Thelen Leading Omaha Chamber’s Economic Development Efforts 9/26/14 09/26/14 12:03:47 AM
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Randy Thelen says Omaha is “big enough to matter” and “small enough to get things done.”
Thelen Leading Omaha Chamber’s
Economic Development Efforts
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
The challenge and the opportunity came together during the cold of a Midwestern winter.
Now, Randy Thelen, a veteran entrepreneur and developer of a multitude of economic projects has been on the job in Omaha for about half a year. In his role as senior vice president of economic development, he leads the Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership (GOEDP), which is the Chamber’s one-stop center for economic development in a six-county region of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.
A Michigan native, Thelen said the lure of opportunity in Omaha was strong, with plenty of reasons to come.
“The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, and David Brown in particular, have a very strong national reputation,” Thelen said. “This is a strong, leadership organization; and Omaha is a strong, forward-leaning region.”
He brings a striking resume as he assumes the duties filled for 35 years by Rod Moseman, knowing those are big shoes to fill.
“Frankly, Rod is a pro’s pro. He made this transition exceptionally easy.” Thelen emphasized. “First, he built a strong team; second, he has offered his insights and support to me. Rod remains a strong champion of the GOEDP.”
Thelen grew up in the mid-Michigan small farming town of Fowler (pop. 1,100) and earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from Alma College – the alma mater of Bob Devaney. He proceeded to earn his master’s degree in applied economics from Binghamton University in New York. It was during a college internship that he gained his first exposure to economic development work.
“The ability to bridge the private and public sectors to drive economic growth was very rewarding work,” Thelen recalled. “So much so that I decided to make it into a career, having worked the past 20 years in the profession.”
Eighteen years ago he married his “wonderful” wife, Christa. The couple has four “terrific” children.
“We enjoy traveling together and aspire to take our kids to all 50 states before they graduate,” he said. “After our summer trip out west, we are at 39 states and counting.”
Before coming to Omaha, Thelen served as president of Lakeshore Advantage, a non-profit that served the 350,000 people who live near Holland, Mich.
“At Lakeshore Advantage, we led the business attraction, retention and entrepreneurial efforts of the region,” Thelen said. “In the ten years I was president, we helped companies create over 10,500 jobs and invest over $2.1 billion.”
Creighton University Econom-ics Professor, Dr. Ernie Goss, says there can be a learning curve when someone comes into a market from the outside, but there also can be many positives.
“If you’ve been here a while … you’re more bound by the past,” Goss said. That can make an individual “think outside the box.”
However, someone coming in with a fresh eye – “that brings some advantages.”
Thelen said the Omaha area has some great selling points.
“Big market amenities without big market headaches,” he stressed. “We offer a compelling value proposition to companies and people alike.”
Omaha is affordable, he said, with virtually every business or housing cost 10-20 percent below the norm.
The community is accessible, offering most employees a 20-minute commute and easy access to freeways and airports for business.
“We are aggressive,” he said, moving into the area’s new slogan: “We don’t coast, we aspire to be great as a region.”
Thelen emphasized that a key to economic development is that the area cannot sit back and wait for the phone to ring.
“We all need to sell Greater Omaha harder,” he stated. “People and companies respond very favorably to this market when we can get them here to see and experience our region.”
Thelen sees building off the region’s strengths as the first objective.
“Financial services – First National Bank, First Data, TD Ameritrade, Wells Fargo, Mutual of Omaha, Physicians Mutual; value added agriculture – ConAgra, Cargill, Omaha Steaks, Valmont, CLAAS, Green Plains; defense – Offutt Air Force Base and scores of defense contractors; logistics – Werner, Union Pacific; architecture and design – HDR, Leo Daly, DLR Group; and medical – UNMC, CHI Health.”
A second area includes the business sectors that cut across those major targeted industries. Those include information technology, manufacturing, data centers and shared services.
“Finally, we are looking to international markets to support future job growth,” Thelen said. “There is active interest, particularly from Japan and China, to invest and grow in the United States. Greater Omaha offers a safe, secure location for these firms to test the market.”
One thing the Omaha area could use is some more people.
“Though we all should be very proud to live and work in a region that is near full employment [the latest unemployment rate is about 3.5 percent], this does create a labor and skill shortage,” Thelen pointed out. “Forward-looking firms are getting aggressive to build their talent pipeline – expanding internships, partnering with area high schools and colleges/universities, and pushing harder to attract new talent to this market.”
When asked if there are any overlooked opportunities in the metro area, Thelen said the University of Nebraska Medical Center – despite all the construction and investment taking place – may be underappreciated.
“The recent transfer of the Ebola patient underscores the incredible leadership role UNMC plays nationally in certain areas of specialty,” Thelen stated, adding researchers and companies are taking note of that work.
“Like other business sectors, Greater Omaha offers life science companies a tremendous cost advantage,” he emphasized. “We also offer these firms a tremendous ‘relationship advantage’ – in Omaha, everyone is only one phone call away. This connectivity can dramatically expedite a project.”
Growth will come not only from new firms, Thelen said, adding that, just like a business, the first focus will be on retaining and growing existing companies.
“Each year, our team visits more than 400 area companies to better understand their opportunities and challenges,” he said. “Then we work hand-in-hand with them to solve those problems and capitalize on the opportunities.”
So far, that has helped add more than 1,800 new good-paying jobs to this market, with another 12,000 new jobs expected to result from those efforts over the next five years.
Thelen summed up what is best about Omaha in one fast sales pitch.
“We are big enough to matter and small enough to get things done.”
It appears Thelen already is getting it done.