The dark days of the Great Recession may finally be receding with the years in Columbia’s collective memory as the economic recovery slowly takes hold in the local business community. Our latest CEO Sentiment Survey reveals a cautious-to-optimistic mindset among local executives as they look to what 2016 holds.
The Opinion Leaders
We invited owners and managers from businesses both large and small to participate in this year’s survey. Most (70 percent) are either owners or partners in their businesses; 30 percent represent high-ranking company employees.
Small business really means small in Columbia. The majority of survey respondents come from companies with fewer than 50 employees. Nearly 29 percent of the surveyed group represent companies with 10 to 49 employees, and 26 percent work at businesses of fewer than five employees. At the other end of the scale, nearly 11 percent represent companies of more than 1,000 employees; 17 percent employ 100 to 499, and another 6 percent run businesses of 50 to 99 employees. Just 9 percent represent businesses of five to nine employees; 2 percent have 500 to 1,000 employees.
Columbia businesses enjoy the stability of veteran leadership, according to this survey. More than 40 percent of all executives surveyed have been in their current position as a CEO or upper-level manager for 10 to 25 years, and 23 percent have been in the same job for more than 25 years. Executives with five to nine years’ experience comprise 16 percent of survey respondents. The group with the least experience in management — less than five years — totals 21 percent.
A Glass Half Full
There are few Negative Nancys among Columbia’s CEO set. Nearly 42 percent of survey respondents say their outlook for their own businesses is more hopeful than in recent years. A slightly larger group — 44 percent — maintains the same level of optimism as in recent years. Only 14 percent of survey respondents are less hopeful than they were in previous years.
That optimism is tempered with an acceptance of the status quo when CEOs consider the possibilities for change in the economies that surround them. About 40 percent believe Columbia’s economy will remain unchanged in 2016; another 35 percent believe it will improve and 25 percent look for a decline. About 55 percent of survey respondents believe Missouri’s economy will stay the same; 23 percent believe it will improve and 22 percent forecast a decline.
Some 39 percent believe the U.S. economy will stay the same; another 31 percent see improvement and 30 percent see a decline. A little more than 40 percent think the world economy will improve in 2016; 20 percent look for improvement and 40 percent believe it will decline.
Caution is the watchword for the business ledger in this year’s survey. When estimating organizational costs — payroll, benefits, overhead — for 2016, a majority of survey respondents (79 percent) say they expect costs to increase; 19 percent expect costs to stay the same and 2 percent believe they will decrease.
Job growth looks to be slow this next year, as two-thirds (66 percent) of survey respondents indicate that staffing levels will remain static. Only 27 percent expect to hire more staff; about 7 percent see a shrinking employment pool at their businesses.
Amid the cautionary forecasts, though, hope springs eternal in Columbia’s business community. More than half (57 percent) expect business revenues to increase in 2016 while a third (34 percent) believe revenues will remain the same. Only 9 percent expect a decrease in revenue in 2016.
All We Really Need …
When CEOs assess their businesses’ greatest need, nearly half (47 percent) want fewer government restrictions/requirements. A third (33 percent) say they need a more qualified workforce and more than a quarter (28 percent) say a general improvement in the economy would help their business. Nearly 6 percent say they need more available credit and 3.8 percent would like tax incentives.
The Challenge For 2016
Looking to the future, more than 45 percent of local CEOs surveyed cited “maintaining profitability” as their biggest challenge of 2016. Nearly as many (43 percent) say they will be tested to attract and retain good employees. Four in 10 say their biggest challenge will be sustaining a competitive advantage.
Nearly 16 percent say they will be challenged to develop leaders at their companies; 15 percent see a challenge in communicating with and motivating employees in the millennial generation.
We asked our CEOs and business managers to rank the community’s top priorities in 2016. The runaway leading issue — deemed important, very important or extremely important by 95 percent of respondents — is controlling crime. The No. 2 priority for 90 percent of those surveyed is improving infrastructure, followed by 89 percent who demand more accountability from elected officials.
Dead last in this CEO survey is the need to improve public transportation, a priority supported by just 42 percent of survey respondents.
What do you believe should be our community’s top priorities in 2016?
1. Controlling crime
2. Improving infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, sewers, stormwater)
3. Demanding more accountability from elected officials
4. Increasing collaboration between local government and the local business community
5. Creating economic opportunity/growth/jobs
6. More vocational training opportunities
7. Increasing our overall quality of life
8. Improving public school education
9. Creating a ready workforce
10. Improving the airport/air service
11. Increasing citizen engagement
12. Controlling energy costs
13. Loosening restrictions on development
14. Lowering Columbia’s cost of living index
15. Increasing financial incentives for business
16. Creating more affordable housing
17. Improving public transportation
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“The city is healthy and stable for established businesses, but tough for startups and outside businesses to enter.”
We gave our CEOs a chance to sound off on the issues that matter to them. When asked to describe the current business environment in Columbia, responses came fast and furious in a dichotomy of opinion.
For every respondent who described the local business climate as healthy, booming, business-friendly or “active with many opportunities,” another bemoaned an unfriendly and difficult atmosphere for business, pointing to an anti-business city council, “tax and spend” representatives and a city staff of micromanagers.
“It’s not what it used to be,” said one CEO.
“It’s niche-filled,” said another. “There are a small number of successful high-wealth individuals who steer the community.”
Even among the optimistic, survey respondents believe there is room for improvement. “Overall, it’s much better than recent years,” many said, “but our community seems to be really divided on critical issues. The city needs to be far more supporting of business in all sorts of ways.”
“It should be considered more inviting that it presently is,” noted several. “The city has made it difficult for new business to locate in Columbia.”
Others have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. “It seems everyone is walking on eggshells, taking things very cautiously,” opined one. “Hopefully, a positive turn could be the November 2016 elections.”
Sound Off: What CEOs Really Think
Survey respondents offered plenty of comments when asked their opinions on a variety of topics.
What economic signs make you hopeful for the future of your business?
“The end of Obama’s term.”
“Hopeful for a new presidential administration that knows how to lead this country.”
“Business and sales are growing tremendously.”
“People are spending.”
“Columbia is seen as a great place to do business.”
“Columbia’s increasing population, robust downtown, low unemployment”
“The growth of the university.”
“Dramatic changes at the city council.”
“Expanding population of Columbia; addition of schools.”
“Improving stock and real estate markets.”
“Increase in home building.”
“Low interest rates.”
“Low unemployment and increasing disposable incomes.”
“Lower gas prices.”
“Increased construction and increased business investment.”
“Reasonable level of construction projects are underway.
“Demand for our product is growing.”
“Next year we will have a new president.”
“The rise and strengthening of the conservative movement, tea party, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and hard-working Americans!”
“Things began turning as soon as Obama became president, and with others like Elizabeth Warren really in there fighting for us, I would hope we’ve learned lessons from the Bush recession that will enable us to keep things growing at a normal pace.”
“Stock market rise; new businesses emerging in Columbia.”
“We are expanding to other areas of the country but our base will still be Columbia. Positive results have allowed us to do this.”
“Low inflation and low unemployment helps, plus people in this area like to do business with a local company.”
“Possibility of new federal and state leadership.”
“We will have a new mayor.”
“2015 was a great year. See no reason why 2016 should be any different.”
What do you consider the greatest threat to the success of your business in the next three years?”
“A Republican Congress.”
“Another Democrat president.”
“City Manager Mike Matthes, Mayor Bob McDavid and our city council.”
“Anti-growth city council members and activists who aim at stopping our city’s population growth.”
“National irresponsible undisciplined leadership and failure to address debt and deficit.”
“Cost of health insurance and regulation.”
“Deregulation … yes deregulation.”
“Ever increasing federal regulations.”
“Craziness at MU.”
“Health insurance mandates.”
“Managed care companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield and United Health Care.”
“Increasing minimum wage.”
“Inflation, terrorism and high fuel costs.”
“Lack of capital.”
“Lack of skilled workers.”
“Legislature cuts to higher education.”
“New competition moving into the area.”
“Increasing pressure on margins is a constant battle.”
“Costs that I cannot control.”
“Pessimism, which can be quite contagious.”
What is your assessment of the current Columbia City Council?
“A bunch of kumquat hippy liberals.”
“A little too liberal.”
“Anti-business and anti-growth.”
“Anti-business and pro-tax us to death.”
“Anti-development, anti-growth, anti-business.”
“Clean the house.”
“Generally anti-growth and job creation (i.e., CVS pharmacy).”
“Heads in the clouds about what provides for tax revenue in our community.”
“They are micro managing the city and hindering growth.”
“Not connected to reality.”
“Not focused on the important issues.”
“Often worried about the wrong things — issues that have nothing to do with municipal government.”
“On the right track, but still a bit divided.”
“Poor administration right now, starting with the city manager.”
“Poor leadership and absolutely the wrong priorities. Change is needed.”
“They suck. Can I say that? Oops; I already did.”
“I am concerned about the lack of business-friendly forward direction that has been prevalent over the past 10-ish years. I feel like with each election, we lose more ground. The efforts are showing as we cannot be as competitive to attract new businesses as other more business-friendly communities lure them away. Overall, I think the city leaders think I should feel guilty for turning a profit; they’re not thankful for my contribution to the local economy.”
“Fire them all!”
What is your assessment of the current Boone County Commission?
“Average at best.”
“Driven by liberal public opinion. Total failure on the fairground issue.”
“I have more faith in the commissioners than the city council.”
“They are better than the city council by far, but pretty inept regarding their development forays. The 911 Center cost about two to three times what it needed to, they couldn’t get the fairgrounds thing figured out which is really a shame and was pretty lame how they just threw up their hands and gave up, and their complex of buildings at the corner of Seventh and Walnut is an eyesore since they took over ownership. They are really terrible landlords/real estate owners.”
“Middle of the road. Not very progressive. Happy to go along to get along.”
“Seems to be interested in maintaining the status quo (and their position).”
“Secretive, low profile, seems a lot of decisions are made out of the public eye.”
“Mostly positive. Have been disappointed in the Fair Grounds issue and decision to remove the ichthus symbol on the statue. 911 Center is a positive but may have made a mistake in not sunsetting the tax increase.”
What is your assessment of the current local delegation to the Missouri General Assembly?
“About average. We will lose a lot of influence without Kurt Schaefer.”
“Despite political differences, they do a decent job of promoting Columbia’s interests.”
“Generally doing a decent job.”
“Self-centered and concerned with their own careers and not the needs of the voters.”
“Republicans are too willing to cave to party leadership rather than stick up for what is best for Mizzou and Columbia.”
“Local delegation more concerned with statewide offices and taking up causes to score political points, than with governing effectively.”
“They are problems. We don’t need more state regulations. They need to stay out of our local business and government.”
“Would love for them to focus on accomplishing things to move the economy forward rather than politicizing social issues.”
The Town/Gown View
We conducted our CEO Sentiment Survey shortly after student protests and unrest roiled the University of Missouri campus last fall. Survey respondents had plenty to say about the events that unfolded on campus.
We asked: How have the recent protests on the MU campus affected the national reputation of Columbia and the University of Missouri? What are some possible solutions to resolving this crisis?
“A big black eye for both Columbia and the university, which could have an economic impact.”
“Anytime negativity about a major contributor to our economy hits national news, it is a problem.”
“It has made Columbia look like a less-enticing place to live and work.”
“A complete void of leadership.”
“A negative portrayal of Mizzou. Misinformed students running university affairs.”
“Tell these children NO.”
“Very negative. I blame ignorance and the media for most of the controversy.”
“At least in the near-term, the reputation of our community has been damaged. Strong leadership will be required on the MU campus and in the system office. This protest has highlighted a huge disparity between the priorities of many students and faculty, and those of the broader community in Columbia, around the state and around the country. While I remain skeptical, I hope that a large dose of reality can be injected into those on campus who were involved and supported these protests.”
“MU should stop pandering to a group of a few and get back to focusing on education and research.”
“It’s an embarrassment to the university, city and state. People in charge are more worried about political correctness than about doing the right thing. Lead, do the right thing, and stop apologizing. Kids who throw a tantrum should be treated as such. Unfortunately, we are
many, many years down the PC path. Difficult to turn back now.”
“I’m going against the grain here, but I think the protests, while they could have been handled better, opened the university’s eyes to needed change.”
“The crisis will occur only if the community continues to sweep the problem under the rug, ignore it or deny it. We must deal with it; it is real. Those who have tolerated acts of racism against others must speak out. Those who have experienced racism themselves must share their experiences with others. Until each of us is made aware of the extent of racism in this community, we cannot get beyond it. This is not a matter of stifling the problem in order to ‘save’ our reputation; we must work to solve the problem in order to build a reputation of which we can be proud.”
“I’m not sure why you are calling this a crisis. There were peaceful protests that lead to two resignations. Then there was some not-so-peaceful backlash. I’m not sure this is considered a crisis, especially in light of recent terrorist attacks. That is bigger than what is happening here.”
“I expect to see a moderate decrease in enrollment with the corresponding negative effect on the local economy. Also, I would expect less support from state government. The only solution is time and the appointment of strong leadership.”
“How it is ultimately handled will reflect the reputation we have. So far, I don’t believe it has reflected well.”
“I’m currently out of the country, and when speaking to other Americans, the first thing they bring up is the feeling that Columbia is a racist city. I think it will be a long time before we lose the stigma of having racial tension in our town and on campus. A couple we met from St Louis said they were looking at MU for their daughter, but now that’s off the table.”
“Allowing a few disgruntled individuals with an agenda to discredit our university and city have managed to make us look weak and vulnerable. Everybody needs to understand that this is not a racial issue, but rather a cultural issue. Different cultures can only coexist if they respect each other, and that goes both ways. All lives matter!”