CBIA talks with Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development deputy commissioner Bart Kollen about the agency's business ambassador program. Kollen joined DECD in February and manages the business development, financial review, and compliance departments, focusing on attracting and retaining businesses.

Q: What are the goals for DECD's ambassador program?

DECD's Bart Kollen
DECD's Bart Kollen (right) speaks at a forum in Danbury with Connecticut Economic Resource Center president Bob Santy.

To further improve our state's business climate, it is imperative that we let Connecticut businesses know we appreciate their presence here and that there are many ways in which the state and other organizations can assist with their growth plans.

The goal for the DECD ambassadors is to proactively reach out to businesses in order to get to know them and what matters to them.

This interaction provides companies with an opportunity to share any feedback and to discuss potential opportunities for DECD or other state agencies and business partners to assist them with growth and expansion projects, their need for a talented and educated workforce, access to transportation, and other key needs.

I do not see this effort as a program. Rather, I view it as a better way to operate—proactively reaching out to companies to make sure that we stay in touch with them and that they become aware of all the programs available to them instead of assuming they will find their way to us.

Q: How will the agency measure the program's performance and results?

Our ongoing outreach effort is intended to reach thousands of companies in the state through visits, conferences, phone calls and letters.

Each company should know how to reach us, and who is a point of contact they can call anytime.

Our eight ambassadors are tasked with meeting with a number of individual companies in their territories each month as a follow up on this outreach efforts as well as through the connections they make based on their relationships with local chambers, business advocacy groups, town EDOs, and other organizations.

Our intention is to keep track of all of these efforts.

It is important to realize that our efforts are focused on assisting business to be successful in the state, recognizing that it is the businesses, their owners, and their staffs that maintain and drive economic growth in the state.

It is businesses, their owners, and their staffs that maintain and drive economic growth in the state.
From a results perspective, we will continue to measure job growth in the state, particularly in the key sectors identified in the state's strategic plan.

Hopefully, we will start to slowly but surely see an improvement in the overall mindset about our business climate, with more people focusing on the positive things that are happening versus the "glass-is-half-empty-attitude" I feel has been prevailing for some time.

Q: Which industry sectors is DECD targeting with the program? What sectors are priorities?

In our strategic plan we have specifically decided to target various sectors; insurance/financial services, manufacturing, health and bioscience, digital media, green energy, and tourism.

Some of these industries are the backbone of our economy and others are emerging as growth areas for the state. While we will certainly support all companies (thus the ambassador program), we feel these industries represent the state's best growth opportunities and need to form the core of our focus.

Another growth area relates to young and innovative businesses.

We need to facilitate the availability of the talent they need, support them in their efforts to establish a presence in the state and help them to make it beyond their initial product launch.

Much of this work will be done in partnership with Connecticut's venture capital arm Connecticut Innovations and its subsidiary CTNext.

Across the board, we recognize the importance of STEM talent for all successful businesses, including technology, programming, and data analytics skills that have become a crucial driver of success in any company.

Q: Who are the ambassadors? What experience do they have with business development?

Our eight DECD ambassadors are our most experienced people, with an average of more than 20 years of economic development experience in the state.

All of them have impressive networks that they have already established among the business community, towns, state agencies, and other business partners across Connecticut.

Many of them have spent some time in the private sector at one time or another in their career.

Q: How do you see the ambassadors working with businesses? What type of outreach activities are you planning?

I want our ambassadors to meet Connecticut businesses at their office!

Our goal is for them to spend a significant amount of their time on the road visiting companies, attending conferences, and meeting with local business organizations and government officials.

It is important to acknowledge that the ambassadors have other duties as well that include helping companies complete assistance applications, maintaining relationships with other state agencies and business partners, and helping to manage various programs funded through DECD.

Q: What challenges do you face with implementing the program?

I am glad you asked! First, DECD needs to become more sophisticated in collecting, maintaining, and analyzing basic information about Connecticut-based companies so that we can be more organized in our outreach efforts going forward.

To facilitate this, we will be leveraging a CRM system and determine if and how data may be shared among state agencies so that we don't have to request similar information from companies multiple times.

We also have an opportunity to further coordinate our activities with other state agencies, business organizations, legislators, and local officials.

While it is great news that there are so many advocates and programs for economic development in Connecticut and that there are a lot of positive examples of the progress being made, I can imagine that for most businesses it may be challenging to keep track of them all.

Coordinating our activities and streamlining our communications and outreach should make it easier for companies to work with us.

Finally, given the efforts to balance the budget and find ways to improve the stability of our long-term fiscal climate, we will focus on finding efficiencies within the department and focus our efforts in the areas where we believe we can have the most impact.

Q: Governor Malloy this year has emphasized that Connecticut faces a "new economic reality." How will the program address that theme?

The current economic and budgetary environment forces us to focus the state's efforts on core functions and even to set priorities within those core functions.

A crucial factor for businesses to choose Connecticut is the stability of the state's fiscal environment, both short term as well as long term.

Creating additional debt or increasing taxes will drive companies away to other states.
The revised budget that was recently passed was a great first step in showing that the state recognizes that spending should be aligned with expected revenues.

Creating additional debt or increasing taxes will drive companies away to other states.

To drive economic growth in this fiscally challenging environment forces us to recognize the strengths Connecticut has and can continue to build on—a great educational system, a great quality of life, a growing culture of innovation, and a great location that will become more accessible with long-term investments that are being made in transportation infrastructure.

Our DECD ambassadors will be able to assist in getting a positive message out and help companies connect with the many ways the state and other organizations can help foster growth.

Q: How will DECD use the feedback it receives from companies regarding the state's business climate? Do you see it driving policy changes?

Many of the policy initiatives we have pursued in recent years originated with the state's business community.

For instance, the Connecticut Manufacturing Innovation Fund, established in 2014, was born of conversations that the commissioner and others had with manufacturers across the state—conversations detailing the need to support modernization and workforce development at these companies, many of which are suppliers to the largest defense and aerospace OEMs.

Our anticipation is that feedback generated by the ambassador program will similarly inform the state's policy initiatives going forward.