Trash into treasure

When he spoke at the St. Barnabas CEO Leadership Conference in September, Chuck Gregory — president of Sony Technology of Pittsburgh, the company that ultimately took over a former Volkswagen plant — explained how a lemon was turned into lemonade.

While Volkswagen opted not to stick it out in Westmoreland County, the improvements the auto company had made at the plant were part of what made the facility attractive to Sony when it was looking for a place to build large screen television sets east of the Mississippi. His point was that even if businesses fail or fold up the tent, they nonetheless bring value to the region and leave at least some of themselves behind.

Just as one man’s junk is another’s treasure, one company’s liability turns out to be another’s asset.

Nonetheless, Sony’s decision to locate at the former auto plant would not have occurred had the late Sen. John Heinz not suggested to a senior Sony executive that the company consider Western Pennsylvania — not on Sony’s list of potential sites — as a location for an assembly plant. In the end, it wasn’t the facility, available work force, transportation infrastructure or tax incentives that brought the region to the attention of Sony. That came out of an encounter between two people — two powerful people — each in a position to influence outcomes.

While there are lots of formal efforts and organizations dedicated to attracting business to the region, I believe that the informal network of influential business leaders is the single most powerful tool for economic revitalization and development available to us. I’m not sure, however, that it’s being used to our greatest advantage.

I was surprised that a local executive, in a business that could benefit enormously from regional growth, wasn’t active in any development organizations. This might be the exception rather than the rule, but I tend to believe that business leaders are so involved in their own businesses that the big picture issues often get pushed to the far corners of their desks.

If you are one of those businesspeople whose contacts range across the country or around the globe, think about the influence that you have with your peers. If you mention Western Pennsylvania often as a place for your customers or business associates to consider as a location for their operations, they might find treasure where others saw trash.

And the region will strike gold.