Business retention and expansion (BRE) has never been more critical.  One of the first things economic development organizations (EDO) did when COVID-19 hit was reach out to their existing businesses.  This was the most direct and efficient way to understand the current and anticipated impacts of the pandemic on local businesses and their priorities for assistance.   

In fact, many EDOs expanded the focus of their BRE interviews beyond industrial businesses to also include Main Street and retail businesses.  EDOs also adjusted to the times by replacing the in-person visit with online surveys and telephone or video calls.  

Woman on Business Call

BRE deserves its own recognition

Existing businesses create the majority of new sector employment and investment. An effective BRE program provides benefits beyond preventing a business from pulling up stakes- it produces advocates for your community that help attract other businesses to town. Empowering informal recruiters that support your investment and job creation goals is one of the most effective EDO techniques. 

Unfortunately for many communities, BRE programs are often ignored or misused. Of the over 400 EDOs we surveyed in our Capacity Readiness benchmarking program, 57% do not have a formal BRE program. Informal visits without documentation, analysis, and follow-through don’t count as a formal BRE program. 

So how can you make the most of the BRE interviews you are conducting?  

Here are some tips

A nod to Eric Canada from Blane Canada for his research on this topic.

  • Formalize your BRE program.  Many EDOs focus only on counting visits, building “relationships” and scoring responses to questions. This short-term focus provides about 25% of the value possible in a BRE effort. This value rises to 40% if a report is written up and applied, according to Blane Canada. 
  • Prepare before you survey. Blane Canada found that in your typical BRE interview, over half of the questions ask for data that is already known or could easily be found. Look at the information you already have on file. Could this information be found before the interview, freeing up time to gain other insights? Does this data provide insight on what is next? Does it unearth a minor issue that may now be a major one due to the times? If you can, find out what your businesses’ short-term problems are. 
  • Focus on predictive questions. A good interview reveals not only the obvious needs of the business, but also the ones that either the business hasn’t foreseen or did not specifically articulate. Understanding these changing needs will increase your competitive positioning by adapting first to meet those needs. What are those predictive questions?  As you continue to formally do BRE and analyze your results, indicators will reveal themselves.
  • Be a resource. Sometimes, the economic development organization’s role is simply to be a resource. Whether that is providing valuable information on a new state or federal aid program, helping fill out applications, or connecting a business in need with another organization that has the solution. While less glamorous, being the best resource possible can soon lead to businesses calling your organization first when they have a problem, a literal ringing endorsement on the work you’ve accomplished. 

In these unprecedented times, one thing we know for certain is the value of a strong Business Retention and Expansion program. As you aid your business and community partners in these uncharted waters, closely examine your BRE program and processes. It will undoubtedly strengthen your relationships and position you to provide better outcomes for your community. 

If you are looking for help to get your program started, auditing or reestablishing a Business Retention and Expansion program, or want to understand how it ties into your overall economic development strategic planning and community growth goals, reach out to our team at Ady Advantage