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LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham reviews year number one

By LVEDC Staff on July 9, 2013

Editor’s Note: On July 9th, 2012, Don Cunningham officially became the president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. Cunningham made it clear at the time that he wanted his tenure to be marked by results rather than bureaucratic process. Ambiguity, he noted, was out. Instead a clear focus was a top priority. “We have to work on doing the things that are a little more difficult to get done,” he said during the May 29th news conference that marked his hiring. “…Sometimes it’s more about keeping things simple than making it complex.” Cunningham takes a look back – and ahead – in this week’s LVEDC “Five Questions” interview.

One year in, are you content with the state of LVEDC?

I think we’ve made great progress in returning the focus of LVEDC to the original mission of its founding. The fundamental purpose of the regional economic development entity is to market our two counties for business growth and job creation and to serve as a one-stop shop, a connector entity, that makes it easier for businesses to grow here, come here or start here. If LVEDC is doing its job we are expanding awareness of the assets and strengths of the Lehigh Valley economy and quality of life in the business community here and outside the area. We’ve been ramping up our marketing. We’ve added a research and data gathering operation to better understand our own backyard and how we compare to other areas, and we’ve put a focus on existing business to retain them and help them to grow. Nearly 80 percent of our job creation comes from the existing business in the Lehigh Valley and our start-up community.

Talk about some of the initiatives that LVEDC has accomplished during your first year?

We’ve been working to change culture here. We’ve eliminated vice-president positions and overhead – and the idea that we just schmooze with people and golf on Fridays. This is a small workforce, about 15 people, and everyone – including me – needs to be a hands-on working professional, doing whatever is required to get things done. It needs to be about results.

We restructured the way LVEDC functions. Our job is not to market and promote LVEDC, but to market and promote the assets and strengths of the Lehigh Valley economy. We are doing that now with our weekly e-communications, an improved website, and the Wow! advertising campaign that is now on billboards in the Lehigh Valley. We’ve gotten back to a core mission, eliminating the mission creep that took place in recent years. We are focused on three core development functions: retention and expansion, recruitment and supporting the start-up community.

Moving forward into year two, discuss some of the agenda you wish to accomplish?

We need to be more strategic, understanding the strengths and assets of our region better and how we compare to other areas, our competition. We need to better understand the economy of tomorrow and how we can capitalize on where it is headed. We need a targeted focus on how we market outside our borders, how we recruit, how we help companies to grow here and to help our regional partners, such as the county and local governments, with their mission. This year we will launch the Local Government Council and get engaged with the leadership of all 62 municipalities in the region to make a better connection with all areas of the Lehigh Valley.

LVEDC has had great activity in its finance department and with business development in the last 12 months. What do you attribute that to?

The strongest existing function of LVEDC is its finance operation. The partnership with the lending community is fantastic, and it needs to be. Access to capital is the most critical function for business growth. It doesn’t matter where the capital comes from – a private bank, an economic development program, a Small Business Administration loan or a state financing tool administered through a county – it just matters that we put any possible access to capital in front of the customer. John Kingsley, our vice president of finance, has done a great job developing a strong working partnership with the banking community. The finance program at LVEDC is much larger and more robust than most people realize. We need to do a better job of marketing the opportunities that are available to businesses through the regional partnership of LVEDC.

What is the biggest surprise you’ve had on the job as president and CEO of LVEDC?

How much the Lehigh Valley community just wants to see the organization work and succeed. There is tremendous support for regional economic development and the role a strong functioning LVEDC can play in helping the state, the counties and the local governments to advance an agenda of economic growth and development. There is tremendous support from our business community and institutions to play their part in a public-private partnership that helps to create jobs and strengthens our economy. After 25 years in public and private roles here in the Lehigh Valley, it shouldn’t surprise me that the Lehigh Valley leadership has a great sense of noblesse oblige – the desire to not only see their company or government or entity succeed, but for the entire region to prosper.

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