Sandy Baruah, New Detroit Regional Chamber president and CEO, is focused on three things. The first is much more robust regional collaboration. The more economically successful regions are the ones that collaborate and work together well.
This is an ongoing challenge in this region. Therefore, he will focus a lot of efforts on how business groups, including small businesses, government groups, civic organizations, foundations, people, and educational institutions, work together to achieve a common vision.
The second priority is economic development. The Chamber has an outsized role in supporting and driving economic development in this region.
“The Chamber has played a critical role under Dick Blouse’s leadership in really being the driving force behind the attraction of international investment here in Southeast Michigan,” Baruah said of his predecessor. “I want to build upon that legacy of success and add to it domestic attraction, retention of our existing companies, ensure our existing companies remain successful, and support our entrepreneurs.”
He noted that in our 21st century global marketplace, competition doesn’t come from either the county next door or the company next door. It comes from any person on any point on the globe who has a good idea.
The third priority is education.
“This isn’t rocket science,” he said. “If you want to know where your per capita income is going, as a region, just watch your educational attainment rates.”
Baruah wants the Chamber to lead by example in education, so he is looking for a bold initiative in education. He admitted, however, that he doesn’t know what that will be yet.
He has been on the job for a month and a half, and is still in the process of meeting people and stakeholders, and learning the organization.
“I’m not ready to announce specific programs yet. That’ll probably come this summer,” he said.
In the short term, Baruah wants us to have, as a region, a cohesive coordinated economic development strategy.
“Longer term, we want to see a diversified economy, still anchored by manufacturing and the auto industry, but diversified beyond that in a very robust way,” he said.
Another long-term goal is to see change in the region’s reputation. One challenge businesses in the region have is attracting people from outside the region to relocate here. CEOs he talks to tell him its hard for them to convince people that this region — despite being what he described as the engineering Mecca of the country — is not only a great place to do business, but also a great place to live.
Baruah took the job as Chamber president and CEO in part because of the challenge. He noted that this area has both tremendous assets and has tremendous challenges.
“My work, both in the private sector and when I was leading federal agencies in the government, was all about turnaround,” he said. “It was all about fundamentally rethinking how an organization did business, and finding a more effective way of doing that.
The second attraction was that he is able to capitalize on his experiences as administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and as assistant secretary of Commerce, where he led the Economic Development Administration (both under President George W. Bush).
The third attraction is his love of cars. He said that while the region will become less dependent on the auto industry, it will still be an important player in the region’s economy.
He also mentioned that what many people outside the region don’t understand is that the auto industry isn’t about bending metal or putting nuts on bolts. Instead the auto industry is clean technology, high technology and advanced logistics.
“Autos are the most technologically advanced pieces of equipment that most of us own,” he said. “So there’s lots of spinoff activities, lots of innovation, lots of technology that’s infused in the auto industry. We need to get that message out, to let folks know that manufacturing is not dumb, dirty and dangerous. It’s actually high tech and leading edge.”
Baruah said the Chamber will have new programs focused on small businesses and that he wants to be supportive of incubators and accelerators. He cited Ann Arbor Spark, Tech Town, and Automation Alley as examples of world class incubators and accelerators.
“I want to support those efforts,” he said. “I want to help them be more successful.”
According to Baruah, small businesses are more innovative on a per capita basis than larger businesses. He said innovative businesses will drive our economy in the future.
“We need more of them,” he said. “We need to make this a welcoming environment and we need to keep them here.”
Baruah likened the Chamber to Switzerland, calling it a great platform for bringing diverse parties together.
With regard to the Mackinac Policy Conference, Baruah, who has yet to attend a conference, said he is very happy with the agenda and lineup of presenters. He believes his team has done an outstanding job.
“Here’s why,” he said. “What are the biggest issues facing Michigan today? First is jobs and the economy, and secondly it’s political change, because we have the election coming up in November.”
Those two issues will be discussed pretty much 24/7.
He also said he couldn’t envision a more relevant agenda, or a better lineup of speakers from all over the political spectrum.