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Business Recruitment Leader Reflects on Upstate

January 10, 2022

After 12 years, Jacob Hickman takes a curtain call

When Jacob Hickman began working for the Upstate Alliance, “TiK ToK” wasn’t a social meeting platform, it was a catchy jingle courtesy of Ke$ha.

And after 12 years building the Upstate’s brand at home and around the world — and grabbing the title of longest-serving Alliance team member — Jacob’s service with the Alliance is coming to an end. He’s taken an opportunity with Duke Energy to help power-intensive companies explore sites across Duke’s six-state territory to provide them with low-cost, reliable and sustainable electricity.

As we celebrate Jacob’s work with the Alliance and #TeamUpstate, we asked him to reflect on his time with the Alliance and share his take on the Upstate’s future opportunities:

1. You’ve been with the Upstate Alliance for 12 years – and a lot has changed since that time. How did business recruitment look then compared to today?

In 2010, Toy Story 3 topped the box office, I had a slider cell phone with the keyboard & unemployment was north of 10%. The Upstate Alliance brought me on as part of the recently completed strategic plan to enhance lead-generation capabilities internally. At that time, Aerospace was not a targeted industry for the UA, but given Boeing’s new presence in South Carolina, I was tasked with evaluating and validating the necessity of incorporating that into our recruitment strategy.

In true economic development style, the change from 2010 to now has been a gradual progression. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Upstate has maintained a high-level of commitment, preparedness, and leadership to ensure that we methodically build an economy that is sustainable and progressive. Business is constantly evolving, and the Upstate Alliance has proven to be nimble and innovative in our approach to effectively attract new companies to the region. Some years the real estate searches are heavy on existing buildings, while other years lean more towards greenfield sites & build-to-suit opportunities. There are bursts of industry that seem to come out of nowhere, like breweries and data centers, only to soften and make room for other bursts like food and batteries. I cannot point to primary difference in how recruitment has changed, our team has stepped up and performed at a high-level by implementing creative tactics and initiatives that are geared towards what is happening in the economy. We as a team and region realize that to keep winning, we’ve got to have fresh ideas every year and be aggressive in deploying recruitment programs.

2. We’re big on the #TeamUpstate love – acknowledging the role all our partners play in the economic development process. Can you give us a sense for how those private investors have enhanced your work?

When reaching out to partners, it’s like Jerry McGuire: “help me, help you.” We are all in this economic development ballgame together, having access to such a wonderful member base is truly an advantage. We’ve heard many times from outsiders how well this community has its act together, it sends a powerful message to companies/consultants when they experience the level of dedication this area’s stakeholders have in elevating the economy.

It is nothing for me to call on partners short-notice and they be more than willing to support; we do our absolute best to expose our members to opportunities. Our investors are a key part of the “infrastructure” we pitch daily to prospects – having local expertise that new companies can rely on to mitigate risk and maximize profit. Helping new companies locate here requires a deep bench who can offer everything from engineering, legal services, accounting, banking, staffing, construction, IT, commercial real estate brokerage, great power providers, and the rest all make the magic happen.

3. What has changed the most about the Upstate’s business environment in your time here?

In addition to supply chain density, I’d say we’re in much better standing with the availability of taco, BBQ & dapper hair salon options than we were 12 years ago. Geographically, we are positioned for companies to access existing customers, but bigger picture is their ability to grow with the diverse industrial clustering in the Southeast. Small-to-medium enterprises are a critical element to continued growth. With labor being top of mind, finding young companies with strong growth potential allows for a more scalable impact for job creation.

In recent years, we’ve expanded our scope of work by supporting smaller companies with growth potential through both our Landing Pad initiative and the 2021 Innovators Homecoming.

With Landing Pads, we’re helping international companies with an established brand and customer presence overseas to tap into the U.S. market. Many of them want turnkey office space, quick connections to help them build brand awareness, and support from our #TeamUpstate business services community as they explore the potential for growth. Assets like the Spark Center SC or Abbeville Incubator facility have been a tremendous asset in welcoming companies like this, with wins including AWL Automation, BNNano, and Advanced Manufacturing and Power Systems.

And in 2021, we hosted an Innovators Homecoming to showcase the region’s entrepreneurial landscape, bringing in Upstate newcomers, alumni and guests to learn more about the environment and also share their perspective on what companies of their type need to thrive. We also connected the guests to local established leaders who are making waves in their respective industries, including Matt Gevaert, CEO of Kiyatec; Ryan Johnston, CEO of 6 AM City; and Paige McPheely, CEO of Base in addition to newcomers like Cliff Holekamp with Cultivation Capital.

This region has the DNA to bring in new business and support them in their journey for building a successful company. And, quality of life is a leading topic in the current environment, being able to attract talent is critical and we are fortunate to live in an area with an appealing lifestyle.

4. Where do you see future opportunities for our region?

“So you’re telling me there’s a chance.” All kinds of opportunity. One of the most compelling conversations I’ve had in economic development was in the midst of the shutdown. I was speaking with an international contact, and he said to me, “Jacob, our networks are stronger than any pandemic.” Challenges yield opportunities, and this region continued to thrive despite the chaos that has transpired the past two years. The networks we’ve built over the past decade have been incredibly fruitful, especially of late when we haven’t been able to travel as much as we’d like.

I’d argue that the Upstate is the poster child for transformational leadership in economic development. Our history is rich in textiles, which morphed into an international melting pot of culture & precision manufacturing, which is now becoming the crossroads where manufacturing and innovation intersect. Maintaining flexibility, combined with focus and a partnership-based approach to economic development will keep this region on the path to being the capital of awesome.

5. What’s your proudest accomplishment with the Upstate Alliance?

I use the term “networks,” but I really mean “friendships.” When I moved to the Upstate, the only contacts I had were my amazing wife and our two min-schnauzers. I was alone first in the pack, and I joined the UA later. And 12 years ago, when the UA introduced me to you guys — the force that is #TeamUpstate and South Carolina’s economic development community — I thought, “Wait a second, could it be?”

And then I knew for sure, I just added more people to my wolf pack. I find a great sense of pride in calling the Upstate home and being part of the ED wolf pack that shares that enthusiasm. I’m still calling the Upstate home, so I look forward to partnering with my wolf pack for years to come.

TOPICS: #TeamUpstate, Business Recruitment