‘Brownie,” says the Governor, “you go fix the gas problem —get the pumps flowing this state.” Michele Brown, at the time a two-week veteran as CEO of New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority, sat in a hastily constructed bunker in the State Police offices with Chris Christie and the rest of the state’s top administrators. On October 26, 2012, Hurricane Sandy had with unprecedented force blacked out Trenton’s governmental offices along with most of the rest of the central east coast.
For 95 percent of the gas stations in the north half of New Jersey, and most of the south, no electricity meant no power for the fuel pumps, and no spare fuel for the delivery trucks. Gas lines sprouted at every station with even a rumor of available fuel. Dependable communication was equally scarce. “Even my brother in Weehawken phoned me to find out why I hadn’t fixed the gas problem yet,” she laughs.
In response, Brown grabbed $7 million in federal disaster relief funds and began planting backup generators in strategic stations. She contacted suppliers and deliverers and launched a public information campaign. All from an office in a box. Today, with more than 80 percent of Sandy’s damage repaired and recovered from, NJEDA CEO Brown has a chance to fill out the more normal and less traumatic parts of her Jersey-business-bolstering job.
Those interested in learning about the specific programs and available benefits from the EDA will want to attend the Princeton Chamber of Commerce’s Monthly Luncheon held Thursday, February 5, at 11:30 a.m., at the Princeton Marriott Hotel, 100 College Road East. Cost: $70. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.
The meeting will be one of Brown’s last as head of the EDA. On January 22 it was announced that Brown would be leaving to become president and CEO of Choose New Jersey (see story, page 33). Brown begins her new position Monday, February 16.
A proud native of Trenton, Brown spent much of her childhood in Mexico City, where her father served as general manager of one of the Mennen Company’s manufacturing plants. “Half a day’s lessons in English and half in Spanish,” recalls Brown, “it was here that I learned the no-nonsense discipline of a good Catholic education.” Returning to the U.S., Brown attended Drew University, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1979 with a dual major in political science and Spanish literature.
She fell into the legal profession serendipitously, when one of the customers at the dry cleaning store where she was working suggested a slightly less toxic trade and made her night Xerox girl at his law firm. From there she took her JD degree at Georgetown University Law Center. “What I liked about law what that is forced you to study problems and people, build practical solutions — and argue for those solutions well,” says Brown. Becoming a federal prosecutor and later acting first assistant U.S. attorney, Brown has maintained a long association with the governor both in the judicial and political arenas.
One positive aid to Brown’s launch as CEO of the Economic Development Authority was the help of her predecessor, Caren Franzini, who served for 21 years as EDA head. “Caren couldn’t have been more generous during our transition,” says Brown.
Brown says that New Jersey business and New Jersey business advantages are a lot stronger than most folks believe.
New business inflow. Numerically, Garden State businesses are surging hard into growth. While the job-creation stats remain disappointing, the number of new startups continues at a sharply rising rate. Additionally, existing companies continue to cross the rivers from Philadelphia and Manhattan. “We are not seeing the major firms flee the cities and set up new headquarters as we saw in decades past,” explains Brown. Rather analysis shows that New Jersey benefits from a strong tide of duplicate security offices — firms that want a nearby, easily accessible center to act as a backup in case of data-transmission failure or hacking.
For the last dozen years, large, complex corporations, particularly in finance, technology, healthcare, and large B2B servers, have set massive amounts of extremely sensitive data on increasingly delicate electronic platforms. It makes sense to keep fresh horses nearby. “Our state offers ideal locations within a 30-mile limit of New York and Philadelphia corporate headquarters, all reachable rapidly by a solid electronic and physical infrastructure,” says Brown.
The recession of five years ago sparked another business migration into the Garden State. Price pressure has forced many businesses to seek cheaper land and cheaper office space. Manhattan’s garment industry has crossed the Hudson seeking this competitive edge, as have a great number of supply-chain and logistics companies. New Jersey remains a commutable move, within the same regional culture.
Softening the launch pad. Much of Brown’s personal mission has been to ease the launch and rise of new startups and temporarily small business on their way to growth. She cites several programs in the EDA’s and state’s arsenal that spark that initial lift off. Some of these include:
The Technology Business Tax Certificate Transfer Program, which allows your tech or biotech firm to sell back your state tax losses and your company’s R&D tax credits and take home cash for expansion and growth. Established in 1999, more than 500 businesses have taken advantage, with today’s recipients garnering an average of $1.2 million each in investment capital.
The Angel Investor Tax Credit program. If you are eyeing some sweet, emerging, Jersey-based company with fewer than 225 employees, here’s a nudge to get venturing. Angels regardless of location may receive a tax credit of up to 10 percent of their total investment in qualified firms.
Move to New Jersey. Under Brown, the EDA has maintained a policy of targeting urban areas for development. Businesses seeking to bring operations into the Garden State are gently guided toward the areas of greatest need. Each municipality receives a base level tax credit given to new companies settling in. In Pinelands and Highlands areas where preservation is the goal, the credit is $0. But the company bringing its plant to Camden, Atlantic City, Trenton, or Passaic may receive up to $5,000 tax credit per employee hired. Newark offers a $4,000 credit per person hired.
Correcting the image. For stable, growing corporations already operating within the Garden State, or considering expansion within our borders, it’s more a matter of message. The unique New Jersey resources already exist, but too many have become invisible under a sea of negative ink. “Every time some survey comes out ranking New Jersey as low on somebody’s personal business-friendly scale, we take a real hit,” says Brown. To counter this inimical image, Brown keeps coming back with several resources that too often never make the survey criteria.
First among these is a highly trained workforce and top-talent executive pool. New Jersey has raised the largest crop per capita of C-suite executives for Fortune 500 companies. Technology and scientific companies requiring a technically capable workforce come to the state ranked first in public education by Education Week and several national sources. The university network and resulting institutional brain trusts hold out a great partnering capability for both tech and financial firms. New Jersey has the smarts.
Secondly, the Garden State’s location as an accessible hub between two hubs has provides an obvious advantage. Along with the locale, notes Brown, the state offers a quality of life attraction for people of business. “We have 130 miles of the world’s best beaches within drivable reach of every resident,” says Brown. “Tell me that isn’t a lure to keep top talent here.”
One asset that often lies in unnoticed is New Jersey’s alternative energy commitment. Businesses and individuals seeking to avail themselves of cost-saving solar, co-generation, and other alternatives will find state-supported paybacks in New Jersey matched only by those in California. When it comes to energy benefits, after these two states, no other comes even close.
In the end, New Jersey is a higher-level business arena in which you get what you pay for. You want to play with the big boys and girls? Come on in and we’ll help you strut your best stuff.
So, can the next Hurricane Sandy pull the plug on the Garden State? “Not any more,” notes Brown. “We’ve got back up generators at most major stations and a disaster plan ready to set in place. The storm has made us stronger.”