentalize and divide our community. To break through the barriers that keep us distant, we need to reach out to others, especially to those with whom we may not agree, and work collectively to find viable community solutions.

Colorado Springs contains all the components to create a spectacular lifestyle for families and singles alike. The majestic splendor of our Rocky Mountains, the surprising friendliness of our citizens, and the quirky character of our city should draw professionals and entrepreneurs to Colorado Springs in droves. Perhaps many leaders and citizens in Colorado Springs should spend a little more time sharing a similar vision of the future.