Rather than looking first at New Jersey’s pluses and minuses to decide how best to position the state as a place to invest and do business, Tracye McDaniel, president and CEO of Choose New Jersey, is taking a different approach. Choose New Jersey, an independent, privately funded and managed non-profit corporation created by New Jersey businesses to promote the state, is starting out by gathering data.

McDaniel will speak on the future of business in New Jersey at the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, May 19, at 11:30 a.m. at the Trenton Country Club. Cost: $60. Call 609-689-9960 or E-mail info@mercerchamber.org.

Choose New Jersey has 16 founding board members who have put up $150,000 for three years in order to get things started. The organization is doing two research projects, and results from the first are expected any day. What is the organization is looking to find out?

Perceptions corporate CEOs have of New Jersey. A survey asking almost 4,000 corporate CEOs in the United States what they think of New Jersey — what are its weaknesses and strengths, and, if they have done business in the state, what it was like — went out in the first 90 days of Choose New Jersey’s life. The organization wants to use real feedback — not guesswork — to figure out how best to attract businesses to the state.

The best approach to economic development. Choose New Jersey wants to know who New Jersey’s competitors are — other states, other countries, and even other continents. “We want to know where those linkages are and where we have opportunities for cluster development by industry, so that when we develop our marketing strategy, we will be clear on our top industries that have the fastest propensity for growth,” says McDaniel.

The results of this effort will suggest the key markets that Choose New Jersey needs to target, domestically and internationally. At that point the organization will develop a marketing strategy that will get the best possible return on investment.

Choose New Jersey has begun to talk to key stakeholders representing different industries, and it has also begun to do some lead generation — introducing Choose New Jersey to the top location advisors in the country that help companies make relocation decisions. It is making sure that these key players know exactly who Choose New Jersey is and that it is available to work with them and provide concierge services in the state of New Jersey.

One recent effort involved an invitation to 12 companies to attend a National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament in Newark. “If you do the math, the jobs that those 12 companies potentially represent is 8,800 jobs,” she says. “They also represent capital investment of $1.7 billion.”

Choose New Jersey is one prong of the Partnership for Action created by the Christie administration. It also includes the Business Action Center, which reports directly to the Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and helps businesses coordinate and navigate across state and local agencies, and the Economic Development Authority, which is the financing arm of the whole enterprise.

McDaniel grew up in Waco, Texas, where her father worked for the Veterans Administration and her mother was first a nurse and then developed a tailoring business while she raised her three daughters.

At the University of Texas in Austin, she had at first wanted to be a journalist. But after working a while for the NBC affiliate there, she says, “I realized that I would have to work for several years to make the baseline salary that I had in mind.”

So instead she got a degree in organizational communications. “If you look at where I am in my life today, there couldn’t have been a better plan,” she says.

What moved her away from journalism was volunteer work she did for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, where she fell in love with business development. Soon after she started volunteering the city allocated some money to seed an African American Chamber of Commerce. McDaniel was asked by the mainstream chamber to volunteer at the new institution. After six months she was hired as its CEO.

Although she was still learning about the chamber world and business development, she had a strong board to support her, and she helped create African American chambers all over Texas. She was the founding president of the Texas Association of African American Chambers of Commerce, an advocacy group that supports black and minority businesses.

After seven years, she moved on to working for the state. She served as CEO for the Texas Economic Development Corporation’s “Texas One” Program, a public-private partnership marketing initiative to generate job leads by actively promoting Texas as a business location. Next she was executive director of the office of the governor’s economic development and tourism division.

Her last position before moving to New Jersey was as executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Greater Houston Partnership.

These positions gave her a sense of how different leaders approach economic development and how there is no cookie cutter model that would work for any state or region. “You have to dig deep and identify assets,” she says. “Every state and region has weaknesses, and you have to look for ways to fill the gaps for those weaknesses.”

Just getting out there and talking about the Christie administration’s efforts in tandem with Choose New Jersey is offering a partial signal to businesses that things are changing in New Jersey, suggests McDaniel. “We are creating a pro-business climate, but it will take some time to get to that point,” she says.

“Businesses want to hear that government is getting its fiscal act in order, that there is strong leadership at the top, and that the business community is demonstrating a commitment to collaboration,” she says. “There is no better advocate than to have CEOs in your own state talking to leads about prospects for doing business.”

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