As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post-COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Subash Alias.
Subash Alias is the CEO of Missouri Partnership, a public-private economic development organization that focuses on attracting new jobs and investment to the state and promoting Missouri’s business strengths. Missouri Partnership is an expert resource that supports companies’ site selection needs when the time is right to look at Missouri.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Economic development is not a well-known field. I never knew there was such a profession until I started reading about some of the new and exciting civic activities in my hometown of St. Louis. In the early to mid-’90s, there was a sort of renaissance going on in the city. A new light rail system was going in, a new stadium was getting built for the St. Louis Blues NHL team, and a new stadium was under construction for the St. Louis Rams, the NFL team that was relocating from Los Angeles.
While I was in college, I developed a strong interest in bringing my friends from school and showing them all around my hometown. I wondered if I could make a profession out of this. The perfect profession to “get in on the action” and showcase my hometown was economic development. I started to target working for a group called the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association. That organization has evolved into a new group called Greater St. Louis, Inc. At the time, I bugged them to hire me as an intern — they eventually hired me permanently, and I spent nine years at the organization.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I had my first client visit within a few months of starting my career. This includes visiting the community, touring industrial buildings, and coordinating meetings with local economic development partners. I had the itinerary set to the minute and spent days driving to each location in advance and timing the drive times between stops.
During the client visit, half of the client team had flight issues and didn’t make it to town on time. My plan was destroyed in a matter of minutes, and I quickly learned to have contingency plans in place and to accommodate for unforeseen circumstances. I also learned the valuable lesson of flexibility and the ability to adjust on the fly, resisting the urge to have tunnel vision. I too often focused on just one aspect of the client visit — sticking to a schedule — and completely missed the other things I’d have to consider. It helped me later understand that you need to account for several factors and strive for well-rounded strategies.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
One book is “American Icon” by Bryce Hoffman. The book covers how former Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mulally adapted his leadership and work from Boeing to lead the iconic Ford Motor Company. I have only worked in one industry, and I have always been interested in seeing how top leaders can pivot from one sector to another without having a depth of expertise in each field.
The second is “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters” by former General Motors executive Bob Lutz. This is another book on the auto industry, but Lutz writes about how the tug of war within GM between two disparate groups — MBAs and “car guys” — killed the spirit of GM making exceptional cars. As a self-proclaimed “car guy” and MBA, I found this book fascinating because I see the need to look at more than one perspective when approaching business.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company, what was your vision, your purpose?
Our organization is 100% purpose-driven. Our mission is to increase economic prosperity and improve lives throughout Missouri by attracting new jobs and investment to the state. Economic development attracts individuals who understand the importance of the work and the people who rely on our efforts. The people on our team know what we do every day as well as why we do it.
Unlike private enterprises, we are not motivated by shareholder value or a profitable bottom line. Our reward is attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony as a brand-new facility opens its doors and seeing the hundreds of people newly employed in life-changing and family-sustaining jobs. More often than not, those workers never know who we are or the role we may have played.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
While I hate to use a cliché, “staying in your lane” is one of the main principles guiding me. In our field, we often run into problems or situations that people assume we can address or fix. It can be overwhelming to run into challenges where our offering does not line up with the problem at hand. We want to help whenever possible, but we have to stay focused and stick to our core competencies. While our culture is to help everyone, I always go back to why we started and our work.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I consider myself fortunate that I have not lost anyone in my family or anyone close to me because of the pandemic. For that, I am thankful. However, the greatest personal struggle I have faced during this crisis is how our country became so divided over the past 15 or so months.
If there is one thing that unites people, it’s a common enemy. We went into this crisis divided, and unfortunately, it looks like we are coming out of it equally divided. I would find myself getting into senseless arguments with close friends about the pandemic. I eventually chose not to argue because I was only fanning the flames of division. All I could do is immerse myself in reputable and credible news sources while largely staying away from editorials to make my own decisions.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The first issue we had early in the pandemic and throughout most of it was engaging with the team remotely and keeping everyone connected. All of us were thrust into this situation and had to accommodate these changes quickly. The first thing we did was schedule regular 30-minute check-in video calls twice weekly. The goal was to be able to engage as a team informally. Rarely was there a plan — it was mostly a chance to connect. There was no fear of criticism if kids popped on the screen because they were welcome to join. We also had an optional Friday happy hour on Zoom. Sometimes we invited special guests to add to the fun.
The segment of our work impacted the most by the pandemic was related to our business development efforts. This is a relationship business, and our project management and business development teams are typically on the road about 50% of the time. We host clients around the state, meet with them over a meal, or catch a ballgame with them in their hometowns. Just like everyone, we had to pivot to engaging virtually.
One thing we’ve done is send pints of Missouri-made ice cream to our clients for virtual ice cream socials. We have been hosting these once a month to keep relationships afloat while everyone is remote. We have done an excellent job over the years of building relationships, so we’ve been able to maintain those relationships virtually — building new relationships in this environment has been far more challenging. Fortunately, most travel restrictions are beginning to loosen as more people are vaccinated. We expect to continue to build and grow new relationships immediately.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Fortunately, my wife and I are on the same page in how to cope with the pandemic. We had a continuous dialogue about what was going on and attacked everything as a team. I was most worried about my parents; my dad is quite happy staying at home in his world, but my mom is very social and eager to get out. While I was less concerned about her during the summer months because she could garden or engage safely outside, I knew the winter months would be far more difficult for her. We visited my parents safely when we could, and I would regularly call to keep up with them.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-COVID economy?
When the pandemic first took hold of the world, nobody knew what to expect. While there were warnings, the pandemic hit hard and fast. I recall having conversations with people in other fields where the outlook was abysmal.
Thankfully, we had some good fortune. Almost two weeks to the day after a national emergency was declared, we received a phone call from representatives with Chewy.com who were evaluating Missouri for an e-commerce operation with the potential to create 1,600 jobs.
What we saw playing out before us back then was the acceleration of the e-commerce trend due to COVID-19. Being in the center of the United States, we were well-positioned to help the nation get back on its feet by getting goods to consumers throughout the country. We eventually landed Chewy.com in the Kansas City suburb of Belton, Missouri. It was the first of many such operations that we have located and expect to locate in the state.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
First, we learned a lesson about remote working and how effective it can be. I would imagine those who can work remotely will continue to do so in a hybrid manner that blends remote work with in-person interactions.
Second, I think we will continue to see a shift to online shopping and home deliveries. Those who did not acquaint themselves with online shopping pre-pandemic may be more likely to use it today. I also believe that we will have to contend with some form of the coronavirus for the rest of our lives — we will need to be mindful of it and mitigate the risks associated with it.
While this crisis was certainly devastating to the economy, I am hopeful that we learned valuable lessons concerning the skills mismatch in the country. While so many people were struggling with unemployment, many employers had a hard time finding people with the right skills to hire, which has been an issue for decades. This pandemic could be a tremendous opportunity for workers to reinvent themselves.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-COVID Economy?
Over the past few years, Missouri and several other states and cities have scrambled to assemble teams, resources, and offerings in response to many highly publicized site selection projects. For example, Amazon scoured the nation and selected the Washington, D.C., area for its famed Amazon HQ2. Tesla needed a new manufacturing location for its Cybertruck and chose Austin, Texas. And the United States Department of Agriculture evaluated the entire country for two new divisional headquarters operations and chose Kansas City, Missouri.
Opportunities like these don’t come around that often. And when they do, they come with little warning. It takes time to prepare and execute an effective strategy. With the realities of COVID-19, we suspect that vaccine, therapeutic, or related supply chain industry opportunities will be forthcoming. We are trying to be as prepared as possible for the next business attraction project tied to COVID-19 or another pandemic. That means assembling the right teams, gathering the necessary information, and developing the most strategic tactics in advance.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
We naturally want to see Missouri win these potential opportunities to help the nation and the world address another pandemic, but we see this as an effort that goes beyond our borders. We are in a national emergency, so every state and city should be as prepared as possible to do things that are in the country’s best interest.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In both my personal and professional life, I always try to remind myself that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That has been especially true during the pandemic. It was sometimes hard to see that light, but our team was fortunate enough to celebrate numerous successful projects during the pandemic. Those successes were bright lights during an otherwise dark time.
How can our readers further follow your work?