There was no talk of glass ceilings or “having it all” when some of Columbia’s most powerful women gathered at the CEO Roundtable. These women, all highly engaged in their community, were eager to share their thoughts on the issues affecting all local businesses.
Inside Columbia’s CEO Publisher Fred Parry began the discussion by asking the panel to give their assessment of the Columbia economy.
Shelter Insurance Agent Nancy Allison said that from her perspective, Columbia is in a better economic position than many other cities. “I work with people who are moving to Columbia, so I hear a lot of stories — some stories as far away as Michigan, but some stories are as close as Blue Springs, Missouri. I really think that while we have people here who have suffered, we haven’t seen a lot of the ill effects that other communities have and are still having.”
“On the local level, we did definitely rebound,” said Elizabeth Mendenhall, CEO of Re/MAX Boone Realty. “But this year we’re not seeing another substantial increase. One of the things we have to be very conscious of is that it’s easy to commute from some of the outlying communities. Our average sales price is high in Columbia. One of the things we try to analyze is, can you work at Boone Hospital as a nurse and own a home in Columbia? Can you be in the fire protection business and own that average sales price home? As that gap widens, we run the risk of having a lot of commuters because we can’t actually house the people we trust to take care of the community. We’ve kind of weathered the storm, but we all have to be involved to make sure we can maintain that and don’t distance ourselves from the norm.”
Kate Grant, CFO of Fresh Ideas Food Service, said her company measures the health of the economy using the number of college students it serves. “We stay really well in tune with the college student population. We budgeted for a very flat year this year in student growth locally. We were pleasantly surprised to see rising numbers. Overall, we had a higher growth in student population in the higher ed schools we serve. That was nice to see.”
D&M Sound CEO Anne Moore said that her company, which specializes in audio, video and electronic technology, had to be nimble when the bottom fell out of the economy and new home construction languished. “We really turned to business-to-business types of things and that has grown considerably. We noticed in the last six to eight months, businesses are very willing to get out there and invest in their business.” Moore said she also is seeing the homebuilding industry on the rebound, and individual consumers more willing to invest in technology upgrades for their current homes.
A Dangerous Web
Even with an improving economic picture, Moore said there’s a growing problem that plagues many local retailers: online shopping. “Who does not buy from the Internet around this table?” she asked.
Gloria Gaus, founder and CEO of Creative Surroundings, understands the allure of Internet shopping. “I go to places to shop in Columbia — places that are large and require a sales staff of people to manage their stores — and there aren’t enough people to employ nowadays to be able to take care of the customers when they do come into the store. As we add more and more stores and retail shops and big-box stores, the service just seems to go down. Why wouldn’t you buy on the Internet, if it’s easier to get what you need without the hassle? It comes to your door almost the next day. So I’m concerned with what’s going to happen with all the stores.”
Kim Barnes, president & CEO of The Callaway Bank, said many people she talks to don’t realize the repercussions of their online shopping habits. “Sometimes they look at me with a blank look and they haven’t even thought about why it’s important to shop local. So by me raising the question, they get this thoughtful look and go, ‘Huh. I probably should shop local a little more. Maybe I’ll shop Small Business Saturday instead of Black Friday online.’ Sometimes it’s an awareness issue.”
“I think it’s really looking at everything we do,” said Keri Tipton, CEO and president of Bucket Media. “It’s not just buying clothes on the Internet; it’s everything we do in our daily lives with business, and thinking about how we support our community and all the businesses in this community in multiple ways.”
Debbie LaRue, director of marketing and public relations for The Callaway Bank, said local support is a two-way street. “How many times do our children walk into a local store and say they are selling yearbook ads or popcorn or T-shirts or posters for their athletic programs? If those students have never walked in that store before and the merchant is put on the spot to say yea or nay, there’s only so much the local merchants can do to give back if we’re not supporting them.”
Re/MAX Realtor Sheri Radman pointed out that for many consumers, saving money is the No. 1 priority, and that’s the magnet that draws them to online retailers. “If they can go to a big-box site and buy there, as opposed to going to some of our local businesses, they’re going to opt for that because they’re going to save money.”
That savings is often realized through the avoidance of sales tax, making Internet shopping a concern for the entire community, not just local retailers.
“Sales tax revenue from, say, dining out is up, but not from retail sales,” Moore said. “You will find that especially the people who are under 30 will buy almost everything on the Internet. We used to get that sales tax revenue from students, and of course students use a lot of public services in Columbia, but we aren’t getting any revenue from them.”
According to Moore, the answer may lie in a use tax that would allow the city to collect revenue from those online sales that currently go untaxed.
“If you purchase something from a Dillard’s online, for example, and have it shipped to your home, you are then charged state sales tax because they have a presence in the state, but the city cannot charge any sales tax on it,” Moore said. “But if you have a use tax, then you can collect the sales tax.”
Grading The Schools
Parry moved to the next topic, and asked the women to share their thoughts on the quality of Columbia’s schools: What’s going right and where is there room for improvement?
“I think our public schools are great compared to other communities I’ve lived in or been involved with,” said Jodi Bales, a partner with the accounting firm of Miller, Bales & Cunningham. “The public schools are tremendous. It’s easy to be a public school supporter in Columbia, Missouri. One thing I think we can do better — sometimes I think mediocre is OK in terms of performance for our kids. On the other hand, I think everything in the world for these kids is so competitive anymore. They have to have the best grade point; they have to be involved in 10 different activities to be accepted to the state school in their own town.”
Jan Beckett, a Boone Hospital Center trustee, praised the schools, particularly the high schools, for embracing diversity in their student populations. “I think that’s important for all our children as they graduate and go into the real world.”
“I think the Columbia Public Schools do a really good job with special needs children,” Allison said. She shared that she had a family member who went through that program and is now successfully employed as a law enforcement officer. “I’m a little frustrated about kids who are not in special needs. Where in life do you get to take the exact same test over? I think we’re doing our kids a great disservice and I know teachers are nurturing people, but you are not setting kids up to succeed when you let them take the exact same test over.”
What about kids who aren’t college-bound? Parry asked the group to comment.
“I love that Battle [High School] has the career center concept built into the school, because they teach welding, they teach auto mechanics, and we all need all those services. You don’t necessarily need a college degree. You need some technical training.”
“And remove the stigma,” Barnes said. “When we talk and think about our young people, everyone thinks about the kid going to college and not every kid is going to college. Not every child should go to college. So we should not discount or demean those other things that kids absolutely can do.”
The next challenge for local business owners is to keep new graduates — those with technical training and those with college degrees — here in Columbia to fill available jobs.
“The low unemployment rate can be an issue because there are not enough people coming in the door who are employable,” said Heather Hargrove, general manager of the Holiday Inn Executive Center and current chair of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce board of directors. “We continue to reach out more to the University of Missouri through the hotel and restaurant school, making contacts with students while they are in college to get them in and hopefully hang on to them through careers.”
“Just speaking from my industry, for us to try to hire someone coming out of the University of Missouri with an accounting degree is impossible,” Bales said. “They’ll go to St. Louis or Kansas City for big dollars. I’m sure all of you as small businesses cannot pay what these companies pay in the big cities. And the university pushes all their students to go to the big firms in St. Louis or Kansas City, but that’s not for everybody. We need to keep some of those students here and keep that talent in town. Some sort of collaboration with that would be helpful.”
Gina Gervino, vice president and general counsel for Columbia Insurance Group, said her company is trying to be proactive with their student recruiting. “This past year, we partnered with several other companies with the Trulaske College of Business to start a risk management program, where we hope to be very intimately involved in the process of the classes those particular students are taught. We want to get in at an early level, introduce them to the local companies that are in the insurance industry and entice them to stay there through internships and just the education process. We hope by the time they graduate, first of all, that they see the insurance industry can be a great career field, and then secondly, actually entice them to stay in Columbia rather than going outside of it. It’s in its infancy stages so we’ll see where it goes.”
What’s The Big Idea?
Parry shifted the conversation to Columbia’s attitude about growth and change. “Is Columbia slow to embrace the big ideas?” he asked.
Allison said that Columbia loves its small-town feel, but the desire to preserve that aspect of its personality can become an obstacle. “We just can’t seem to embrace anything that might potentially grow the city and the community,” she said. “I’m not growth for the sake of growth. I was born and raised here. I want this to be a wonderful place and I want people to want to come here. But I don’t want it to be Kirksville, Missouri, where it’s dying and the population is shrinking. I don’t want that for my community.”
Mendenhall shared a favorite quote: “You have to have more loyalty to the future than you do to the past.”
“If we were back in the 1800s, would we be talking about the railroad or electricity?” Gaus asked. “Would we be saying, ‘We don’t want any electricity in our town! We’re just fine.’ ”
The women voiced frustration over the perceived lack of cooperation between the city and county government, and between elected representatives.
“Could the city actually work with the county on something, or vice versa?” Moore asked. “For the long-term success of both, it can’t be [hostile]. Let’s work toward the same goals. We might even be so bold as to perhaps, possibly, someday even talk to the people in Jefferson City and collaborate with them. You never know.”
The ideas that Grant can get behind aren’t new ideas, but she considers them critical to the economic development of the city: “More jobs, more businesses, a better attitude about pro-business. I can’t help but think so many more things get fixed when more people have jobs and we have highly skilled workers and we have businesses that are contributing to the taxes. I feel like we need to incentivize some of those larger businesses to be here and grow here with us. We’ve come close on having some big businesses here and we lose that opportunity. I don’t know exactly what goes wrong. Other places, even in the Midwest, are incentivizing businesses to start there and grow there and we’re not doing that.”
“There are a lot of people who do a lot of good things, don’t get me wrong,” Allison said. But she thinks the city could make great strides through a visioning process “that doesn’t have an agenda.”
Ann Echelmeier, a financial adviser with Edward Jones, shared something she had learned at a recent financial advisory analyst meeting. “There was an international analyst commenting on China,” she said. “China has these huge international airports that are just empty. Well, their vision is the vision of 20 years down the road and the huge amount of urbanization that’s going to occur in China. There’s a lot of negativity about their economic situation, yet they’re planning for the future. We don’t look that far out.”
“In my head I’m trying to figure out how we can get this done and how we can make a difference versus just sitting around,” Tipton said. “When are we going to stop just throwing out ideas and talking about it. How can we join forces and do something?”
Hargrove remembers a particular committee meeting that changed her perspective about community involvement. “It was in the early 2000s, and I kept hearing everyone saying ‘they, they, they,’ including myself, and I’m like, ‘I am they!’ My fear is that we have 100 percent in our city reached a stalemate. All of these ideas, although they may be good in and of themselves, there are so many personal agendas that are currently being driven in this city. Everything is punching against the other and we are not going to move forward.”
Nancy Galloway, a partner at Callahan & Galloway, pointed out that everything that had been discussed was intertwined, “Whether you’re talking crime or talking schools or talking business development. There is so much great to offer in Columbia, but we’re a little protective of our Columbia and want it to stay a little small town, but it’s not. Look at downtown and how the landscape is changing. Things are changing, and we’re going to have to embrace the change.”
Echelmeier said her takeaway from the discussion was: “What can I do to help? I’m truly honored to be able to sit here with all of our minds to understand what we need to do together to help with some of this change.”
Roundtable Roll Call
Miller, Bales & Cunningham
Boone Hospital Center
Callahan & Galloway
Founder & CEO
Vice President/General Counsel
Columbia Insurance Group
Fresh Ideas Food Service
Holiday Inn Executive Center
Re/MAX Boone Realty
Re/MAX Boone Realty
President & CEO
Hosted by The Callaway Bank, represented by:
Kim Barnes, President & CEO
Debbie LaRue, Director of Marketing/Public Relations
Gary Meyerpeter, Boone County Market President
Inside Columbia’s CEO magazine