When the top executives of global corporations were in one room recently to share winning business strategies and advice, business stakeholders from the metropolitan Charleston area listened.
“Hearing from great organizations like Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing – those were some of the companies we networked with on this trip – and their insights about how they are dealing with the same issues that we are challenged by in business here are invaluable,” Patrick Garner, general manager of North Charleston’s Total Comfort Solutions, told CMCC News.
“Whether it is personnel, dealing with millennials, trying to develop a culture that’s magnetic and attractive to people, how they develop people – in terms of learning what some of the top organizations in the country are doing in those areas, I got a lot out of all those things,” Garner said about the 2016 Metro Leadership Visit (MLV).
The annual MLV is spearheaded by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce (CMCC) and business leaders travel to other U.S. cities to learn best practices for solving some of the region’s most vexing challenges. This year’s MLV was in Seattle to learn about the city’s path and experiences in commerce, transportation infrastructure, and aerospace and technology, among other industry segments.
Previous MLVs have been to Nashville (2012), San Antonio (2013), Indianapolis (2014), and Richmond, Va., with a stop in Washington, D.C. (2015), according to CMCC’s Laura Bright, vice president of marketing.
Specifically on the Seattle visit, 71 Charleston business travelers participated in tours, receptions and VIP discussions to gather information and learn lessons that might be tailored to inform the future for metro Charleston.
“Traveling with people from diverse businesses in Charleston, who are in the same marketplace dealing with the same logistical struggles with roads, transportation, cost-of-living issues, talent supply in terms of the right kind of people to fuel a growing business -- it’s very beneficial to learn from them, as well,” said Garner, who added that he gleaned a lot of ideas from conversations about how to overcome “the challenges that we all face.”
The most important thing learned by MLV participant Laura Varn, vice president of human resources management at Santee Cooper, which is South Carolina’s state-owned utility, was how to lead together to support Charleston.
“The visit helps us form a true regional leadership team, a strong team,” said Varn, a former chairwoman of the CMCC who now has been on four MLVs.
“Relationships matter a lot here and these types of interactions, where you spend two days immersed with each other in Seattle, you really get to build some strong personal and professional relationships. So I think that’s really why we do all these things; it helps us lead as a region here, back home. We know each other better, we’re learning best practices from other areas, but it helps us scale up our leadership to help make our region better,” she told CMCC News.
Also in agreement is Patrick Bryant, an equity partner focused on business development for local startup Bidr and a partner in video company, Go To Team, who said that after attending the MLV multiple times, he’s been able to strengthen relationships with other business leaders throughout Charleston.
“It gives you the opportunity to really get to know these leaders and their thoughts about regional issues facing Charleston. Obviously, when you build trust by learning and seeing together, it changes your ability to solve these issues for Charleston. And, when you work together on these issues, it's an easy transition to doing business together on other fronts. The entire experience has yielded my most valuable business relationships," said Bryant.
There were also other items that resonated with the Charleston visitors to Seattle. For instance, Varn said some aviation industry experts reported on Boeing’s far-reaching $85 billion-a-year impact on the state of Washington, where the company was founded, as well as on the local region. The scale and scope of the company’s investments in the state’s infrastructure alone totaled more than a $1 billion, according to a 2015 Boeing impact report.
“That was a real big eye opener for us. We’re very excited Boeing is here, too; they’re just starting to grow and I think some people expect that Boeing is going to be here forever. It was a real good early wakeup call for us to make sure we continue to have a strong relationship with Boeing and that we’re not taking them for granted so that Boeing benefits and the region benefits, too,” said Varn.
And from a personal business perspective, Varn said she also learned about some HR-related topics happening in Seattle that likewise have relevance for her in Charleston.
“For example, they are going to be increasing the minimum wage in Seattle to $15 starting next year and are doing some things with sick time and something called safe time, which is a fairly new concept. So having seen what they’re doing out there … was incredibly helpful to get a pretty good hold on what was happening in some hot spots as it relates to HR,” said Varn.
The Charleston business leaders collectively said the MLV provdes a valuable and beneficial return on investment.
“I’ll be on trip No. 4 next year. I see no reason not to continue to participate. It’s a great value for our company and it’s a great value for myself individually,” said Garner.