WMC exclusive: Richard Smith shares how to keep Memphis business moving forward

Updated: Nov. 22, 2019 at 9:32 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A multi-billion-dollar expansion at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a billion-dollar apartment and hotel complex in the Pinch District and a brand-new $1.5 billion Super Hub are now under construction at FedEx.

Momentum is literally building in Memphis.

One of the architects behind that development is the Chairman of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce who sat down with WMC Action News 5 to talk about what’s working.

"And the momentum is real. I mean it is real. We are growing for the first time in a long time,” said Richard Smith, Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce Chairman.

Richard Smith began chairing the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce in 2017, and back then blasted the way our city recruited businesses.

"We need to be more customer-centric, more aggressive when it came to incentives. We did a study that showed we actually lagged a lot of the municipalities we compete with in terms of incentives we put on the table for new projects largely,” said Smith.

Memphis incentives come mostly in the form of PILOTS, or payments in lieu of taxes. They're a gamble!

For example, Mitsubishi Electric got a $34 million PILOT six years ago and just announced it plans to sell its Memphis plant.

Service Master, on the other hand, won about $25 million in Memphis incentives and is now part of the new cornerstone of corporations Downtown.

“If we'd lost Service Master. That's thousands of high-wage jobs. Instead, we made them a great offer. They came and took Peabody Place, which was a vacant mall, and they turned it into their headquarters and it's beautiful. It's done a ton for Downtown,” said Smith.

The Chamber's hit parade under Smith featured new Memphis headquarters announcements by Indigo Ag and Mimeo.

Before Smith was promoted to serve as US President of FedEx Express, he was CEO of FedEx Logistics and announced the move into the old Gibson Guitar Factory.

When he became Chamber Chairman two years ago, Smith says companies considering Memphis all brought up the same thing.

“Crime was the number one thing companies brought up when we tried to recruit them to Memphis. And I think we've spent an inordinate amount of time talking about crime,” said Smith.

But in a tight labor market, Smith says companies now want to know whether Memphis can deliver a skilled workforce.

“We're a hot city. We're one of the fastest growing cities for millennials and Gen Z. St. Jude was actually voted the number one place that Gen Z wants to work. So, these are exciting things. We've got young, educated people coming to our city. And demographically, we've got a lot of young people here that we've got to 'up-skill' as I mentioned. So that's the secret weapon right there,” said Smith.

Smith celebrates St Jude's magnetic power for Memphis and the job and business generator that is FedEx.

It employs 30,000 in the Bluff City.

“But it's not just the number of people directly employed by FedEx that you have to think about. It's the number of companies that are because of FedEx. It's the number of vendors and suppliers that are here because of FedEx, it's the number of customers. So, when you look at FedEx as a driver of the Memphis economy in aggregate, it's massive. Massive. That's an awesome responsibility to the community,” said Smith.

As FedEx navigates the global economic slowdown Smith says was caused by trade wars and higher tariffs --- he celebrates the Chamber victories Memphis now enjoys.

“We are growing. And as Lou Holtz famously said, if you're not growing, you're dying. So, it's exciting to watch,” said Smith.

Smith steps down as Chamber Chairman next month but has a lot to celebrate at the Chamber’s annual luncheon Dec. 5.

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