VOL. 7 | NO. 43 | Saturday, October 18, 2014
Recruiter’s Career Twist
JEANNIE NAUJECK | The Ledger
Ask Janet Miller about her remarkable career at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and she’ll likely attribute it to good timing or pass credit onto others.
But ask others about her and they’ll talk about an exceptional ability to lead, build trust and forge relationships with a diverse range of people, and, above all, her will to win.
Rendering of Colliers International’s new headquarters in Rutledge Hill.
Over more than 20 years, most recently as chief economic development officer, Miller helped build the Chamber into one of the most respected in the nation. She helped rack up deal after deal – bringing in more than 400 corporations and over 200,000 jobs to the region, by some estimation, and helping turn Nashville into a $100 billion economy – a milestone the city reached last year.
This summer, Miller shocked the business world when she announced she was leaving the Chamber to take a job offer as CEO of Colliers International’s Nashville office, one of the area’s top five commercial real estate brokerages.
“It looked like somebody died in my office,” Miller jokes about the 30 flower arrangements she received after making the announcement.
But in many respects she’ll be doing the same work – making matches, doing deals, and leveraging the powerful relationships she built at the Chamber.
The new Colliers International headquarters in Rutledge Hill will have a million-dollar view of downtown.
Next month, Colliers will move its Nashville office from Lower Broadway to Rutledge Hill, where the ever-expanding Nashville skyline will serve as the backdrop to client meetings.
It’s fitting, considering many of Miller’s deals helped build that skyline. With one month in the new job under her belt, Miller sat down with The Ledger to reflect on her 21 years at the Chamber, Nashville’s evolution into one of America’s best cities for corporate relocations, emerging job sectors, the next hot spots around town for redevelopment, and the importance of “finding your people.”
Q: Your announcement in July got a lot of attention. But you’ve been associated with the Chamber for so long that it’s natural to wonder if things can carry on without you.
A: “I understand, because that’s a very high-profile position. And it wasn’t me – it was the business leaders and the leaders of this town that are so amazing.
“I look back over those 20 years and think of the mayors I’ve gotten to work with – from Phil Bredesen and Bill Purcell to Karl Dean. And the governors – from Gov. Ned McWherter on up. And how many of the CEOs in this town that just love Nashville and love doing economic development.
“So I just got to be in the right place at the right time. It was a dream job. I don’t know that that many people in their lives will get to have a job where they are passionate about it, they are great at it, and they can really make a difference at it. It was my dream job.
“So people are thinking, why in the world would you leave that job? But I decided after 20 years a new challenge was warranted.’’
Q: How did you manage to work so well with elected officials of all political stripes?
A: “One is that I grew up in this town, and I love this place. So I had the honor of being able to highlight it. I’m not all that poised or sophisticated a person, but I’m a very passionate person. I think people can genuinely tell that I love this town.
“And it was fun connecting the dots because working in economic development, it’s not about one thing. It’s schools, it’s transit, it’s sprawl, it’s workforce, it’s education, it’s quality of life, it’s sports.
“There’s something that’s so intriguing about connecting it all together, because they all matter in economic development. I was pretty good at putting those puzzle pieces together.
“The other thing I will say is – you’ve really got to be a good listener to do well in economic development. Because they will tell you they’re looking for one thing, but they are really motivated by something else.
“And I’m just interested in people. I’m kind of a curious person, so I got really good at asking questions, and I could pretty much figure out what made somebody tick.
“Honestly, they can say it’s all about this, and it turns out it’s all about that. So that’s what was fun about it. Some of these deals come with code names so you don’t know who it is. So it’s Project Snowflake or Project Bambi, and it was always so intriguing to try to figure out who it was.
“When you learned who it was, it would all click into place and you go, ‘Oh, that’s why they were only looking at sites in this place.’ So it was almost like a sport to figure it out. It was really fun.’’
Q: With more than 400 corporate deals to your credit, which ones stand out?
A: “You get a little nostalgic when you think about it. The first deal I ever worked on was keeping HCA’s headquarters in Nashville, 21 years ago.
“Here I was, a 27-year-old, brand new in the business, and that was when Rick Scott, who is now the governor of Florida, was running it. It was Columbia HCA, and he was going to take the headquarters up to Louisville.
“That company has been so important to the city – from a job creation perspective and all the spinoff businesses … we would not be the health care capital we are if HCA hadn’t been founded it here.
“So to me, that one was pivotal. If we had lost that 21 years ago, this town would be a completely different place.
“And another one, it’s not a company, but I loved working to start the Nashville Entrepreneur Center because it has just catapulted the image of this city as a place for entrepreneurs.
“It’s been four or five years now, and we didn’t have any idea when we started that it would be that impactful. But I think it has really helped with the image of the city as a tech town, as a young entrepreneurial town. So I think that probably was a turning point.
“I loved working with Beretta. It was fascinating why these firearms manufacturers are doing what they’re doing. I remember dealing with the Oneida silverware company a bunch of years ago – every restaurant you’d go into, they’d pick up the silverware and analyze it. They’d say, ‘This is Model 6623.’
“I remember when Blue Bell Creameries put a distribution center here. One of my project managers was from Texas, and you would have thought it was the headquarters for Procter & Gamble, getting Blue Bell ice cream! They sent over cases of ice cream after, and that was fun.
“You learn about their businesses. I love doing manufacturing deals because you see how things are made. What has always astounded me is how you get CEOs of these massive, publicly-traded corporations and they are the most down-to-earth, nice, friendly people.
“I remember when Jack Bovender was running HCA. He was my chairman (at the Chamber), and so we would go fly to Atlanta to call on companies. I remember getting on the HCA plane one day, and it was Mayor Purcell and me and Jack.
“And Jack’s a pilot, so he heads up to the cockpit to fly the plane, and Mayor Purcell is like, ‘Is he going to fly this thing?’ And it was like, ‘No, it’s OK; he’s got a co-pilot up there.’ Just things like that, you know? It’s the human aspect of it that made it fun.”
Q: Nashville is where businesses want to be, and it sounds like you left plenty more deals in the pipeline. You certainly left at the top.
A: “I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and I’ve gotten super active in the international economic development circles and leadership. But I was turning 50 years old, and I had already ruled out years ago taking the same economic development job in another city. There is just not another city I would go to.
“I really couldn’t see retiring from that job 15 years from now. I had been working with … every economic development deal, they’ve got to go someplace so real estate is a big piece of it. So I knew every broker in town, had worked on all these deals and I thought, ‘This makes sense.’ It’s exactly the same.
“It’s fun because I was on the phone with Matt Wiltshire and Butch Spyridon the other day working on a deal, and I was like, ‘You guys thought you were gonna be rid of me.’ But I’ve just shifted perspective and it’s really fun.’’ [Wiltshire and Spyridon are director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development and president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation, respectively.]
Q: Did you handpick Courtney Ross as your replacement? Was she identified early on as someone who could fill your shoes if you left?
A: “I met her six or seven or eight years ago, and she is just a super vivacious person. I met her when she was living in Memphis, and I remember her saying, ‘I want to work for the Nashville Chamber.’
“When she moved to Nashville, she called me up.
“You know, it’s all timing with these jobs, and there wasn’t a position open at the time. But she said, ‘I want to work for the Nashville Chamber and I want to do economic development.’ So we just kept in touch and, sure enough, I don’t know if it was six months or a year, a position opened up and I called her and she said, ‘OK, I’m coming over.’
“She was super. She had worked at the Austin (Texas) Chamber doing economic development – so talk about a good background. She knew all the trade secrets of our archrival. But she was just so clear and focused that that’s what she wanted to do. And she jumped on it, and she has been a joy to work with.
“I think she was probably a little shocked and surprised when Ralph (Chamber president and CEO Ralph Schulz) was like, ‘OK, Courtney.” But she’s going to do an amazing job.’’
Q: What are your goals for Colliers?
A: “From a numeric standpoint, I’m still trying to figure that out. But I will tell you this, the firm is strong. It is a big international firm, and what was so compelling to me about Colliers was, it’s a huge international platform and name. I really believe real estate firms in the future have to be part of an international network, because companies don’t want to do business with 30 real estate companies. They want to do business with one.
“So it was that, but the intriguing piece to me was it’s locally owned, so I thought, ‘This is a firm that’s going to be much more agile and adaptive and move quickly because it has local ownership rather than some of the other big international platforms where they are reporting to Atlanta, reporting to D.C., reporting to New York.’
“So something about the entrepreneurial nature with the international platform, I thought, ‘We can grow that.’ And I love a challenge.
“Brokerage companies are all about the people. We have more brokers here than any other brokerage in town. I want to be sure that we are viewed as the best place to work for the best brokers in town.
“If we attract talent, the rest will take care of itself.
“People who know me in this town know that I have a competitive streak and I like to win. It’s a fun, interesting business, and these 35 brokers are outgoing and sales-oriented and like to win, too. They are my people. I found my people.’’
Q: You are aiming for No. 1.
A: ‘‘I’m aiming for number one. About 20 years ago, you know Nashville was not on a whole lot of Top Five lists. If you look now, it’s gotten kind of ubiquitous … every day it’s something else. And it was so much fun going from there to here.
“So to me, that is also the fun piece of it. This is already a strong company, but I think we’ve just now begun to tap into what it what it can be. And what better place to be in this business than Nashville, Tennessee, in 2014? I mean, the opportunity is staggering.
Q: There’s almost too much opportunity. Right now, we have more demand for Class A office space (from companies expanding or relocating) than there is supply.
A: “It is a problem. Fortunately, you’ve got kind of a clump of new developments that are on the horizon, but honestly, for the last year or two, if you needed 100,000 square feet of Class A office, you had three or four choices.
“And it’s bad for the city. I remember working on a transaction that said, ‘If we can’t work it out in this one building we’ll go to Charlotte, North Carolina.’ That’s a terrible position to be in as a city. So there’s sort of a delicate balance.
“You don’t want to have such a glut of space that it depresses rates. But you sure don’t want to have a shortage. I think there is so much institutional, out-of-market money chasing real estate in Nashville right now because they see the fundamentals are strong, so I think we are going to see more and more capital infusion from outside, which is great. But it’s going to be a little touch-and-go for the next year.
“I mean, John Eakin’s got his deal down in the Gulch, and you’ve got what Pat Emery’s done down in Cool Springs. Things like the UBS Tower [the former Regions Center at 315 Deaderick Street], that is a gem of a piece of property because it has renovated beautifully.
“But it’s also, for a company like UBS who is coming into town, it’s not $35 a square foot space, so it makes the value proposition strong because it’s a more affordable space. So we are really lucky that we’ve got some properties like that. You’ve got to have both. You can’t just be a $35 a foot Class A office market. Nashville is attracting all different kinds of companies and jobs. So preserving affordability is going to be a trick when demand outstrips supply.’’
Q: Redevelopment is happening all over town. Besides the downtown core, what areas of Nashville are ripe for commercial redevelopment?
A: “Brentwood is hot, but you know what is going to be really interesting that is an emerging area? You’ve seen it over on Wedgewood-Houston – I don’t know if you’ve seen Fort Houston and all that – but companies are driven by wanting to be able to attract people, and a lot of these companies are looking for that young, kind of creative audience.
“So I think you’re going to continue to see development in Berry Hill, anything between the downtown loop – where the Adventure Science Center is – all the way out to Cool Springs, that I-65 corridor.
“The decision-makers often live in that southwest corridor. Let’s face it, people who make the decisions like to be close to where they live. That’s just a fact of life, so there’s that piece of it.
“And I think you’re just going to see some amazing redevelopment opportunities.
“Think about just going along I-65, all of that. Look at Sidco Drive, over around 100 Oaks. That’s become a really popular office area.
“My friend Beth Chase has C3/Consulting over there. She loves it because she can just hop over there, doesn’t have to deal with Maryland Farms or Cool Springs traffic. It’s close to home. So I think that corridor is going to be really hot, and I think Charlotte Avenue is going to be the thing, with The Sheds being redeveloped (from the former Tennessee Department of Highways and Public Works maintenance facility).
“You’ve got the really cool container development that Ryan Doyle is doing with OneCity – and that is going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen. I like things that are different. Look at the Trolley Barns. We were with a client from out of town last week, and you take them up to Pinewood Social for lunch, it’s just such a unique redevelopment and it really showcases this kind of creative, hip, urban edge and people are like, ‘This is so cool.’
“So I think it’s those cool areas that will really keep going.’’
Q: We are certainly attracting a young, educated workforce. According to your Collier’s third-quarter market report, the number of Millennials in Nashville has risen 37 percent since 2007.
A: “When I got out of college at UT in 1986, everybody went to Atlanta, right? You wanted to go to the cool town and Atlanta was the place. And now I run across so many executives of companies that are looking at putting operations here and they all say, ‘I had a kid at Vanderbilt or Belmont’ or ‘My kids, when they’re getting out of college anywhere in the Southeast, they want to move to Nashville.’ ’’
“Cities kind of get these vibes about them and so you attract that population and then you get companies like Warby Parker [a chic eyewear company that will open its second corporate office in Nashville].
“I was so excited about going to meet with them when they first came into town because I was going to show off my glasses, and their chief strategy officer had just graduated from Yale and was 23 years old. It is a company run by twenty-somethings, and it is on fire.
“And what they cared about was, ‘Where are my people?’ ‘Where are the people that are like our people in Brooklyn?’ They looked at a bunch of cities and decided Nashville was the place.
“That’s the future.
“I got in the elevator – we’re representing them – with their head of site selection and I thought it was somebody’s daughter. They are so young and so smart and so on it. This is the future. And something about Nashville is hitting them.’’
Q: Residents are worried about livability. That used to be one of Nashville’s biggest selling points. Now our infrastructure – schools, transportation, housing, affordability – seems to struggling to keep up with the growth.
A: “It’s a valid concern. The rents on these new apartments are really quite something. It’s interesting.
“I’ve worked on the strategic plans for economic development. I’ve worked on four or five of them. And I remember there was one strategy recently that said, 25 years ago, Nashville was a fairly low-quality, low-cost place. Or a moderate-quality, low-cost market.
“What’s happened over 20 years, is we’ve moved to becoming a high-quality, moderate-cost alternative. So the kinds of jobs you’re going to be attracting are going forward.
“If it’s a call center for a catalog, they shouldn’t be here. Whereas 20 years ago, you’d get excited if you got an L.L. Bean catalog center. And now they’re having to go to Amarillo, Texas, and other places.
“Twenty years ago, working a corporate headquarter deal was very unusual. We would get really wound up because we just didn’t see them that often. Now about 40 percent of the deals that are worked in economic development are corporate headquarters or regional headquarters.
“So the city has just shifted and it’s getting a different kind of job.
“There are some fundamental affordability factors here. No income tax is a massive attractor, and that isn’t going to go away anytime soon. So there’s some fundamentals like that that I think are strong.
“But supply and demand pushes up housing costs, pushes up wage rates. That’s what’s happened in the tech sector. I’ve been so fascinated working in the tech job market because so many people in Nashville thought, ‘Well, if we just land a Google and a Facebook, that will solve it.’
“So I went down and spent the day with Mike Rollins, who runs the Austin Chamber and who used to run the Nashville Chamber. They’ve got Google and Facebook and these big names, and he said, ‘Be careful, because it just creates another set of issues.’
“People want to move to Austin because they want to work for those companies, and those companies run the wage rate up so high, because Google will pay whatever Google has to pay.
“So it’s great for Google; they’re attracting the best in the world. But if you’re a small- to mid-size company in Austin, Texas, looking for tech talent, the wage rates have been run up, and it’s hard to get any attention when you’re going up against Google and Facebook.
“Demand is outstripping supply, so tech wages are skyrocketing. So there’s no panacea.’’
Q: What other industries are emerging here?
A: “I think you’re going to see specialization in tech. We’ve got the health care sector here, the health care services and the health care headquarters. So it makes sense that that would shift and broaden out to healthcare technology, and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that in this town.
“I think you will see niche technology businesses, as opposed to us becoming Silicon Valley. There’s technology in the manufacturing sector that makes some sense. And I will tell you this too – we’ve attracted a bunch of data centers.
“I just got the new iPhone 6. All that data has to live somewhere, and those are great operations. They are massive investments, they are very quiet and they don’t employ a lot of people, but everybody in a data center is making over $100,000 a year. They have to keep infusing capital every couple of years because the technology gets outdated. So that’s a huge opportunity.
“You don’t hear about it a lot because data centers like to be super quiet – they don’t want you to know that they are sitting out wherever they are sitting. They are national security risks, and if somebody blew up a data center, I mean, you can cause a lot of havoc in the world today. So yeah, they are very stealth kinds of operations. They are fun to work with, though.’’
Q: At the Chamber, you made many trips to other cities to learn best practices. Which cities did you learn the most from?
A: “With transit, it was Denver. This really hit me because I was in Denver about three months ago, and Nashville is projected to be the same size as Denver within the next 15 years or so. You can’t swing a cat without hitting public transit in Denver. And you think, ‘Wow, we’ve got a long way to go.’ So Denver and Portland, Oregon, were models for transportation.
“Now, Portland was not a model for being pro-business. I mean they’re very kind of anti-growth there. I was like, ‘Let’s go out to Intel and see if we can convince them to move.’ because they’re very restrictive on that.
“But the transit is just great. St. Louis was great on arts. The symphony hall here had its roots in Seattle. There have been a couple of cities that have been great education models.
“But you know what it usually is? It’s the leaders. When you see a really charismatic leader, it’s always impressive.
“We went to Vancouver this past year. They’ve really embraced their global business. You’ve got so much Chinese investment, that kind of thing. So from each city we’ve brought different things back. I’ve always thought, copy from the best.’’
“And you run up on some models of what not to do. Here in Nashville, 90 percent of people who live here really love living here. We have been to some cities that didn’t have that kind of confidence. I mean, we are bordering on swagger … this whole ‘It City’ business.
“But you can destroy that, if people sit in traffic too much longer. To me, Seattle is the greatest example of how quality of life matters. You know how you visit a city and you think, ‘I could live here’? My husband and I were riding around and I thought, ‘If I had a great job in Seattle and made a good living and could afford a home near where I worked, it would be a great place to live.’
“But otherwise, you’d have to sit in that traffic all the time. So they are a great example to me of, probably grew too fast and didn’t keep their infrastructure and roads up. And once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s really hard to catch up. To me, that was kind of the cautionary tale of Seattle. Which is, you’d better stay ahead of the curve.
“And I will say this: this transit thing is real and we are behind. Mayor Dean did a great thing when he formed the Mayors Caucus about five years ago. This region is completely intertwined. Every week I am out in probably four counties. But the mayors weren’t interacting together.
“People like to work solutions with people they know. You want to trust the people that you work with. So just by pulling them all at the table and creating a forum that didn’t exist … it’s something we had seen done in Denver.
“Transit is their No. 1 one thing. Because we are behind. Education and transit are the big two issues. If we don’t get those two right, we can destroy the quality of life of this place. I believe that whoever we elect as the next mayor, it’s going to be the most important decision this city has made in 25 years.
“Because we are at a crossroads as a city right now – the low-hanging fruit is gone from Nashville. What’s left is an urban city that’s growing. There are difficult challenges and they require a lot of collaboration. So I think that who that next mayor is could not be more critical to the future.’’
Q: Does anyone say to you, “We’ve had enough growth now. Let’s put the brakes on”?
A: “I hear it on occasion, and you hear it from some elected officials, the candidates. There’s a danger to it. I remember 20 years ago over in North Carolina, I think it was Charlotte, they just decided they were not going to do any more economic development deals. They decided they had grown too fast. And let me you, when word of that gets out nationally, the horse leaves the barn and you cannot get it back in.
“So coming out with anti-growth sentiments can cut off the spigot entirely. And economies can lose three to five percent of their jobs every year just through bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions – just through general business. So if you were to adopt a completely no-growth policy, you compound that over five years and suddenly you’re going to have 15 percent unemployment. And once that starts happening it’s hard to stop.
“So it’s a delicate balance. You’ve got to be smart about it. The other thing I get on my soapbox about is, commercial business – what we are doing here at Colliers – grows the tax base a whole lot faster than building single-family houses, because the property taxes are higher.
“So Mayor Dean has been really smart with making sure we keep the core strong. And occasionally you need to look at some kind of incentive deal to level the playing field, but there is a danger in cities like Nashville that all the development goes out to the outlying counties and then you end up with a core that’s vacant.
“Just look at what happened to Detroit years ago. Downtown Detroit was a scary place and getting it turned is tough. That’s not going to happen here. We have the tourism industry here, and there’s still a lot of companies that want to be downtown.
“So we have been on a good trajectory. But you can’t just sit back and just assume it’s all going to be fine. So it will be interesting to see what our new mayor comes up with.’’
Q: You are on the board of Friends of Radnor Lake. Preserving open spaces must mean something to you.
A: “I think it’s so important. When I was recruiting Matt Largen from the Williamson County Chamber, I took him up to Radnor Lake and we parked and walked around the lake. I said, ‘You just need to see this.’ I hike at Radnor every weekend. In the summer I’ll go four days a week. I go early in the morning. You just never know who you’re going to see – I see the cast of Nashville out there all the time.
“You never know what kind of crazy wildlife you’re going to see. There was a bald eagle flying out there two weeks ago. We are getting more and more urban and you really have to protect those assets. Because once they’re gone they’re gone. Mayor Dean has been all about the greenway system and bikeways. The Land Trust for Tennessee that Jeanie Nelson runs is a fantastic organization.
“I have had some people who’ve moved to town, executives who say to me, ‘You don’t tout the parks and the bikes and the greenways as much as you should.’ But to me, that’s a real huge asset that we’ve got here that we have got to hang onto.
Q: How did you get into economic development?
A: “I stumbled it into it in high school. I got a summer job working at the register of deeds office where you go when you close a real estate transaction.
“I worked there every summer from the time I was in the ninth grade all the way through college. So I just got around real estate lingo, and when I got out of school, I came back to Nashville and it was just a pathway where I got a job working for a title insurance company for a year.
“I figured out real quickly, doing title searches was not the life for me. But a guy I had worked with at the register of deeds office was doing economic development for Mayor Bill Boner. And he called me one day and he said, ‘The Chamber’s looking for an entry-level recruitment person, and they can’t find anybody with experience.’
“I had been doing research at a commercial real estate firm after the title deal, so I knew a little bit about real estate. I was 26 years old and it didn’t take me long to figure out that this was something I could do.
“I just like deals. I love putting deals together. [Colliers founding partner and co-owner] Bert Mathews and I have been out chasing all kinds of business, and that is just so much fun. I get the exact same feel in here as I did over across the street. I’m still growing Nashville; it’s just more micro. Over there it was macro.
“I will tell you this: I’ve hired a lot of young people over the years and sometimes you hear this generation say, ‘I’ve got to have an active social life and I’ve got to have a real interesting job.’
“Well, with me I was like, ‘I’m going to do whatever grunt work I have to do.’ I was just going to work my tail off to be successful. I think hard work pays off. I was teaching a class at Vanderbilt for a friend of mine last week, and I said, ‘Here’s the thing. You spent so much time with the people you work with. And if you don’t find a job that you just are excited about, and people that you really want to be around … you’d better figure it out.’
“So many people coming out of college, they just don’t have a real sense of what they want to do. Economic development is a weird field. People don’t realize there’s a job out there like that. Every time I go and teach these classes at Vanderbilt, I’ll get 10 calls from students the next day saying, ‘How did you get in that business? It sounds so interesting.’
“Which is exactly what you want because you’ve got to attract young people to make up for the old people like me.
Q: Worst case scenario: what if another recession or disaster hits and the companies and jobs stop coming to Nashville?
A: “Economies ebb and flow. When the last recession hit a few years ago, all the Chamber senior staff were on a retreat. It was the day the stock market dropped, I can’t remember how many points, and you just thought, ‘Oh my gosh. What is this going to mean?’
“So I’ve been through the downs and the ups, and it would be foolish to say we are just going to keep going.
“I will say, the fundamentals of this town make us less prone. But there are downtimes and we will see it. I’ve never run a commercial brokerage during the downtime.
“But I went to Hillwood High School, graduated in 1981, and you had to take typing class. And I could type like 160 words a minute. So I think if all else fails, I can make an amazing secretary. (Laughs) Because I can still type about 150 words a minute. Everybody ought to learn to type.’’