North Carolina’s new pitchman ready to sell state

Chris Chung is ready to sell North Carolina.

As head of the state’s new public-private Economic Development Partnership, Chung is a mix of salesman and marketer, touting the state’s benefits to companies looking to relocate or expand in North Carolina.

Chung came from Missouri, where he headed that state’s corporate recruitment efforts, to helm North Carolina’s partnership, which took over most recruiting duties from the state Department of Commerce. He’s still getting to know the state and plans to visit Charlotte this coming week to get to know the city.

So, how’s he adjusting to his new job? “You got me on day 13,” Chung, 38, quips. The new public-private recruiting partnership has already hired dozens of staffers. The group has a $17 million annual budget from the state and a requirement to raise $5.75 million from private sources in the next five years. Chung’s $225,000 salary includes $105,000 from private contributions.

Chung’s task is challenging: North Carolina is competing with incentives-heavy states such as South Carolina to lure companies, Gov. Pat McCrory is seeking to push bigger incentives packages through the legislature, and the state’s biggest goal, an automaker, is notoriously tough to lure. He recently spoke with the Observer about his goals for the state. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What’s your pitch going to be when you’re selling North Carolina to prospective companies?

A. That’s going to vary depending on the industry, and even within industries. Every company has a unique set of drivers that leads to them considering certain areas. Certain types of companies are going to be focused a lot more on human talent and capital availability. Then there’s going to be companies that are really focused on suppressing as many of those costs as possible. I’m still learning a lot about the assets here in North Carolina.

Q. Incentives have become a major part of luring companies. In Charlotte, we’ve lost out on corporate relocations and existing companies to upstate South Carolina, in part because of the big incentives packages that state offers. Do we need to spend more on incentives in North Carolina?

A. Incentives are part of a very complex decision-making process. I know that those requests (for more incentives) are rooted in the experience North Carolina has had in recent years competing for projects. It has gotten much more aggressive out there.

I can tell you from personal experience, you look at what North Carolina’s flagship incentive program is and what they cap it at annually, then you compare that to a state like Missouri and it’s probably a four to five times difference. It’s very apparent, if it were a head-to-head issue between North Carolina and Missouri and incentives were purely the tiebreaker, it’s pretty reasonable to expect Missouri would be able to put a bigger amount on the table.

We’ve got to be aware that other states are going to be able to bring more to the fight. We don’t want to lose those fights because we don’t have the tools to compete.

Q. Luring an automaker is something North Carolina has tried to do for over 20 years. How big a focus will that be for you?

A. It’s a very high priority. You can bet that’s going to be a focus area. Every state, that is their holy grail. It’s not an easy process by any means. You have to have a lot of pieces in place. You have to have a piece of physical real estate that is set up well to accommodate the sheer physical demands. You also have to have a workforce that’s got some of those skill sets. Incentives, absolutely, that’s going to be part of it. To a “T,” automakers have all received incentives from the state, local utilities, counties, railroads. It’s all been part of the package to recruit this employer.

Q. How big a role do you see foreign investment, especially from Asia, playing in the state’s economic growth?

A. It’s very important. The U.S. continues to be a very attractive marketplace for companies to sell their services. For some of these companies, as they continue to increase their sales into the U.S. market, at some point it’s going to make sense for them to set up operations in the U.S.

In Missouri, when we looked at the overall deal flow we were working, at any given time about 25 to 30 percent of our deals involved foreign companies. I haven’t looked at the data here, but I suspect it’s similar.

Q. What advantages does Charlotte have in competing to lure companies?

A. Financial services, corporate headquarters, divisional headquarters: Those are going to be great opportunities for Charlotte, given its growth trends, airport, quality of life. Charlotte has one of those very important tools, which is that well-connected airport. That’s going to make Charlotte that much more of an attractive option for corporate headquarters, but also manufacturing. If they’re one flight away from the parent corporation, that’s going to be an advantage over places like Cincinnati that don’t have that. That’s a huge, huge asset.