Matt Hurlbutt reflects on his role as an economic development agent: "It's about connecting the dots."


Our guest for this episode of PolicyWorks is Matt Hurlbutt. Hurlbutt serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at the Greater Rochester Enterprise (GRE). Matt HurlbuttIn this conversation, Hurlbutt reflects on the role of an economic development agent, what it takes to attract and retain businesses, and the institutional relationships an economic development agency must form with other actors and agencies in the regional economic development ecosystem. Hurlbutt also reflects on the specific dynamics of the economic development and workforce development ecosystems, where he has also had extensive experience.


"We act as a concierge for the region. It's really asking the business leader, 'what are you looking for? What's keeping you up at night?' And then what do we have in this region that can help solve that problem? And not just solve the problem, but also help you grow into the future. "


Hosted by

Rohan Sandhu

This episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Note: This transcript was automatically generated and contains errors.

Rohan: Matt Hurlbutt, welcome to Policy Works.

Matt: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

Rohan: Matt, let's start with your recent successes. The Greater Rochester Enterprise has had a record breaking few years with a billion dollars of new capital investment over 2021. Tell me about the effort behind these numbers. From where you sit, what goes into making such investments happen?

Matt: Well, I think it goes to the core of Greater Rochester Enterprise. It's a collaborative organization and we're very focused on understanding what businesses are looking to do in a variety of industry sectors. Also having a good pulse on what is going on within the region itself, within the nine counties that we serve here in the greater Rochester Finger Lakes region of New York. And how to best connect businesses that are expanding and those that we're attracting to the region, to the assets that they need to grow. So it starts with [00:01:00] something simple. Really listening to the customer, and then connecting those dots in a business-like fashion, really focus on results and execution. And again connecting the dots as things move forward.

Rohan: I want to dive a little deeper into the GRE's work. How much of your work is strategy and planning versus implementation? You talked a lot about playing connector of sorts, keeping your ears to the ground and providing information, paying a coordination function - how much of that is playing that coordination function versus having a very calibrated strategy around sectors you want to grow and develop.

Matt: Well, it's a little bit of both. The engagement helps lead to understanding what industry is dealing with now and what is coming next. We talk about this a lot, the focus on connecting with existing businesses in the region, [00:02:00] understanding the assets here. Also, understanding the technical capabilities of our colleges and universities, both from a workforce supply standpoint as well as research and development capabilities.

And then of course industry publications. Going back to our strategic assessment that was done in 2002 when we were created, keeping that updated, and how it relates to global markets now. Understanding industry trends and how the assets that we have in this region connect to support some of those companies that are leading further innovation, that are looking for sites and facilities and then making those dots, so that they can come to a good business decision and do that here in Rochester. So the strategy from once we were formed, as well as implementing that strategy, is really tied together. We're kind of running at a quick pace, but also continuing to move and adjust as the market moves.

Rohan: Since you mentioned it, tell me a little bit about that 2002 strategy and about the origin story of the creator Rochester Enterprise.

Matt: Yeah, that's a little bit before my time, but my understanding is some high net worth folks who were business people in the region saw companies making announcements in other areas of the United States and thought that that's a company that should really be doing business here based on the products or services they provided and how that should line up here in this region. And they really came, they did an analysis and came to a conclusion that there was a need for a regional coordinating, collaborative organization to market the region for those business attraction investments and also collaborate with local economic development officials but with local business as well as our college university partners and others, to make sure that the region put its best foot forward for those opportunities. And also supported that business expansion activity locally, [00:04:00] and some of the entrepreneurship assets that we have in the region. Really amplifying that, from entrepreneurship to innovation, growing existing companies and then attracting new investment.

So it was really that three legged stool and the original purpose. And then we really have run to that mission even as we are 20 years later now, having some success both on the expansion side as well as some of our attraction investments that you mentioned.

Rohan: I do want to dive a little deeper into how you work with all these other institutional players, but we'll do that in just a moment. I want to get back to things around the GRE's overall strategy. While we talk about that 1 billion in new capital investment, the GRE also has a stated focus on companies with between 10 and 99 employees. How do you draw that balance between the big ticket investments and supporting these small businesses?

Matt: Yeah that's a constant dynamic, especially now as what we call project volume is pretty high. Normally we support any opportunity, whether it be a small business coming to the region or a small business expanding up into a company, and with a Samsung with a 17 billion investment, 2000 jobs. Anything in between.

So we really run and serve all of those size projects on any given day. We haven't refrained from that. The stickier part is in some of the startup realms where a company might not be financed, whereas has a business plan yet. That's where we try to connect them to other resources to make sure you have a business plan, it's viable that you're financed, so that we can help you grow and connect to assets here in the region.

So it's a balancing act on any given day. Luckily we're blessed to have a great team here who will take a call from just about any company. Help connect the dots. And depending on where they are and what we call the site selection process, we will serve them to the greatest extent possible.

[00:06:00] Sometimes that may mean acting as that concierge for the region where we are connecting them to a resource that can help them move forward. We may take it on as a longer term project or connection point for us, or we may hand it over to one of our colleagues and our partners in the region to help serve that company moving forward depending on where they are in that growth spectrum.

Rohan: Since you mentioned it, tell me a little bit about your team. How large is it? What are the kind of capabilities? And, how have the capabilities of this team had to evolve over time.

Matt: Yeah, we've got about 10 people on the team right now. We are a small not for profit organization supported largely by the business community to serve local business. Everybody here comes from a slightly different background. We've got some people who are involved in media, public relations, account [00:07:00] executives. And it all goes back to that basic ability to work as a team, to work under a serving leader model, to run to mission, to that great purpose and really the ability to work in an environment that's very collaborative and focused on the business. So we work with a great deal of companies, as we talked about before. But connecting the dots, and really listening to what is keeping that company up at night, and then how do the assets here in this region support that company's growth and their need to get a product to market, to innovate, to stay ahead of the competition? And how does that help us connect the people in this region to that business to keep them on the cutting edge.

So it's a great group of people from a diverse background who really have that same ethos where they get up every morning and they wanna support companies growing in the region and make a real difference. And that's why they're here with us.

Rohan: That's incredible. Let's go back to companies growing in the region then. [00:08:00] Back to that small business segment. Over time, what is the impact that the GRE has been able to create among such businesses and what are the learnings? What works for such businesses? Do these scale? Do they create more jobs?

Matt: So specific to what we call second stage companies. We've worked with the National Center for Economic Gardening for a number of years. Served over 230 companies in that program. They've created over 1,790 jobs and also increased revenue by over 500 million, really by expanding into new markets selling products outside the region which is very important to the region itself.

These second stage companies typically account for about 15% of local businesses in a typical metropolitan area but about 40% of the jobs. So the impact is significant. They're privately held, headquartered here in the region. So connecting them, helping them access new markets [00:09:00] through things like increased marketing, sales leads, search engine optimization, leveraging geographic information systems to identify new markets or even competitors in a market and make good business decisions to continue that growth. And sometimes connecting them to each other or some of our larger companies that are here in the region. So they continue to grow, leverage that investment and create jobs. And we've seen some great success from that as well. We've seen those companies expanding, building new facilities throughout the region in addition to some of the other work that we talked about in our typical economic development.

Rohan: That sounds great. I'd love if you could share one or two examples of such organizations.

Matt: Yeah, we've worked with a couple firms in this space. One called Innovative that's a software company in downtown Rochester. They've expanded in the region, added about 15 people, and they started at about 10. So they've more than doubled in size. They're also [00:10:00] now expanding into the Internet of Things opportunity.

Rohan: And over what time period was this?

Matt: That was over a two or three year time period.

We've seen another firm in the food and beverage space who's added about 20,000 square feet of space, built new facility as well as formed an ESOP as they've leveraged a program to identify and sell new products outside of the region and continue to advance.

We've seen food and beverage companies, we've seen optics companies, information technology firms, software firms leverage this. And again, it's all about identifying sales leads, expanding into new markets, which we think is particularly relevant after the experience we've had in the past two years with Covid.

Rohan: That's great. Let's dive deeper into optics since you mentioned it. You've stated previously that you've got outstanding companies in optics imaging and so on. The Monroe Community College seems to have particular expertise in this space. [00:11:00] How has the greater Rochester region been able to build a strategy around this sector? And tell me the origins of all of this.

Matt: Yeah. Well, I really think it goes back to some of our foundings. When we look at Eastman, Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb, those are three outstanding imaging optics firms, some in different segments. We have Bausch and Lomb in the medical contact eyeglass space, Xerox, which is well known for their copier and other technologies, and Kodak in the glass film photography space and an optics firm. So as companies in the earlier years we're supplying those three big three firms, and as we had changes in those big three firms, that underlying technology and optics, photonics and imaging continued to expand. So we have smaller companies here in the region. And the fact that the University of Rochester is one of the top bachelor, master and PhD producers of optic degrees in the United [00:12:00] States. Up to 50% of optics degrees are conferred by the University of Rochester. And to your point on precision optical technicians, the people who are running the machines that make many of these optical components - including laser technology, 3D systems, as well as typical optics lenses and things - are coming out of that MCC program, Monroe Community College Program, that is the only one of a two year degree program in the world producing precision optical technicians.

And then we also have one of our local high schools that is has an optical technician program. Again, the only one of its kind in the world that is producing high school level talent where companies are hiring directly out of that high school. The depth of that experience going way back in the supply chains to Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb, and then advancing those technologies. We've seen companies like Optimax, rpo, russia Precision Optics, Vivi D-3 Engineering, and so many more that have expanded here [00:13:00] in the greater Rochester region, leveraging those technologies for medical device laser technology, 3D imaging, and so many, many more technologies that continue to accelerate, advanced technologies across the world tied to semiconductor industry, packaging, sensing technologies that are all in high demand for a variety of sectors.

Rohan: This is such a great example of how when the labor supply and the demand sides are in equilibrium, they actually reinforce each other. I'd love to know more about how your office, which is responsible for investments in the region, collaborates with entities like the Monroe Community College or the university or the high school in other spaces. What is the engagement you have with the community college or the workforce development ecosystem?

Matt: Yeah, it's almost on a daily basis. You see it across the globe - talent is driving decisions on [00:14:00] everything from existing locations, the ability to expand in a region, especially attracting talent, or attracting a major investment to a region.

So, we talk to our community college partners on a daily basis to track what we're seeing. We also bring them into discussions when we're talking to a local firm about expanding, as well as the ability to recruit a firm here, not only regarding that existing pipeline but the ability to meet their demands. And customized training or describe some of the programs that we have available in mechatronics machine process control, the ability to provide them with the industry credentialing that they require as they bring equipment to the region and run an operation.

And also on software and other technologies, data analytics. Monroe Community College is playing a larger role in that technician level area, as well as creating a pipeline with our four year college system to provide ongoing training and help people get started in computer science where they may [00:15:00] continue on to an RIT or University of Rochester or some of our other schools like SUNY Brockport to secure a computer science degree at a four year institution and maintain that industry partnership.

The connectivity among those 19 colleges and universities is very critical. Our engagement with them is critical. And that talent as well as the facility access and the other assets in the region is really a full circle approach and critical to the work that we do to support business growth in the region.

Rohan: And Matt you've of course been on the workforce development side as well before you made this transition to economic development. For our listeners, Matt was previously executive director for Rochester Works, which provides employment and workforce development for job seekers. Now, having worked in both this workforce development universe and now the economic development space,  how is having worked in workforce development shaped what you do now in economic development?

Matt: Well, I think [00:16:00] spending the time I did at Rochester Works helped me understand the pipeline and what is required. In the sense of making sure that companies are promoting themselves, are job seekers aware? Is the educational system aware of the companies, the technology, the skill needs, they have?

And also from a simple standpoint, are companies doing the job they need to do to tell their story, to recruit people themselves? And then it's connecting those dots to your point. It has to be a very collaborative process and intense information sharing. Especially as we're talking about companies now making billions of dollars of potential investment in a new facility and the ability to hire a thousand or 1500, in some cases, 2000 people to work in this facility. Probably 80% would be at that technician level. So the ability to provide technician level training, to make people aware of those careers and to make sure that the workforce system is supporting the economic development system and vice versa.

Sharing information, collaborating [00:17:00] is critical. And helping to understand sometimes the challenges people go through to get the training they need to, to fulfill the, the skill requirements needed in a variety of sectors is also important.

So to me, I think it's been beneficial spending time in the workforce system. I certainly have a greater appreciation for what it takes to get programs up and running, as well as the fact that when you're talking about people, it's not like making a widget. people have demands and also opportunities in a variety of industry sectors right now, including running their own business, not just getting a skill and working for someone else.

And certainly, now you see where employers need to put their best foot forward and be an outstanding place to work and to share in the benefits that they've got to keep people employed, as well as to make it an attractive opportunity as they recruit.

Rohan: So these two systems are evidently important, and that relationship between the two is of course paramount. [00:18:00] But having worked on both sides of this, what are the relative strengths and weaknesses of these two systems in ensuring productivity but also inclusive prosperity.

Matt: It's hard to compare the two systems that are so closely connected. The workforce system is, if you go back to the educational system, going K through 12 all the way through post postsecondary training. The ability for people who are making career changes to get back into the programs and people who may be on public assistance going to these programs. There's so many dynamics within the programming, the funding available, meeting those funding requirements and then the understanding of what skills are in demand in the various industry sectors is certainly critical, and it can be very complicated.

Then on the economic development side, it's a very competitive world where companies are now competing globally when we're citing, [00:19:00] certainly large semiconductor operations to even companies that have operations throughout the world and in several states. It's always an intense data analysis to prove that this is the best place in order to build an operation and to be able to grow beyond just citing the facility that first year, but well into the future. So, a little different world as far as the competitiveness goes and the complexity, but also closely related.

Rohan: Of course, apart from workforce development, you obviously engage with a variety of other institutional players and other stakeholders. Paint a picture for me of who these other entities are in the regional economic development ecosystem, and how does the GRE either collaborate or work in concert with these stakeholders?

Matt: It starts with our business community. That's the most critical component. Understanding what businesses are in the region. [00:20:00] What their specializations are, where we have capacity, where we have the ability to build partnerships for both supply chain as well as business to business opportunities.

And then working with our Chamber of Commerce and the chambers of commerce throughout the region. As well as our visitors association, in the sense of when people are visiting, are they aware of the business assets that we have and the intellectual capabilities, the opportunity to build a business here, even when they may be visiting museum or one of the lakes in the area.

And how they may want to come here live and work at one of our outstanding businesses who are all hiring right now. And then the connection to our college and university system. Certainly the quality of our schools in our K to 12 pipeline. And then working with our government officials as well as we talk about simple things like permitting, access to our utility system.

So all of those connection and touchpoints are critical to a business. We like to talk about the fact that we act as a concierge for the region. It's [00:21:00] really asking the business leader, he or she, what are you looking for? What's keeping you up at night? And then what do we have in this region that can help solve that problem? And not just solve the problem, but also help you grow into the future. So we really want to make sure that the company, that the leadership in the company is connected, that they're well supported that they're able to make connections in the region. And that comes from connecting all those dots with our government community leaders.

Also on the quality of life. Housing is certainly important, and the other amenities that you can leverage here in the region, whether you like the arts or music, getting outside enjoying a kayak, or perhaps skiing or boating or fishing or whatever, where you like to spend your time and support your family.

Rohan: I was going to ask you to give me an example of a time when you've brought different stakeholders to work in concert, but I think a more interesting question is: what's a time it's been a challenge to [00:22:00] bring these different stakeholders with obviously different norms, cultures, incentives to actually work together? And how have you been able to overcome that challenge?

Matt: Sometimes it can be a challenge just in scheduling. Often we're sometimes limited when we know a company is coming to town they may be in on a Thursday or a Friday, and certainly we would like to connect them to all of our leaders in a timeframe that works for them, but yet they still want to see five or six sites or facilities.

They also want to see the head of research at one of our colleges and universities such as U of R or RIT. And meet businesses that are in their industry sector and meet the mayor or the county executive and so forth. So we have to schedule all of that in a way that works best for the company and gets them back on the plane or on the road.

So the challenge often is scheduling. But I think the fact that we've been here 20 years doing this work. We largely [00:23:00] are able to meet those needs and even accommodate schedules and sometimes people government to business leaders or college, university partners that again to your point, might not have the same incentives, but they do come around the table with the same goal in mind.

And I think that's where we've been really blessed to have good support understanding from the people that we work with on a daily basis that are very supportive and collegial when they come together with a purpose of supporting a business, especially that's new to the region and helping them grow here.

Rohan: The GRE's primary funding is in private sources. How does this play into the kind of role you are able to play in this larger stakeholder landscape?

Matt: I think that gives us a bit of flexibility. We're privately funded. It's very important for us. We also don't get involved in charging fees or involved in the relationship on the real estate side where we're getting a commission or something out [00:24:00] of the sighting of the facility.

So the private support, the fact that we have a foundation at GRE that supports the work that we do, is critical. And in fact, business leaders have recently stepped up that support through a new alliance supporting talent development in the region, better connecting the dots we're working on here at GRE and supporting downtown development.

So that has really increased our bandwidth and the collaboration across the region. That focus really helps us keep that bird's eye view on supporting the business that we're talking to, or businesses that we're talking to, helping them grow in the region. Connect the dots. And work in a way that is best for that particular business and meeting their needs.

Rohan: So as you've already said, you've been breaking records the past couple of years. What's next for the GRE. There's obviously a lot of working with firms and working [00:25:00] with businesses to understand what demand for labor might look like in the future. Where do you see demand in the future for the greater Rochester area and how in line with that are the GRE's own goals and work going to evolve in the coming years?

Matt: It's very interesting. Economic development, as you've probably seen, has really continued to discuss and be more and more connected to talent. So this conversation around being a destination to live and to work, and to play, frankly, is critical.

So it's quality of place. We're much more involved in quality of place discussions. As well as the storytelling related to businesses growing in the area. Do people understand the quality of businesses, not just the one job you may come to Rochester for, but the several opportunities that you and your family may be able to entertain over your life here?

And also the amenities in the region and the connectivity beyond the region. [00:26:00] We do a lot of work across upstate New York, working with other organizations like GRE to really talk about the totality of what's available across upstate New York and work with our state partners to better leverage and discuss opportunities across the state where business needs support or talent systems need support and connecting the holistic approach to economic development.

It's more than what used to be known, I guess, as smokestack chasing. It's everything the business needs, not just to make that facility decision, but also hire people, have them cemented in the community and to perhaps engage with us. We've had several businesses that we have worked with over the past few years that are now investing in GRE to support the work that we do on a continuous basis. And I think that's pretty significant.

Rohan: You've been in this space for some time now. How are future economic development leaders being trained? Is there adequate training support for people who are [00:27:00] looking to break into the field?

Matt: There is. The International Economic Development Council has a program formalized for economic development credentialing. Our state association works with that, with the New York State Economic Development Council. So there's a good process for that formally. And I think the way that we focus at GRE, we do a lot of leadership development here working with some outstanding leaders from the private community on coaching, executive leadership, skill setting. Also giving some identification of strengths with our team so that they know what their strengths are. Running to that great purpose so that they can continue to be leaders, not just at GRE, but also as they move on to their next endeavor. And impact the community at a continuous greater rate. We've been really lucky to be able to work with people from Roberts Wesleyan, particular gentleman there [00:28:00] who supports our leadership development, as well as individuals that are doing executive coaching with other businesses. And they provide that as a benefit to us. And they support the mission we're doing because they are so appreciative of the work that we do. So that's something we do internally. Externally, you also have those other tools at IEDC and the New York State Economic Development Council for people who want that formal credential.

Rohan: I understand through the IEDC that you also get to engage with others in similar roles such yours in other parts of the country. What are some of the learnings you've had while interacting with this cohort of individuals?

Matt: There's certainly differences from community to community in the approach. And the programs may be different, but it still comes back to that basic person to person interaction.

So for me it is, well we may be different even from country to country, the basic needs are the same. People want to [00:29:00] work. They want to make sure they've got a good opportunity and a good quality of life. And they also want to be able to make connections in as short as timeframe possible to avoid risk. And that's something that we focus on. And in some cases I've got companies where they've got multiple locations in other states, and that interaction with folks we've met through IEDC or other networks is beneficial because we can contact that person and help someone who's got a facility in another state because of that connection. In the end, I think it's a lot more collegial than what you may think because it is competitive, but we know each other well. And I think you can see some good example sharing some benchmarking, certainly. And certainly at the IEDC where you see some outstanding best practices shared that really should help all of us as we look toward the future.

Rohan: [00:30:00] That's a very positive note to end on. But Matt, I have three more questions before I let you go. Questions that we ask all our guests. Number one, what's top of your policy wishlist?

Matt: Boy, top of my policy wishlist, it goes back to that workforce criteria. What can we do to better inform people of the jobs that are in demand now? And that's everything, from healthcare to optics, food and beverage manufacturing and entrepreneurship. To make sure that people, especially people who are in need, are aware of the programs available, that process to engage in those programs is more streamlined. I'm a big advocate for the reduction of paperwork and streamlining processes so we can get more people trained with the credentials they need and more people running businesses in a faster timeline so we can increase [00:31:00] wealth generation here in the region. That's probably my top wishlist. And that's certainly easier said than done.

Rohan: Absolutely, you can say that again. If you had to give a piece of advice to researchers, economists trying to study economic development and the day to day work that practitioners such as yourself do, what would your advice to them be?

Matt: I think we need to focus on the top three or five goals. And we tend to, I think we've had a little bit of the paralysis of analysis. And our big focus here is execution. So what can we do to make those changes that are most impactful?

And I think the challenge is there are so many opportunities for improvement across the systems that we've just talked about. But what are the top three or five that need to be tackled right away, so that we can be most impactful when [00:32:00] we talk about wealth creation, careers for people, especially people who are in need and when we talk about economic inclusion and equity? What can we do now and be most impactful to execute and make changes so more people are earning a living at an outstanding company and continuing to improve their quality of life?

Rohan: And finally, what is one article book place, or even movie that has influenced how you think about economic development?

Matt: That's a good question. I think one thing we really focus here is being the ideal team player. So we're really focused on being humble, hungry, and smart. It sounds easy, but it's that constant check of, are we serving the company? Are we running to that great purpose? And I am I being a good team member to the team here at GRE and the team beyond these [00:33:00] walls? And I think we've done that pretty well, but it's always a challenge and it's always something that we check on a daily basis to make sure we're hitting the outcomes we need for this community.

Rohan: Well, Matt, humble, hungry, and smart are great words to bring this to a conclusion. Thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.

Matt: Thank you. It's a great opportunity and I look forward to talking to you again.

Rohan: Thank you.