November 18, 2021

CEOs: Abilene’s pro-business approach, generous welcome drew them to the city

ABILENE, TEXAS — The CEOs of two recent additions to Abilene’s growing business community say that what set Abilene apart from other cities they considered was the welcoming attitude of the city’s leaders in local economic development, government and business.

In 2021, national companies Great Lakes Cheese and Primal Pet Group decided to locate and  expand respectively their operations in Abilene, adding jobs and record capital investment. Abilene was one of a number of sites these companies considered, their CEOs said.

The two projects in Abilene underscore the importance of a business-first climate, well-prepared workforce, and partnerships with elected officials and business owners in the community in the attraction and retention of high-performing companies.

Tim Simonds, CEO and Board member of Primal Pet Group and Dan Zagzebski, President & CEO of Great Lakes Cheese, said they were impressed by what could be called the intangibles of a region — the friendliness, candor and accessibility of community members from elected leaders to local business owners to the employees of local service industries.

“You can get a feel for a place very quickly by going into local stores, talking to folks, understanding the person behind the counter of the hotel where you’re at. You get a real feel pretty quickly. . . Those were great conversations in Abilene,” said Tim Simonds, CEO and Board member of Primal Pet Group, whose company announced its expansion into Abilene in 2021 with a $32 million investment and about 130 new jobs.

Great Lakes Cheese announced it would locate in Abilene with a new packaging and distribution plant, representing a $184.5 million investment that would create about 500 jobs.

Simonds and Zagzebski joined Alex Meade, Executive Vice President for Texas Regional Bank, and Misty Mayo, President & CEO, Development Corporation of Abilene in a panel discussion last week in Abilene hosted by the Texas Economic Development Corporation (TxEDC). Robert Allen, President and CEO of TxEDC, moderated.

“The people — all of you — really made the difference,” Zagzebski told a packed house of Abilene’s business, government and economic development leaders at TxEDC’s Regional Business Summit.

Leadership, from the mayor of Abilene to the governor of Texas, reached out to Zagzebski while he was considering Abilene.

“Those were personal calls that were just sincere,” he said. “We ended up believing in this community more than any other community.”

Zagzebski and his engineer were impressed that the Abilene business community met with them on their first visit to Abilene, one of several sites around the nation then under consideration.

“Let’s be clear that that did not happen anywhere else, and it’s never happened before at any of our other locations,” Zagzebski said. “That starts to tell me the story of who you are.”

Allen said the opportunity to have “real-world, frank, straight-forward conversations” about a community’s vision, its strengths and its challenges is what sets this state apart from other states competing with Texas for new, relocating and expanding businesses.

“A lot of our competition, it is extremely scripted. I think that’s something that puts Texas above, our ability to sit down with you and just welcome you to our state and our region,” he said.

He addressed attendees at the regional summit, most of whom represented community leadership committed to economic development: “If you lean in, roll up your sleeves, you do the hard work and continue to show that hospitality, good things happen. And when good things happen, it means communities get bigger and stronger and better.”

Regional workforce development tactics have changed

One of the challenges most regions face is ensuring that there is an adequately trained workforce in the region that is ready and qualified to take newly created jobs.

Among the universities and colleges in Abilene, Texas State Technical College (TSTC), for which Meade served as regent, has a unique directive in Texas. Graduates can get a tuition refund if they are not able to find a job.

At the core of this directive is the recognition that “the competitive advantage of Texas is its people,” Meade said. “The people of Texas are the reason businesses are coming here.”

Previously, the conventional wisdom of workforce development was “we’re going to focus on bringing in the companies and then we’re going to train the people,” said Meade, whose term on the TSTC Regents recently ended. “But now there’s no time. So TSTC plays a pivotal role in making sure that [training] time is reduced by working with the [economic development organizations], by working with companies to make sure we can . . .train the employees as soon as possible.”

Workforce growth and development in Texas — with the nation’s second-largest workforce of 14 million people — is boosted by the state’s rapid population growth and the development strategies of a partnership of the state’s universities, community colleges and trade schools.

“We’re one of the fastest growing states in the country, so your talent pipeline is in good shape here,” Allen said.

Abilene’s success has been a team sport for many years

Abilene is building on a successful economic development strategy put in place years ago, which included elected leaders and existing businesses committed to growth, said Mayo, who said she was first attracted to her job as president and CEO of Development Corporation of Abilene by the tremendous potential of the city to build on the success of existing businesses.

She urged community leaders and new and existing businesses to “stay committed to Abilene” to ensure the region stays on the forefront of its economic development momentum.

“That opportunity to build on your success and leverage that for the community — that means everything,” Mayo said. “It means everything to be able to say, ‘Abilene is open for business.’ We intend to go big in Abilene as well as go big in Texas.”