By JOHN McBRYDE
Matt Largen marked six years as president and CEO of Williamson Inc., on Feb. 1. He was formerly head of Williamson County’s economic development department, which basically dissolved and moved its functions to the current structure. Williamson Inc., serves as the governing body of sorts for the chamber of commerce and economic development. The organization contracts with all municipalities in the county.
Franklin Home Page: Is it typical for other counties in the area to have both the chamber and economic development under the same umbrella?
Matt Largen: Everybody has different organizations. Some chambers of commerce are with their CVB [convention and visitors bureau], some chambers are with economic development, some chambers have a heritage foundation or a main street program. It really depends on the size and dynamics of the community. They all look different across the country. I think the most effective ones, though, and we’ve seen this nationwide, are the ones that actually include economic development.
And I would say what’s unique to Williamson County is the strong partnership we have with the Heritage Foundation [of Williamson County] and the CVB. That definitely doesn’t happen in every location, so that partnership allows us to be mindful of helping and supporting the mission of saving the places that matter for the Heritage Foundation and understanding the role tourism plays in economic development.
FHP: How is Williamson Inc.’s relationship with similar organizations in surrounding cities and counties?
ML: I would say 10 percent of the time we compete, but 90 percent of the time we collaborate. That 10 percent is mainly Davidson County. We understand that when a company comes to one of the counties in Middle Tennessee, we all win. We’re all benefited by those direct jobs, indirect jobs, the incomes, the residential component, and then the effect of attracting other jobs to the area. We understand how a win for Rutherford is a win for Williamson or a win for Davidson is a win for Williamson, and it goes both ways. We understand how we all play a role in keeping this healthy economy, which makes it a great place for careers for people across Middle Tennessee.
FHP: What’s the breakdown between recruiting companies to move here and maintaining those already here?
ML: In terms of percentage, [recruiting companies] is a small part of what we do, but it’s the most publicly seen thing that we do. We spend most of our time with our existing companies and making sure they’re happy and they’re growing here and we can remove barriers to growth, because your best clients are your existing clients. And those are the ones who built this community and they’re the ones who employ and create careers for our residents and our neighbors. So we spend most of our time with existing companies, then a small part of our time with recruitment to keep that pipeline full of bringing more careers to town for more economic opportunities for our residents.
For economic development, it’s always the new companies that get the headlines but the reality is, 90 percent of our new jobs come from existing employers, and that’s why we spend so much time with them providing direct services through professional development, through connecting opportunities and through advocating on their behalf. I think that’s important for people to understand, that we spend a lot of emphasis on those companies who have really built our community over the last several decades.
FHP: Is Williamson County facing a workforce challenge?
ML: Right now I think we’re around 3 percent unemployment, and Williamson County’s is the lowest in the state and it has been three years straight. So the challenge is finding employees, especially in the hospitality industry, technology and finance. It’s not unique to Williamson County; it’s not unique to Nashville. It’s a nationwide problem. That’s why we spend so much time with our school systems, working to make sure there’s a long pipeline of talent for our companies and we’re doing what’s best for those students. They can graduate from high school very employable or they can decide to go on to get their college degree.
FHP: What would your solution be to handle traffic concerns in the county?
ML: Traffic is a challenge for sure, and I think the best way traffic will be addressed is from a regional standpoint. So whatever plan moves forward to have a transit system, it has to be regional in nature. We’ve got to work with Rutherford County and Davidson County and Wilson County to make sure that whatever is created is something people will actually use and it takes technology into account. There’s no reason to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure that no one is going to use.
So that’s’ what we’ve encouraged companies to see what they can do now to impact traffic, like flex scheduling, remote working, vanpooling, carpooling. We keep pushing those initiatives as current solutions to traffic. And we know the difference. If more people would put their kids on school buses during the school year, you wouldn’t see that level of traffic because you notice an appreciable difference in the summer when kids are not in school. At the end of the day, traffic is the result of individual behaviors.
FHP: How important is diversity for the county’s economic wellbeing?
ML: I think when Nissan came a decade ago and Mars Petcare, that started creating diversity organically. So when we talk about diversity, we’re really talking about making people feel they’re a part of our community, and that’s in the DNA of Williamson County. Our best sales people are residents who are welcoming and warm and inviting and thoughtful and considerate and compassionate, and that makes us a great location. That’s important. When companies move here, they want to know that employees they hire or relocate with them feel comfortable in this community. So we talk a lot about that: How do we make sure everybody is included in the prosperity of Williamson County?