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Running region’s push to attract jobs

 

It is not easy to persuade companies to locate to New York, with its tax burden and regulatory environment being perhaps the most onerous in the nation.

That is the task facing Mark Peterson, president and CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc., an economic development organization supported by private and public investments.

GRE, which employs 10 people, is the marketing agent for the region’s nine industrial development agencies.

Its $2.2 million budget this year is 85 percent funded by private entities, including major corporations in the area. The other 15 percent comes from marketing agreements with the IDAs.

"With the nine county IDAs we work with, we act as their exclusive marketing agent outside the region to attract new companies," Peterson says. "For many of them, it would be difficult to duplicate what we’re able to do."

It has not been an easy lift for GRE, launched in 2001 to stimulate job growth and capital investment in the region.

Its biggest splash came early in 2006 with the announcement that Barilla America Inc., a division of Italian pasta maker Barilla Group, would build a manufacturing and distribution center in Avon, Livingston County. The $96 million project has resulted in 120 jobs at the plant, say officials of the Livingston County Industrial Development Agency.

"Unlike our IDA partners or our economic development partners, I don’t have tax abatements to give," Peterson says. "I don’t have any incentives to give you. I have nothing. I’m the marketing agent. My job is to get the community in a position to win.

"Whether or not we win depends on a lot of factors that I don’t really have total control over. But the reality is if we can put ourselves in a position to win more often, so we’re not excluded just because they don’t know about us, we’re doing our fair share."

Peterson, 49, is GRE’s third president and CEO, following Michael Finney and Dennis Mullen.

Finney, hired in 2002, left in October 2005 to return to his native Michigan as head of a newly created economic development agency in Ann Arbor. Mullen, a former chief executive for Birds Eye Foods Inc. in Rochester, led GRE until becoming upstate president of the Empire State Development Corp. in August 2008.

"I think he’s doing a terrific job," says Daniel Burns, Rochester division president of M&T Bank Corp. and GRE chairman.

"We did an exhaustive search to find Dennis Mullen’s replacement. We talked to some really talented people and had a very thorough interview process with all the candidates. Mark was by far the top vote getter."

Peterson joined GRE in 2005 as managing director of investor relations after serving as president of Bishop Kearney High School for nearly five years.

"He’s a quick learner," says Albert Simone, retired president of Rochester Institute of Technology, who as former chairman of the GRE board headed the search for Mullen’s replacement.

"He does have an executive background. He has a strong background in fundraising. That’s important for GRE because we don’t sell a product or service. We’re just going to try to bring firms in."

Projects increasing

Peterson replaced Mullen as president and CEO in August 2008.

"What I’m most proud of is the fact that in this recessionary period of time, we’ve still been able to build a pipeline," Peterson says. "That’s really all we have control over. We’re working double the number of projects we did a year ago, and that was up almost double the year before."

GRE was involved in 50 projects in 2009, with 15 companies coming for 24 site visits. The number of site visits more than doubled the 2008 total, Peterson says.

"What that means is we’re getting a better look at higher-quality deals, and we’re getting more of them to the finals," he says. "Now, that means we still have to get more of them across the finish line so they create real jobs. But you first have to know that you’re doing the right thing to get a good, solid look, and get a chance to bid on those projects.

"When they’re here to kick dirt, we know we’re in the final three to six communities being considered."

GRE is in final negotiations on two projects now, Peterson said. One involves a Fortune 100 company and would result in as many as 150 jobs. The other involves three companies backed by a venture capital firm. He would not provide specifics.

"We’re developing relationships not just with national site selectors but with venture firms, both here and in Western Europe and around the globe who specialize in growth or emerging growth companies," Peterson says. "These are not startup or preseed companies. These are companies that have tested intellectual property, patents, have products fully developed and ready to go to market.

"They need knowledge workers, a heavy work force ramp-up, connectivity to suppliers and to research universities and highly talented young people, everything from technicians to managers. That’s a space where we feel we have a great story to tell."

A decision on each project could occur within the next couple of months, Peterson says.

"Our goal is to get some wins," he says. "Our goal is to be able to make some substantial announcements before the end of the year."

Peterson has balanced GRE’s recruitment of business to the Rochester area with the needs of GRE’s private and public investors, Burns says.

"He’s taken on two jobs now," Burns says. "He’s making personal calls to site selectors, as opposed to doing trade shows, and sending e-mails to these site selectors who really call the shots in the industry.

"The second thing he’s done is he’s said if there are companies that have factories or plants in other places, let’s get close to them and see if we can help find an economically feasible way for them to locate all or some of their operations here in Rochester."

Central New York native
Peterson was born and raised in Baldwinsville, a Syracuse suburb. He was a high school wrestler and cross country runner, and he captained the sectional champion cross country team his senior year.

"I wasn’t great, but I was with a good team," he says. "I ran a couple of marathons when I was 17. That got old after I got to college and did those kinds of things."

Peterson, the first in his family to attend college, enrolled at St. John Fisher as an economics major.

"I was always interested in politics, but I liked numbers," he says. "I lasted one year in economics and changed to political science. I really enjoyed the government courses.

"I thought I wanted to go to law school and be a congressman. I thought that would be so cool. My junior year I did a year in Washington as an intern and decided the last thing I wanted to do was be a congressman."

Peterson paid for his college education by waiting tables and digging graves, thanks to a job offer from his high school cross country coach, whose family took care of a nearby cemetery.

He thought about law school but decided he could not afford it. After getting his degree from St. John Fisher, he was hired by consultant Kathleen Pavelka-now president of Telecomp Inc. in Brighton-to oversee a work-study program at Syracuse University in which students called alumnae to raise $1 million for a new student center.

"That was my first fundraising experi-ence, and I just trained students," Peterson says. "I wasn’t much older than they were, maybe three or four years. I got them motivated and made sure they knew what they were supposed to do and followed the script. That was my launching into a pretty long career in fundraising."

He spent three years at Syracuse, then took a similar job in November 1987 with the University of Michigan, where he set up the largest telephone fundraising program in the country at that time.

"We were the front-page news story on Fundraising Management magazine," Peterson says. "We raised about $15 million over the telephone for Michigan, in a $300 million campaign."

During his six years in Michigan, Peterson also coordinated fundraising for the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University and the University of South Carolina. He also did fundraisers for the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, as well as for various hospitals.

Then, with his wife, Kathleen, expecting their second child, Peterson decided to look for a job that involved less travel. He was hired as director of major gifts at Hiram College in Ohio, where he helped raise $30 million for a capital campaign. He also got an MBA at Kent State University.

He had decided that the MBA would give him the best chance to advance his career. He drew that conclusion after two cracks at law school in Michigan, one class each at Wayne State University and the University of Detroit.

"I remember sitting in a classroom with a professor, and we argued for three hours about one word in a contract," Peterson recalls. "I went up after the class and said to the professor, ‘Is this what lawyers do?’ He said, ‘Yeah, for $400 an hour.’ So I said, ‘That’s it, I’m out.’"

Back to Rochester
When his work at Hiram College was completed, he accepted an offer from Pavelka to be vice president and chief operating officer at Telecomp and moved back to the Rochester area 14 years ago.

"I spent five years there," Peterson says. "It was a for-profit business in the non-profit world, but in something I was very familiar with."

Peterson next went to Bishop Kearney as the first lay president for a Congregation of Christian Brothers high school in the country.

"It was a tremendous challenge," he says. "They had had decreasing enrollment for a decade. They really needed some fundraising help, and I thought I could make a real impact there.

"Education was a huge tool for me to get somewhere else in life. Half of the kids were city kids, and that was meaningful to me," he says. "From a faith standpoint, I was really drawn to it. I thought I was being called to do that."

His interest in GRE came as a result of a friend who was doing fundraising work for the organization.

"But I was not really looking for a job," Peterson says. "I put her off for three or four months. Finally I said, as a friend, I’ll meet with Michael Finney. I’d be happy to talk with him."

He talked with Finney for 30 minutes. A few days later, Finney called Peterson.

"He said, "If you were looking for a job, what would that look like?’" Peterson remembers. "I described some things that I’d like to see happen in the community, and things that I thought were challenges, and things that I thought I’d be excited about doing."

Three months later, Peterson accepted an offer from Finney to oversee investor relations and help recruit GRE’s board of directors.

"That was really my background, doing the fundraising, doing the work with the board, getting everybody on the same page strategically," Peterson says. "It seemed like an exciting opportunity."

Peterson served as second in command to Finney.

"I think the plan was for Michael to remain CEO for three or four years and maybe groom me, and over time I might have a chance to lead the organization," Peterson says.

Those plans changed six months later when Finney left to be president and CEO at the newly created Ann Arbor Spark and of Washtenaw County’s economic development agency.

"I wasn’t in any way, shape or form prepared to be the CEO at that time," Peterson says. "I wasn’t that well known by the board or by the community."

Mullen, then vice chairman, was chosen to lead GRE.

"And that worked out pretty well," Peterson says. "We made a decent team. Dennis can be a tough taskmaster, but I think he respects people that can perform. We worked very closely as a team for three and one-half years, and I was pleased that he felt strongly enough about my work to recommend me for president."

Modified strategy
GRE under Peterson has adjusted its economic development philosophy.

Its original four targets were optics and imaging, medical device technology, clean or green technology, and food and beverage manufacturing. The changes resulted from several factors, Peterson says, including the impact of the recent recession and a better understanding of the strengths of the GRE team.

"Some of the same basic platforms are still in place, but we’ve thrown out some and added some new ones," he says. "And we’ve targeted the strategy much differently, and I think that’ll produce results."

Optics is no longer a priority for GRE, Peterson says.

"More often, what happens in optics now is a larger optics company will buy one of our smaller optics companies," he says. "They won’t move it. They’ll infuse it with cash, add additional people here and grow it right here. So it’s a good growth strategy, but they’re not likely to bring a new optics company into the region."

GRE’s interest in medical device technology has widened, Peterson says.

"Life sciences is a little broader now," he says. "It’s not just medical devices and medical imaging. There even is some really good technology with vaccine technology out of the universities."

Clean technology has expanded into what Peterson calls energy innovation.

"We realize that going for these big solar deals, even though we have looked at some of those, very often they need large public incentive packages of about $100 million," he says. "It’s not realistic right now for New York State to do that kind of investment.

"But we’re very competitive in the research and development portion of those kinds of companies, which takes a much smaller public investment. In fact, it’s mostly a private investment."

GRE helped coordinate a New York Power Authority forum on wind power this week at Monroe Community College. The conference is part of the NYPA’s proposed Great Lakes Offshore Wind Project, which could bring wind turbines to the waters of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

"The entire energy innovation space is very interesting," Peterson says. "There are some great opportunities. Green jobs and solar, wind, biofuels, fuel-cell technology, sustainable building and energy efficiency are all going to be part of the future. I think Rochester has a huge role to play in that space."

The challenge, he adds, is the scope of the green energy marketplace.

"There are federal subsidies, state subsidies, mandates for certain amounts of green energies," Peterson says. "It really makes the market difficult to figure out.

"There are also a lot of competing technologies. No one solar technology has definitively won the marketplace. Wind is the same way. So we find ourselves in a position of promoting certain wind projects and in other cases looking at another project and saying it doesn’t work, that it won’t produce jobs and won’t do the kind of investments."

GRE has not taken a stance on whether Great Lakes wind turbines are a good idea.

"We think it’s important to explore all possibilities, for job growth and investment, and that would speak to something like offshore wind," Peterson says.

"We’re not a public policy institution. We are hosting and being helpful in the discussion process that’s going on with offshore wind because of the potential for jobs to be created locally to produce materials, and more low-cost power. Whether or not it’s the right thing to do, I have no idea. … I’m concerned about a fair discussion."

Food and beverage makers are still a target of GRE, but with a focus on contract food manufacturing, Peterson says.

GRE has added business services such as back-office financial and software to its marketing strategy.

"There’s tremendous strength in software support services in this region," Peterson says. "We have 25 or 30 of those companies. All of them are growing very rapidly.

"We believe we can bring some companies that are four and five people to start and then expand to 30, 40 or 50 people pretty rapidly. If you get five or six of those growing, you can create a lot of jobs really quickly, as many as you could with one big deal."

Existing companies account for 80 percent of economic growth in the Rochester region and throughout the country, Peterson says.

"(But) those new dollars, those new jobs coming in have an explosive opportunity for multiplying the growth of our own companies and our own suppliers, as well as our own communities," he says.

"There’s nothing like new money and new investment coming in. I think we’re going to see some real success in 2010, and hopefully even more success in 2011 and 2012."

Education focus
Peterson, who lives in Webster, remains involved in education. He and his wife, along with other business leaders, opened St. John Bosco Schools in 2008. The Fairport organization is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester and is a member of the National Association of Independent Private Catholic Schools.

Peterson’s 6-year-old daughter, Liann, is a first-grade student at the school, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade.

"It is independent of the diocese, independent of anything," Peterson says. "We’ve had some wonderful success with that-26 kids our first year and 65 this year. It looks like we may be as large as 105 next year.

"It’s always a very challenging environment when you’re starting something from scratch. We opened the doors 59 days from the time we decided to launch a school. At the time we had no faculty, we had no building, we had nobody. We just had five crazy people in a room, thinking we needed something better for our children."

Peterson also teaches fundraising development during winter semesters at the SUNY College at Brockport in its master’s of public administration program.

Peterson is a member of several community boards and holds the position of vice chairman of Continuing Developmental Services Inc. He will become chairman in January.

"When I’m not doing those kinds of things, I like to play golf," he says. "I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy hitting the little white ball around."

He no longer runs, thanks to three knee surgeries.

"I do a little treadmill work," Peterson says. "I just got back into working out regularly after 10 weeks of physical therapy. I think my days of distance running are over."

He nonetheless has plenty to keep himself busy.

"I enjoy the work that I do," he says. "I enjoy my family. I’ve got a great life. I think I probably work hard. My wife will tell you I work too hard. But it’s not work when you’re having fun."

Mark Peterson
Title: President and CEO, Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc.
Age: 49
Home: Webster
Education: B.A. in political science, St. John Fisher College, 1983; MBA, Kent State University, Ohio, 1994
Family: Wife Kathleen; daughters Shannon, 21, Megan, 18, Erinn, 13, and Liann, 6
Hobbies: Golf
Quote: "I think in the coming months we’re going to have some really nice announcements. We’re very close on a couple of things that I’m highly confident are going to happen, that will create brand-new jobs."

4/16/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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