On May 14, Williamson Home Page business editor Matt Blois hosted a live interview with Williamson Inc. CEO Matt Largen to discuss what a comeback looks like for the business community.
Largen pointed to the high number of management jobs — many of which can switch to remote work with relative ease — and the county's high levels of education as factors that could insulate Williamson County from some of the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
This is a transcript of that conversation. The discussion has been edited for brevity and clarity. A video of the interview is available on Crowdcast.
MB: What does a comeback mean for the business community in Williamson County?
ML: It's important to have these kind of conversations because things are changing at a moment's notice. The plans we make today may not be the same plans we keep for tomorrow. I think that's really important.
I think more than anything, what our businesses need are customers. Customers have to feel like they can shop and dine and participate in the economy in a safe way ... Any kind of return to normalcy is really about customers feeling safe shopping and dining from a small business perspective.
From a large business perspective, which we have a lot of, Williamson County has 20% of all management employees across the state of Tennessee. It probably is more about, what does work from home look like for the future of your company? What does it look like now that it becomes an employee retention and recruitment tool? What does it look like when you end up taking more space, but it's more spread out?
I think more than anything, what this pandemic will do is be an accelerant to trends we already saw. I think a comeback for normal, for small business is going to be a return to customers feeling confident to shop and dine again in our community. For large businesses, it's probably looking at a different way to manage their space and their employees long term.
MB: Early on in this pandemic, you told me that the fundamentals of Williamson County were still strong. As the economic impacts extend, what does that do to the fundamentals of the local economy? Are the fundamentals still strong?
ML: We basically as an economy stopped ourselves, for good reason, for public health. The economy is not like a light switch. You can't just turn it on and off. There will be repercussions. The longer this goes, the longer the repercussions and the deeper the ripple effect will be.
I think the fundamentals of the Williamson County economy are particularly strong because it was all about having great access to health care, a low crime rate, great schools, great housing options ... All those fundamentals that were there before this happened, will remain once we're through this pandemic. That's critical.
I think one statistic that I found really interesting — there was an economist a couple of weeks ago that looked at the last recession versus what has happened so far. So far it has changed quickly. In the last recession, it was really manufacturing and construction as sectors that took the biggest hit. What's happening now? It's hospitality. That's taking the biggest hit.
But what's been the least impacted so far? It's professional and business services. Again, Williamson County has 20% of all management employees across the state, so business and professional services is a big part of our economy from an employment standpoint.
We've talked to a lot of our large employers. As of right now, there hasn't been any sort of mass layoffs, which I think is great for this economy. It doesn't mean we're immune from it, but we certainly are recession resistant because of how this economy has developed from agriculture to manufacturing to professional and business services over the last 10 to 15 years.
MB: How does a comeback in Williamson County look different from other places in the country?
ML: Again, it goes back to the diversity of the economy in Williamson County. We don't rely on just one sector or one employer, like you in Charlotte with banking historically or Detroit and automotive. We really fortunate in Williamson County and Middle Tennessee, and we can't separate ourselves from the Middle Tennessee economy. We talked a lot before this about our strength being the diversity of the economy.
We have large manufacturing operations. We have distribution operations. We have headquarter operations. We don't have all our eggs in one basket, economically speaking. I think from that standpoint, it's really good.
Something else I'll mention ... I saw some recent statistics, too, about the latest unemployment rates nationwide. For the people in the workforce with only a high school degree, it's 22%. That's the unemployment rate that's been listed. I'm sure it's much higher. For those with a college degree, it's only 8%.
That doesn't mean there's not pain in this economy, and it doesn't mean there aren't people who aren't looking for jobs, but again it's another way you're insulated a little more because there are so many people in our community with that college degree. At least right now, it hasn't hit them as hard as those who don't have that degree.
I think we've spent a lot of time with our school systems, really promoting the idea of certifications for people and college degrees. That is at least one hedge you can make in the new information economy, where you're less impacted when something like this happens.
MB: What does this mean for Williamson Inc.'s economic development work? One of the things Williamson County has going for it is a lot of headquarter operations. What do those headquarters operations look like in the future? How does it change the way you approach bringing those operations to Williamson County?
ML: It's impossible to know what the future holds and how this accelerates trends. We definitely have seen a trend in recent years. I think it definitely accelerates work from home. It becomes a recruitment tool.
I do wonder, will there be a move towards suburban offices? For example, if you have an office in a tower and you're in a call center function or customer service where people are on top of each other. Are you going to want more space in a suburban location where you don't have to pay for parking, and you're looking to cut costs and get more space? Is that an option? I'm not sure. I'm not sure what it's going to be.
Obviously, what happens in Nashville definitely impacts what happens in Williamson County. During the last recession and right afterwards, the projects were driven by the CFOs. Right before that, it might have been the CEO and where they wanted to live. Now, it's the CFO and where they can cut costs.
Tennessee without an income tax, Williamson County having a very low property tax, certainly remains an attractive location for companies.
I do think economic development will look different, but I still think we're well positioned to be a beneficiary.
MB: What happens to businesses if the virus doesn't go away and we see additional coronavirus outbreaks in the future?
ML: That's the question, right? How do we manage? Like a store has hours for the vulnerable population early on, do we as a society or community get to a point where we ask people who are vulnerable to isolate in place for a certain period of time. I think because we're all learning about the effects and impacts of this disease in real time, the honest answer is we don't know what that looks like.
Again, I'll go back to the fundamentals being so strong. If any county in America can weather it, it's Williamson County ... Based on what we've seen and know about this county, no one is in better shape to weather whatever those changes look like in Williamson County.
MB: What has permanently changed in the local economy because of COVID-19?
ML: I think one of the things is how companies do business. What does that online version look like? If you're a store in downtown Franklin and you count of the experience of people walking in and shopping. Is there a way to replicate that online? Of course, you can't do that 100%, but are there ways you can do some of it.
I think that's one of the things we look at, providing goods and services online. I think that's one of the long term implications.