Strictly Business: Focus of Boeing plan switches to local companies

Published:

 

It was a big, bold statement containing a powerhouse name -- Boeing -- guaranteed to attract attention.

Lisa Nisenfeld, president and CEO of Vancouver-based Columbia River Economic Development Council -- the nonprofit jobs promoter and business recruiter -- told a business luncheon crowd in January that regional leaders would try to lure away Boeing Co. suppliers in Wichita, Kan., and would seek to expand existing companies that help equip the aerospace giant.

With Boeing planning for significant growth, Nisenfeld said, “we think there’s enough for everybody here.”

Well, you could say Nisenfeld, the agency she leads and other regional economic development leaders have done some rethinking since then.

Not about whether there’s enough of Boeing to go around for the Portland-Vancouver region, but about what the strategy should be to increase the aerospace industry’s role in the local economy.

Let’s put it this way: Wichita -- where Boeing will close its defense plant by the end of 2013 -- is no longer a focal point. Instead, Nisenfeld told me last week, the region’s aerospace economic development initiative will center on helping local companies grab a piece of the aerospace supply chain.

“After processing the ideas for a while internally, and talking to local companies, we realized there was a lot of work we could be doing with companies that are already (here),” Nisenfeld said, and who either want to become a part of the aerospace supply chain or who want to expand. Left unstated is that the shift should sit well with some CREDC critics who have argued for the organization to focus more on helping existing businesses and less on attracting new ones.

The shift in strategy stems partly from a recent discussion regional leaders had with a Boeing representative, Nisenfeld said.

That Boeing official said one reason certain metro areas succeed in gaining some clout in the aerospace industry is that they carefully identify a couple of niches where they know they’re the strongest.

Nisenfeld said that at least one of Clark County’s niches “is going to be related to avionics” -- the electronic guts of an aircraft -- “and that has a very strong, rational connection to the semiconductor industry.”

And the semiconductor industry, of course, has put down roots in the county, including the likes of WaferTech.

All of this shouldn’t be taken to mean the Columbia River Economic Development Council has taken recruitment of aerospace suppliers from other places off the table.

It’s just that the agency will focus more on local companies’ needs and wants while targeting its recruitment efforts on avionics companies, Nisenfeld said.In advancing those recruitment efforts, the CREDC would likely play up the region’s advantages, including its competitive electricity rates.

And, in a nod to another piece of advice local leaders got from that Boeing representative, the region also would seek companies whose tools and talent serve more than just the aerospace industry.

Companies that are diversified in the markets they serve are the kinds of companies that bolster a local economy, especially in the face of a downturn.

“That would be the sweet spot,” Nisenfeld said.

To be sure, the CREDC and its partners -- the city of Gresham, Ore., where Boeing has a parts facility, Cowlitz County and private job promoter Greater Portland Inc.-- are still in the early stages of figuring out the aerospace puzzle.

In April, the CREDC led a workshop, featuring a keynote speaker from Boeing, for area companies to learn about how to fit into the aerospace giant’s supply chain.

And about 30 companies in the region have been identified as either being involved in the aerospace business or wanting to get involved.

Nisenfeld said it’s too early to say how the aerospace effort will define success. But that will come with time. “It’s an evolving, learning process,” she said.

The hope is that what started with a big, bold statement -- and later morphed into a still-evolving strategy -- eventually leads to results.

Aaron Corvin is a Columbian business reporter. 360-735-4518, Twitter: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://twitter.com/col_energy;http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business or aaron.corvin@columbian.com