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October 18, 2017

Is Maine open for business? A resounding 'yes' from Mainebiz CEO forum

Photo / Peter Van Allen
Photo / Peter Van Allen
Mainebiz Publisher Donna Brassard listens in on the panel discussion moderated by Maine & Co. President and CEO Peter DelGreco at this morning's Mainebiz CEO Breakfast Forum in South Portland. Panelists, from left to right, are DelGreco; James Detert, director of U.S. manufacturing at Mölnlycke Health Care; Melissa Smith, president and CEO at WEX Inc.; David Rycyna, CEO of Cirrus Systems Inc.; and Kent Peterson, president and CEO of Fluid Imaging Technologies.

The state of Maine absolutely is open for business. That's the resounding message from a panel of executives speaking at Wednesday's Mainebiz CEO Breakfast Forum in South Portland.

Moderated by Maine & Co. President and CEO Peter DelGreco, whose company attracts new business and investment to the state, the forum sought to separate fact from fiction on doing business here, with input from CEOs representing sectors from manufacturing to high-tech.

Setting the stage for a lively discussion, DelGreco pointed to a number of rankings in Forbes, CNBC and other media outlets that have assigned Maine very low marks and "don't paint our economy in a positive light."

He said the reality was the opposite.

The panelists, who lead companies home-grown in Maine as well as one that recently moved from the West Coast, all agreed that the pluses of doing business here far outweigh the minuses.

Maine: 'An amazing place to work'

"This is an amazing place, to live, and it's an amazing place to work," said Melissa Smith, president and CEO of WEX Inc., a global payment-systems company headquartered in Maine that hit the $1 billion revenue mark at the close of 2016. "The more we get that message out, the easier it will be" to do business here, she added.

Speaking as someone who recently relocated his company to Saco from San Francisco, Cirrus Systems Inc. CEO David Rycyna said, "There's such a story of what's going on here, there are so many advantages you have in being here despite any disadvantages."

More specifically, Rycyna said that Maine is "poised for where the world is technologically," especially as firms scout out where to set up clean-technology factories.

"It's a great time for companies to be moving into Maine," he said, saying that one shouldn't pay too much attention to lists that cast Maine in a negative light.

"Who cares about the Forbes intern that wrote that list?" he said. "Let's get real."

Rycyna said he moved his company here in part because of the difficulty recruiting talent in San Francisco, where Cirrus Systems had to go up against the likes of Google. "It's a tough ask in that market for a lot of that talent," he said. "We'd find it in Maine."

He also noted that in terms of physical space, the Bay Area was far more costly, "almost prohibitive, whereas in Maine we could step into a really good situation."

Workforce and other challenges

Among the challenges of doing business in Maine, panelists pointed to recruiting talent in certain areas and navigating the regulatory landscape at state and federal level.

James Detert, director of U.S. manufacturing for Mölnlycke Health Care, said his company had invested heavily in automation but has had trouble filling specialized positions related to robotics.

"We're not as dependent on a vast labor force," he said, "but we're dependent on a very skilled labor force." He added that the company's biggest challenge is staffing appropriately in automation.

In terms of getting more young people, WEX's Smith said her company is increasing its focus on interns to build a talent pipeline and often "shares" interns with other companies such as Tyler Technologies and IDEXX, with the interns doing a kind of company rotation. By contrast, "finding someone a bit more seasoned, you're drawing from a smaller pool," she said.

For fellow entrepreneurs looking to start or expand here, panelists offered some practical tips.

"Whether you're new to Maine or starting business in Maine, make it your first business to know the resources available," suggested Kent Peterson, president and CEO of Fluid Imaging Technologies.

On that front he said there's a 'plethora' of resources such as the Maine Technology Institute, which provided a grant to his company. "You won't need all of them, but you should know what each one offers," he said.

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