Joe Max Higgins is in the business of creating jobs and will apparently stop at nothing to see the folks of his region employed. This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Bill Whitaker speaks with Higgins about what exactly that task entails.
Higgins runs economic development for Mississippi’s Golden Triangle, a region in the eastern part of the state. The triangle is formed by the cities of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point and their counties, and it has seen something of a boom in industry in the last decade. Higgins has brought in about 6,000 jobs to the area since 2003, which amounts to about half the manufacturing jobs the region has lost in the last 25 years.
Those gains are significant, considering advanced manufacturing techniques now require a smaller, more highly trained workforce. For example, Steel Dynamics, one of the most high-tech steel mills in the country, now operates in the Triangle. The company requires only 650 employees to produce more than 3 million tons of steel a year; in decades past, it would have needed 4,000.
In this modern landscape, Higgins says wooing a Japanese company to the region was “the Holy Grail” – and that’s exactly what he did when he landed a deal with Yokohama Tire.
“If you can land a Japanese project, that is a testament to the amount of work that you can do, the product you can produce, and the level of expertise of your team because they’re extremely competitive, and they’re hard to win,” Higgins says.
To win the Yokohama tire plant, the Golden Triangle competed in a nationwide search that evaluated 3,100 counties across the U.S. It was Higgins’ job to prove to Yokohama’s chairman that the Golden Triangle was the company’s best bet.
He had his employees learn about Japanese culture, and he personally studied up on tire manufacturing, so he could speak to Yokohama workers about the process.
He reviewed competing communities’ planning and zoning minutes and evaluated what competitive incentives he could offer. He also tracked the tail numbers of the company’s private airplanes, so he could determine which competitor cities they were visiting and how long they were staying. He installed water and sewer systems on the proposed site for the plant, and he secured $30 million from the state for a new access road so trucks could reach the factory.
On the day the Yokohama chairman came to visit the Triangle’s prospective site, torrential rains nearly derailed his meticulous planning. The mud prevented Higgins’ Sikorsky 76 helicopter from landing in a field on-site, and power lines made landing on the road impossible.
Higgins was undeterred. He simply asked the electric company to pull down the power lines and had the sheriff’s department block off the road.
Since Higgins didn’t want his guests to ruin their shoes in the mud, he researched the shoe sizes for each member of the Yokohama team and had galoshes ready for them. That’s not all the team saw when they arrived — Higgins outfitted each of his employee’s vehicles with Yokohama tires.
“If you put nothing to chance, then you increase your chances of winning quite a bit,” Higgins says.
But Higgins didn’t stop there.
“Some of it’s emotional, okay?” Higgins says. “You have to make an emotional connection with the company, and they have to see themselves succeeding there.”
To achieve that connection, Higgins flew the Yokohama chairman over the demolished site where a Sara Lee pork processing plant stood for generations. The century-old plant closed in 2007.
“I said, ‘That plant is closed, and it literally ripped the community’s heart out,’” Higgins says. “I said, ‘You and your project could be the phoenix that could bring this community back.’”
His pitch — along with financial incentives — worked, and Yokohama agreed to build the $300 million plant in the Golden Triangle. Higgins secured about $100 million in incentives and an estimated $200 million in tax breaks from the state of Mississippi and the counties that make up the Golden Triangle.
Clawback provisions force Yokohama to pay back the incentives if they don’t meet their hiring mark of 2,000 total employees — initially employing 500 people, and eventually another 1,500. Taking that future expansion into account, the state of Mississippi has spent about $150,000 per job to bring the Yokohama plant to the Golden Triangle.
“It’s worth it,” Higgins says.
Photos courtesy of The Commercial Dispatch
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