October 20, 2008 | last updated January 25, 2012 11:04 am
2008 Next List

Rules of attraction | Matt Jacobson, President and CEO, Maine & Co., Portland

Photo/David A. Rodgers
Photo/David A. Rodgers
Matt Jacobson: "We can be successful if we capitalize on those areas where we can be uniquely excellent."

It's the little things that sometimes make the biggest differences.

Last fall, when Massachusetts-based medical services company Athenahealth was looking for a site for a new call center, a former MBNA facility in Belfast made the shortlist. A deal would have been big news for Belfast: Hundreds of new jobs, a bump in tax revenue for the city and a new tenant for the vacant 130,000-square-foot building. One problem: The company was waffling between Belfast and Burlington, Vt.

That indecision led Matt Jacobson, CEO of Maine & Co, a Portland nonprofit directly involved in bringing Athenahealth to Belfast, to scramble for whatever reasonable concessions would tip the scales. "At the end of the day, it was, 'What else can you give us?'" he says. "I remember [Belfast City Manager] Joe Slocum and I were standing in the hall going, 'Let's offer them snowplowing and see what happens.'"

Indeed, that eleventh-hour addition pushed the deal in Belfast's favor. A relatively minor task for the town, the snowplowing would save Athenahealth roughly $150,000 a year in maintenance fees, says Jacobson. And while the win was great news for the city, landing Athenahealth also helped elevate the stock of Maine & Co., the private business-attraction company Jacobson has helmed since 2006.

In his short tenure, Jacobson, a 47-year old former railroad executive, has preached the gospel of business attraction, retention and development. It's company-based economic development, whether luring an outside company to Maine or helping incubate a locally grown startup. "That's what we do here," he says. "We help businesses succeed. We get them here, help them start here and help them stay here."

Jacobson's message is straightforward and infectiously optimistic: The way he sees it, Maine is open for business — and should have a line of customers stretching around the block, from new companies to entrepreneurial startups. All it takes is a little creative thinking and a strong network of partnerships across the state. And while some may brand that vision as simplistic, it's a rare — and encouraging — departure from the typical woe-is-me perspective of the state's business climate.

And companies have bought in to that vision. In addition to Athenahealth, Maine & Co. was part of the team that landed Tennessee-based Notify MD, which opened a 120-person call center in Farmington in 2006, and Massachusetts-based Boston Financial Data Services, which in June announced plans for a data center in Rockland that would employ an estimated 250 workers in two years.

But he also says change is needed to take advantage of more economic opportunities. Jacobson believes Maine needs to be more selective when it comes to deploying its limited resources. To that end, he says the state should focus on industries in which Maine has a distinct competitive advantage, such as tourism. "Let's find things where we can be world class, where the other states sit around saying, 'Geez, how can we beat Maine?'" he says.

Tourism pumps more than $6 billion into the Maine economy each year, but Jacobson sees bigger opportunities, and says the state needs to rethink its approach to the industry. "Now, a boat pulls up to the dock [in Portland], we put them on a bus and bring them up to L.L.Bean," he says. "We fill their bag up, get them back on a bus, get them back on the boat and get them out of town. And that's tourism."

But what if Maine attracted 500 cruise ships a year instead of 200? And what if Maine developed a cottage industry grooming a workforce — from hospitality workers to maritime engineers — to crew those ships? "It's a much broader definition of tourism," he says.

Beyond shifting industry approaches or redirecting economic resources, Jacobson believes in the power of teamwork. After all, success breeds success, and Jacobson wants to keep building on the momentum of each new deal. "We're all rowing in the same direction," he says. "You can try to browbeat people into pulling in the same direction, but for us what's going to be effective is just being successful."

Taylor Smith

Read more

Stage fight | Scott R.C. Levy, Producing Artistic Director, Penobscot Theatre Company, Bangor

Downtown diva | Shannon Haines, Executive Director, Waterville Main Street, Waterville

Wisdom at work | Dave Tomm, President, Seasoned Workforce, Rockland

Farms of the future | Ben Dobson President, Atlantic Organics and Locally Known, Bowdoinham Daniel Corey Owner, Daniel Corey Farms, Monticello

Global guru | Perry Newman, Founder and director, Atlantica Group, Portland

Local energy | Scott Cowger, Co-owner of the Maple Hill Farm Inn, Hallowell

Policy players | Nicole Witherbee, Federal Policy Analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy in Augusta, and Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center in Portland

The 2008 Next List


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