From the Cincinnati Enquirer by reporter Matt Koesters, August 5, 2015
From an uneducated outsider’s perspective, the United States boils down to New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and miles of flyover farmland. It’s a perception that Neil Hensley has been combating for decades.
For 30 years, Hensley traveled extensively overseas as he worked to attract foreign direct investment to the Cincinnati area with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. The city of Blue Ash didn’t ground Hensley when he was hired to be the city’s economic development director in 2012. Instead, the administration increased its travel budget.
Since the beginning of 2014, Hensley has twice traveled to India with REDI Cincinnati, the regional organization charged with business attraction and expansion, and twice to Finland with the European American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati.
The India trips were included in the annual $55,000 dues Blue Ash pays for REDI membership, while Blue Ash paid about $5,000 for each of the Finland trips. It’s money well spent, Assistant City Manager Kelly Harrington said.
“He represents us very well, and has brought back numerous leads and companies,” Harrington said. “We couldn’t be more thrilled with him.”
On each of those trips, Hensley spoke at several seminars for companies considering investment in the U.S. Hensley’s pitch aims to dispel misconceptions about America, build relationships through face-to-face interactions with foreign businesspeople and recruit businesses.
“Don’t think that you’re going to make a business call to New York in the morning and Los Angeles in the afternoon, and then Miami the next day,” Hensley tells prospects. “The distances are much vaster, the population much greater.”
Blue Ash sees itself as amelting pot for business
More than 25 European companies have offices in Blue Ash, with the bulk coming from Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The fact that so many overseas companies have already invested in Blue Ash comforts others considering the move, Hensley said.
Hensley didn’t recruit all of those businesses since he started his job with the city, but he did help close several of them during his time with Cincinnati USA. Axiom Consulting, an Indian firm, began its American presence with a handful of employees in Blue Ash in 2009. Now it’s working on finalizing plans to locate to a new office that will house about 50 employees.
“Neil has been a great advocate and partner,” Axiom CEO Satya Rao said. “He has helped Axiom establish strong roots in the area, attract good talent and set us up for success.”
Hensley said he is targeting India because of its advanced information technology sector. He made his last trip to the country in April, and representatives of three companies have already come to the city for visits.
“In my 30 years of doing this, I can’t remember a time when I had three companies that I met on a trip come to Cincinnati within three or four months of my first visit there,” Hensley said.
Hensley anticipates more good news to come from his work in India. He awaits finalization of a deal that will bring 80 new jobs with an average salary of $65,000 per year; if it comes to pass, the annual earnings tax revenue from that deal alone will cover the city’s REDI membership, Hensley’s travel and then some.
Hensley’s message resonates with foreign investors
International travel is essential for attracting foreign investment because of the value of face-to-face communication in other cultures, European American Chamber Executive Director Anne Cappel said. Phone calls and emails may work here, but they don’t get it done in Europe.
“You can’t establish the same level of confidence and trust, and you don’t necessarily fully understand whether the person in front of you … is fully aligned with what you’re saying,” Cappel said.
Cappel introduced Hensley to Nordic Group CEO Juha Seppanen in Finland last year. It was Hensley’s quiet but direct, efficient demeanor that got Seppanen’s attention; it was his ability to help navigate obstacles to establishing an American presence prevented Seppanen from considering locating to anywhere besides Blue Ash.
“He was so efficient in getting us in contact with the right people and getting the ball rolling for us,” Seppanen said. “You don’t really want to start shopping around when things are going really smoothly and you’re being taken care of.”
Hensley’s escalator speech that sells the Cincinnati region hasn’t changed much from his days with the chamber. It’s within 600 miles of half of the country’s population; It has several good logistics options, including multiple highways, airports and the Ohio river; It’s home to 10 Fortune 500 companies; There are 300 colleges and 1 million students within 200 miles of the city, which means a reliable supply of good talent.
It only took a few tweaks – the Sycamore school system’s excellent ESL programs, for one – to tailor it to Blue Ash, the largest suburban office market in the region.
Jobs created by foreign direct investment typically pay about 30 percent more in average salary, thanks to the need for high-level employees to lead the charge during the early stages of establishing roots, according to a 2013 report prepared by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Given that Blue Ash relies on its 1.25 percent earnings tax for more than 80 percent of its overall budget, so the creation of those new positions by foreign companies is always welcome.