City on the move

Moderated by Rick Badie

Several reports show small-business owners are bullish about the economy, with expectations to hire and boost revenue in 2015. Today, the state director for a small-business advocacy group throws some what-ifs into those feel-good predictions, citing unknown variables such as policy decisions at the Gold Dome and White House. Elsewhere, a business owner talks about contemporary office culture, while an executive highlights Atlanta’s economic strides in 2014.

Hiring trend? Maybe

By Kyle Jackson

It’s definitely possible small businesses will start hiring again in 2015, unless something happens and they don’t.

I’m being serious.

Small-business owners are inherently skittish. You would be, too, if your life’s savings and your retirement fund depended on the success of a single furniture store or coffee shop. One minute things are looking up, but if someone in the General Assembly starts talking about a tax increase, or the Environmental Protection Agency threatens to regulate the drainage ditch behind your store, you’re not going to spend a dime unless you absolutely have to.So, when small business says it’s kind of hopeful about the coming year, that’s saying a lot.

Each month, the National Federation of Independent Business releases its Small Business Optimism Index. It tracks whether small-business owners are feeling upbeat or discouraged. Last month, the index jumped 2 points to 98.1, the highest it’s been since before the Great Recession. It got as low as 81.0 in spring 2009.

And on Jan. 7, the federation released its December jobs report showing twice as many small businesses increased employment (18 percent) as decreased employment (9 percent.).

The federation doesn’t drill down to the state and local levels, but economists with the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business recently predicted statewide employment growth would increase by 2.3 percent in 2015, continuing a trend that began in 2011. If that’s the case, we’ll be doing better than the country as a whole. Overall job growth in the United States is forecast at 1.8 percent.

According to the UGA economists, our biggest job gains will come from the construction industry, professional and business services, and mining and logging. Granted, we don’t have a lot of mining in the metro area, but Atlanta does have a lot of construction and business and professional services, so that bodes well for us.

However.

As any small-business owner can tell you, a lot could happen.

For example, there’s always talk at the Gold Dome about raising the state’s minimum wage. Let’s skip the debate over whether hourly workers deserve more and look at the bottom line: There’s only so much money in the pot. If the General Assembly tells employers to spend more on labor, employers will have to find the money someplace, probably by robbing Peter to pay Paul. If wages increase, the number of employees could decrease, or owners may pull the plug on plans to expand and create jobs.

This is especially true of small businesses, which generally aren’t making huge profits, if they’re making any profits at all.

There’s also the question of Georgia’s roads and bridges.

Some members of the General Assembly are talking about a tax increase, or several tax increases, to cover the cost of fixing existing roads and building new ones. We absolutely need better roads and quality infrastructure, but lawmakers must be careful not to place too much of the burden on the backs of small business. If employers have to pay higher taxes, they’ll have less money for wages and hiring additional workers.

So, will small businesses be hiring in 2015? Definitely, maybe.

Kyle Jackson is Georgia director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Culture reflects a company’s values

By Doug Davidson

For 25 years, my construction company has built structures that grace the metro Atlanta skyline, from office buildings to schools to sports facilities. Yet no matter how well we do our job, the one thing we cannot seem to build turns out to be the most important element in our clients’ setting: their culture.

The word culture became so popular in 2014 that Merriam-Webster Dictionary chose it as its No. 1 Word of the Year, based on the number of times it was searched. I find that to be ironic, as culture is a word that’s almost as hard to define as it is to build. You can’t see it or touch it, but in many organizations, you can feel it.

Young people report a company’s culture is more important than compensation in choosing where to work. In October, Apple and Facebook – already known for extravagant benefits – announced a new perk: paying for female employees to freeze their eggs. As Atlanta attracts more technology and entertainment firms, we’ll begin to see Silicon Valley benefits such as slides between floors, beer kegs in lobbies and free food in cafeterias.

I agree that company benefits are important, but the real foundation to a company’s culture is the quality of individuals you hire, relationships you foster between management and employees, and values you establish and instill.

I remember early in our firm’s history, when we were hiring new team members who had already been offered positions by competitors. We told them to take their time making the decision, but to keep in mind that at our company, they would never be asked to do anything during the day that would make them lose sleep at night. A company’s values should be evident from the very beginning as it will attract and retain the people that best fit your firm.

Our values were the first thing I established and committed to when founding the company, and they are still the driver for each decision we make today. To maintain your culture, you must continually reinforce values and relationships. This can be as simple as celebrating wins with your team, as we do with each new project award. It may be celebrating with an ice-cream gathering or an event after work. Whatever it is, we ensure our team knows they are appreciated.Another tenet in building a culture is establishing clear and authentic communication with your team. In our training, we emphasize what we call “Grandma’s Rule,” which is, “Do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it, and do it right the first time.” When leaders model such genuine interactions to front-line employees, the team will, in turn, foster trustworthy relationships and create long-lasting bonds with clients.

Culture is also about integrity. When we were awarded a project by one of our industrial developer clients, we told him that if we could save money in the construction process, we’d let him have the savings, even though we were under a lump-sum contract. A year later, when we finished the project under budget, we went over to present our client with the savings realized from our ability to find ways to be more efficient and save money on the project. He had forgotten our commitment to return these savings and was shocked we had followed through on our promise. The result of this integrity is a lifelong client for whom we have constructed many projects.

As hard to define as it is, culture is one of the most important building blocks of any organization. Our company values have been the foundation of our culture, and the additional perks have been just that – perks. Culture isn’t about the Silicon Valley benefits we so often read in the headlines. It’s about your people.

Doug Davidson is founder and president of New South Construction Co.

City on the move

By Craig J. Richard

Having recently assumed the role of CEO of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority, I have been impressed with the accomplishments in Atlanta over the past year.

As the U.S. economy gains momentum, Atlanta is also hitting its stride, with major companies like Cricket Wireless, WorldPay, Serta Simmons and MaschioPack now calling it home. Along with these moves and the various entrepreneurial initiatives in progress, Atlanta has become a beacon to current and prospective businesses. The downtown landscape is being reshaped with public and private investments. Without a doubt, my new home is a city on the move.

In 2014, our community development efforts directed $69.3 million to projects that will catalyze additional investment and jobs. These projects will facilitate affordable and workforce housing, job development programs, land assemblage, cultural amenities, infrastructure improvements and assistance for small businesses to grow and expand. To support local communities and businesses, two new projects closed through Invest Atlanta’s New Market Tax Credit Program, providing funding to the Southside Medical Center in Peoplestown and creating the Advantage Loan Fund for small and medium-sized businesses.Young people and empty-nesters are relocating inside the city to take advantage of an affordable, exciting quality of life. Invest Atlanta initiatives also tackled a variety of housing challenges.

The need for more independent senior living opportunities is addressed by City Lights, an 80-unit rental development under construction in the Old Fourth Ward. The growing student population has also created a need, and the Square on Fifth project in Midtown will provide housing for entrepreneurial students who hope to create and grow businesses. Additionally, Invest Atlanta assisted nearly 100 new homeowners through mortgage assistance programs.

Most economists would agree workforce housing near job centers is a necessity for the growth and development of a healthy, diverse community. Last year, Invest Atlanta’s efforts were instrumental in creating and attracting nearly 4,000 jobs, combined with 2,300-plus construction-related jobs that will provide approximately $2.5 billion of projected economic impact.

The successes and accomplishments of Invest Atlanta would not be possible without partners and board members committed to its purpose of increasing opportunity and prosperity for the people of our city. This team effort resulted in public and private investments of $671 million in 2014 alone.

In the coming weeks, we will begin implementing a housing strategy that addresses residential development and affordability. This is a collaborative effort, developed in partnership with many members of the community, city leaders and local housing organizations. In the coming months, we will also share our business development strategy that will outline how we plan to continue to position Atlanta as a place companies can reach their fullest potential by accessing a highly talented workforce, state-of-the-art infrastructure and dynamic quality of life.

Invest Atlanta and our city had a great 2014. I look forward to leading the agency to greater heights in 2015 and beyond.

Craig J. Richard is CEO and president of Invest Atlanta.


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