Former Chamber economist hopes to effect change with new businessBusiness Profiles — By Melanie McIntyre on October 11, 2011 at 8:00 am
As the Columbus Chamber’s vice president of economic analysis for the last 12 years, Bill LaFayette is quite familiar with the workings of regional economies and workforce development– and he’s using that expertise as the foundation for a new venture.
In the spring, LaFayette founded Regionomics LLC. What he wants to accomplish with it is simple.
“There is a Ben Bernanke quote that was on my sig file at the Chamber,” he says. ” ‘Economics [is] not music or math. It’s not something that’s valuable for its own sake. Economics is only useful to the extent that it helps people– that it helps the economy.’ That is what I most want to accomplish– to help make things better than they are.
“My most rewarding experiences at the Chamber were working on projects that directly saved jobs, like the effort to save Defense Supply Center Columbus. You are talking about people’s livelihoods. If I help make a company or region more successful, or if I help workforce efforts to be correctly targeted to put people in hard-to-fill jobs, I am helping to make jobs more secure, reduce unemployment, and improve people’s opportunities. If I am able to do work that helps produce that result, I will consider Regionomics LLC a success.”
To learn more about what Regionomics does, how LaFayette feels about being an entrepreneur, and why he’s hoping economists will be wrong again, keep reading.
The Metropreneur: What kinds of services does Regionomics offer?
Bill LaFayette: Regionomics helps business, government, and economic development clients understand the economic environment in which they operate. But more important, I then help them use that understanding to develop strategies to help their organization, region, or community excel. Hence my tagline: from trends to insight to action.
Those services include analyses of the status of and prospects for an economy, be it a large region or a single ZIP code. Say your business currently operates in Columbus and wants to expand to Dayton. I can help you understand the similarities and differences between Columbus and this new market and its residents. I can help you target neighborhoods for focus. Maybe your business is having a retreat to plan for the coming year. I can join you and help you understand your business’s growth prospects and make a more informed plan.
Some industries are a better fit for a given region and are more likely to be successful than others. I can identify the most promising industries for economic development focus. Workforce development and strategy for an industry or an economy is a major emphasis. For instance, workforce agencies want to make sure that the training dollars they are giving their clients are positioning them for stable jobs with a solid potential for growth. Educational institutions want to be sure that their programs really teach the skills that their graduates will need in the job market. Economic developers need to understand workforce needs as their economies grow.
A very popular service for both public and private-sector clients is economic impact analysis. What is the impact of a specific firm, activity, or project on the region’s output, income, and employment? I did dozens of those studies while I was at the Columbus Chamber and have done three of them in the month and a half that I have been out on my own.
So it is a broad array of services, but it all comes back to helping you navigate the turbulent economic waters– and maybe catch a wave!
[M]: You’ve partnered with Metcalf & Associates. Why and what does that partnership allow you to do?
BL: Maureen Metcalf is a great partner, a great friend, and one of my earliest supporters in this venture. She has been offering her clients leadership development and organizational transformation services for ten years. Her business model really impresses me; she brings in as associates independent consultants whose skills are complementary to hers and we work on projects together. None of us is obligated to work together; we do so when it makes sense.
Partnering with Maureen allows me to place my economically-focused work in a broader organizational context, thereby giving the client a better and more useful result than I could have developed on my own. At the same time, effective organizational transformation absolutely requires understanding of the economic context, so that is an added value that I can provide to Maureen’s work. I have gotten to know a number of outstanding consultants over the years, and can certainly see myself bringing them into my own projects as the need arises. None of us knows everything.
[M]: Why did you decide to leave the Chamber and start your own business?
BL: My work at the Chamber really did teach me a lot of what I know now, but after 12 years it was definitely time for a new set of challenges and new opportunities for personal growth. A big part of that is the opportunity to work outside of Columbus. The tools and techniques I’ve developed to understand the Columbus economy use standard sets of data that are available to a greater or lesser extent for all metro areas.
I tested this last year when I was invited to do an analysis of the economy of Springfield, Ohio– my hometown. I also had the opportunity several years ago to do a comprehensive analysis with strategic development recommendations for Walton County, Florida, a rural county in the Panhandle. So Regionomics’ potential market truly is nationwide.
A second motivation is that I think I can produce a great product that meets the client’s needs. Regional economics is a specialized field that most economics students never learn. My doctoral work at Ohio State University included economics but focused on real estate markets, especially housing– a tremendous preparation for the regionally-focused work that I wound up doing. In my former life as a college teacher, I learned how to explain things clearly so people could understand them. Those are the skills that I bring to this new job. I don’t just want to make money; I want to give people something that they will find useful.
A final reason for going out on my own is to give myself the time and space to work on two issues that have really captured my interest over the past couple of years. One is using the diversity of regional economies to their advantage. The Columbus economy and the Dayton economy are almost completely different, but they are only an hour apart. Let’s think about the ways that the strengths of the Dayton economy can be used strategically to address gaps in the Columbus economy– and vice versa. We both benefit. We have done a great job uniting the Columbus region behind a common growth agenda, but in my opinion, we haven’t thought nearly hard enough about the collaborative opportunities right outside our borders.
The second issue is strategies for Ohio and Midwestern economic revitalization. This stems from reading a book two years ago that I plug every chance I get: Richard Longworth’s Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. He paints a grim picture, but offers some really intriguing ideas for moving us forward.
[M]: Once you decided to go out on your own, what were some of the first steps you took to get Regionomics off the ground?
BL: My last day at the Chamber was August 19, but I started thinking about the possibility last January or February. I let it be known that I was available for evening and weekend work to see how it felt to do work on my own. Of course, I let the Chamber know what I was doing to avoid conflicts of interest.
I got my first contracts in March, which is what I count as the starting date of my business. That same month, I met with the Small Business Development Center to talk through my idea and make sure that I wasn’t overlooking important issues or potential landmines. That meeting really reassured me that I was on the right track.
I relied on Maureen Metcalf’s experience and insight tremendously, and several other consultant friends were also helpful. I talked with potential clients to help me think through my service offerings and gauge their interest. Meanwhile, the income from those first contracts gave me the financial cushion I needed to absorb the possibility of several months without income. I hired an attorney friend –Samantha Quimby at Frost Brown Todd– to trademark my name and set up my LLC with the state. I talked to our tax accountant, Ed Kaiser, about the tax implications.
I just recognized that I had to take the time and effort to plan and get projects in the pipeline, and I had to spend the money necessary to make sure things were done right. And now I have just finished my first full month– in the black.
[M]: So far, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?
BL: I knew intellectually –even before I talked to Michael Bowers at the Small Business Development Center– that I would need an entire hat rack as an entrepreneur. But it has still been an adjustment to be Regionomics’ CEO, CFO, bookkeeper, chief marketing officer, business development manager, chief economist, and data grunt. All that takes time, and those hours aren’t billable. I am still building this contraption as I fly it, but I am getting much better at time management!
[M]: What do you consider the most rewarding aspect of being a business owner?
BL: I haven’t worked hours like this since I was writing my doctoral dissertation, but it is being a blast. It is deeply rewarding to have the full support and love of my family and friends, which is what makes this adventure possible for me. The other rewarding thing is doing work that I really want to do at the times that I want to do it –when I am most productive– and being accountable only to my clients and myself.
The networking is really enjoyable, and even the administrative tasks are fun. One of my consultant friends told me that the only thing I would regret about going out on my own is that I didn’t do it five years ago. How right he was!
[M]: What are your thoughts about the economy?
BL: I am starting to think about 2012. The economy is struggling and many economists are predicting another recession. But these folks have been consistently wrong for four years. They said that problems in the housing market wouldn’t spread to the broader economy, they badly underpredicted the length and depth of the recession, they overpredicted the strength of the recovery, and now they are saying that there is a 50/50 chance of a recession. We couldn’t trust them before, so I am not sure we can trust them now.
I just attended a two-day conference at OSU with mid-market CEOs from around the country, and heard a fair amount of optimism. The point is that we now have four years worth of pent-up consumer and business demand, which is being held back by weak confidence. If confidence improves, the economy might very well give us some very happy surprises. So I am paying close attention to confidence, and thinking –and hoping– that maybe the economists will be wrong again.
By and large, Columbus has been doing better than the U.S., and Ohio has been even stronger. Most of our key sectors in Columbus have been doing fairly well– other than manufacturing and transportation. Employment took a bad tumble in July, though, and made back only a fourth of those jobs in August, so we have to watch things very closely as the fall numbers start to come in.
To learn more about Regionomics, visit RegionomicsLLC.com.