Jim McConoughey is president and CEO of The Heartland Partnership, where he also serves as president of the Economic Development Council for Central Illinois and the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, in addition to The Heartland Partnership’s other subsidiary business organizations.
Additionally, McConoughey serves on the board of directors of Peoria NEXT and the Workforce Investment Board. He sits on the Civic Federation, the Mayor’s Task Forces on Economic Development and Transportation, the Executive Council for the Harvard Economic Development Council, and the Chicago Metropolis 2020.
Prior to joining The Heartland Partnership, McConoughey chaired the Kane Country Economic Development Commission and worked with several other chambers and economic development organizations.
In recent years, he’s started, reinvented, and managed several community-based boards designed to meet and solve regional needs for chamber activities and workforce development. His professional economic development background includes downtown redevelopment and traditional economic development.
He and his wife have two children.
Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I completed my undergraduate degree at Ohio Wesleyan University, some graduate work in finance at Ohio State, and my MBA from Northern Illinois. My wife, Gina, and I have been married for 15 years and have two children: Elizabeth and Spencer. I’m an active fly-fisherman, and my son and daughter are learning how to cast. Someday they’ll be great fishermen.
Tell about the career path that led you to Peoria.
I was raised on a farm. The rural upbringing provided me with a firm context with which I’ve developed my career. As a farm kid, I saw the evolution of small farms and how they transitioned into agriculture-based business. It’s a different world out there for the farmers of today. That realization has been critical to my successes in economic development.
I started buying and developing real estate while I was in college. My experiences in the hotel chain industry took me to literally hundreds of cities throughout the eastern United States. I witnessed the growth and decline of many American cities. Again, in both obvious and discreet ways, the value of those diverse experiences plays a big role in my work today. There’s an enormous amount of value in the context those experiences provided me with.
The other element of the equation has to do with the economic development, finance, chamber, and training work that have prepared me for where I am today. Those components make up the other side of private commercial development, and I’ve been fortunate to find excellent work and opportunities in these fields. I’ve worked in Ohio, Chicago, and now here in fields that are more traditionally associated with economic development.
Tell about the restructured Heartland Partnership.
The past 12 months have seen a lot of change in central Illinois. I’d like to think the increased role of The Heartland Partnership is one of those important changes, and that, in fact, the increased role of the organization has been a driver of some of those changes.
The Heartland Partnership serves as a catalyst for regional visioning and strategic thinking. One of the main functions of the organization is to provide a forum for identifying regional issues and recommendations to be considered for action by the Economic Development Council, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, and other appropriate entities throughout the Illinois heartland. There’s significant stock in the need to have a coordinated, streamlined set of activities focused on adding value to the greater economy. The advantages of coordinated efforts are great, including cost efficiencies, streamlined services, increased ability to leverage resources, and greater impact for all parties at the end of the day.
Our business is about growth, prosperity, and community wealth. The Economic Development Council is charged with generating growth. The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce enriches the prosperous business climate here. Ultimately, our goal is to build community wealth through the functions of these organizations. From the parent at the bus stop to the executive in the boardroom, our responsibility is to develop, grow, and nurture the economy in a way that improves the daily quality of life for the people of the Illinois heartland.
What was your first impression of central Illinois? Has that impression changed since?
Midwesterners are often characterized as being hard working and dependable. I’m continually reminded of how true that is. The real value, however, is how our local citizens combine that dedication to hard work with a resourcefulness that equips us well to compete in an entrepreneurial economy. We’re a durable community. Our people seek solutions.
The thing that really sold me on Peoria is the immense opportunity that exists here. This area is a virtually untapped wealth of opportunity. The people and businesses here are resourceful and hard working. In addition to the assets of this area in terms of people and a solid workforce, there are great institutional resources here as well. Approximately $1 billion is invested in research and development in the Peoria area annually through institutions like Caterpillar, the USDA National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Bradley University, the University of Illinois College of Medicine-and there are more than I could name here.
One of our great challenges is increasing the awareness and pride that local people have relating to these resources. For example, many local people don’t know the fat substitutes for frozen dinners you can buy in the grocery store were developed here. People don’t know we have local companies all over this region doing business on a global scale. These types of unrecognized treasures are what have drawn me to this area.
Our challenge is to build awareness internally so we’re better equipped to market this region to an external audience. That was our goal through the Heartland Partnership annual meeting. The theme “I had no idea…we have it all” gave us a way to showcase all of the tremendous resources we have on every corner and in businesses throughout the region. We’re excited about further developments we have that will be utilizing the “I had no idea” campaign, and we’re truly looking forward to bringing these programs to the public in the coming year.
What did you see as first priorities in economic development in central Illinois? What positive foundations were already in place?
My initial strategy was to restore the vision and purpose to an organization with significant potential. This would enable The Heartland Partnership to have a strong foothold towards developing the central Illinois economy. I wanted to see The Heartland Partnership family of companies work as a collective team towards our common goals. Teamwork and communication development are two essential tools to growing a business. Our organizations have undertaken many relationship-building activities throughout the year, and our staff has become a much tighter knit team along the way. This is a group of technical experts, and their collective skill is one of our greatest assets.
Even before I started at The Heartland Partnership, the talent at this company was immense. I was very excited to be heading up such a talented and knowledgeable team. It didn’t take long for The Heartland Partnership team to accelerate into high gear and consistently operate at a phenomenal level of activity. We’re producing results now-results you’re seeing in the news and in the community-because the skills already here enabled me to get down to business soon after I started.
Your position expanded to include the business development of Peoria NEXT. How do the Economic Development Council and Peoria NEXT work together?
The vision of Peoria NEXT is to position central Illinois as the preferred Midwestern region in support of the culture of discovery; the creation of innovation; and the implementation of commercialization in the areas of life science, material science, and engineering science. That’s no small charge. It involves fostering collaboration between scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, and educators. Of course, commercialization through collaboration is a key component here. The expected outcome of all the proposed collaboration and cooperation is increased intellectual output, and the next step, of course, is to commercialize this intellectual property. The EDC’s role within all of this is to coordinate the business and commercialization initiatives within this context. We work with entities including the Heartland Illinois Technology Enterprise Center (HITEC), the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (IMEC), Bradley University’s Turner Center for Entrepreneurship and its affiliate centers, and other organizations focused on fostering entrepreneurship and commercialization in central Illinois. We work to attract researchers and entrepreneurs to the area, and we generate venture capital investment in the area, both from outside investors and from our own venture capital community.
Tell how your experiences sitting on the Harvard Economic Develop-ment Council and the Chicago Metropolis 2020 have helped in your work with Peoria.
My experiences with the Harvard ED group and the Chicago Metropolis 2020 project together have provided me with valuable skill sets that have and will be essential as we move forward with many of the Heartland Partnership initiatives. Harvard had many rural issues that might be familiar to some of the more rural areas of central Illinois. Population demographic shifts, the contrast between agriculture and manufacturing, building supportive infrastructure-these are the issues I worked with in Harvard.
Metropolis 2020 was a great project that, while based on a much larger scale than what we’re currently encountering in Peoria, introduced issues we must keep in mind as we build capacity in our local economy. We need to be cognizant of urban issues like gridlock, air pollution, and community welfare. The infrastructure and environment we create must be customized to support the business and population growth we’re striving for.
It’s very engaging to be in a region where we confront both of these sets of issues. A metropolitan core with a close-knit set of communities contributing to the culture and prosperity of the entire region-it’s really a combination of many economic landscapes. Fortunately, we have value in our resources, and I think we have a lot on which to capitalize.
How is central Illinois uniquely positioned to be transformed from the perception of an agricultural/ manufacturing community to a high-tech/medical community?
Central Illinois is often stereotyped as an agricultural/manufacturing community. Instead of disputing that perception, we’d like to assert that it’s actually quite true. More importantly, it’s precisely because of our agricultural and manufacturing assets that we’re uniquely well positioned to be a key player in the knowledge economy.
Take the USDA Ag Lab as an example. The Ag Lab is home to world-renowned researchers who’ve contributed to breakthroughs that make our daily lives as we know them possible. It’s partially due to our agricultural resources that this lab is successful here in Peoria. We also have Caterpillar, a Fortune 100 corporation in the heavy manufacturing industry. It’s through this manufacturer’s presence in central Illinois that we have the Caterpillar Tech Center, one of our nation’s most powerful commercial research and development bastions.
It’s through the combination of our agricultural and manufacturing communities and the new high-tech influences they’ve brought to central Illinois that we’re well positioned to have a competitive place in the knowledge economy.
You’re a proponent of quick action and following built-up momentum when it comes to economic development. What are the pitfalls in studying a plan to death?
Planning and preparing are invaluable tools in economic development, but only when they precede action. It’s like the relationship between the gas and brake pedals. If you’re only using the gas pedal, you’re not allowing yourself time to properly analyze your choices and direction. In addition, you exclude the ability to react to new opportunities. However, if you’re spending too much time on the brake pedal, you lose valuable time while other communities are flying past us headlong into the finish line. The perfect relationship between the two is a balance-some brake, some gas. The board and I try to stay on the gas when it comes to taking opportunities and being future oriented. However, the brake helps us slow down and see what’s going on around us so we’re strategically positioned to make the right choices at the right times.
How has economic development changed in the past decade? What are the key factors necessary for consistent growth in a city? A region?
Economic development used to be about bringing in the next 1,000-job factory or the next 24-hour call center. In today’s economy, overseas competition can do it at one-tenth of the cost-and sometimes with higher quality. It’s not always true, but it’s true often enough that it’s systematically changed the face of economic development for most cities in the United States.
Our core competencies today are capital: human capital and intellectual capital. Our people work hard, and they find solutions. Central Illinois is well positioned to leverage these assets as we stake our place in the new economy. We still work to recruit manufacturing and industrial jobs, but we also realize it’s in our best interest to diversify and utilize our significant assets to drive growth in a tech-based industry-whether it be medical, agricultural, or manufacturing.
The one thing that really grows the economy is jobs, no matter where you are. Each factor of economic growth is a result of someone earning income. Income provides a resource for people to support their families. Families spend money in local grocery stores, shopping centers, and restaurants. They utilize medical services and pay taxes. Taxes support government, which supports investment in the community through infrastructure and social services. It’s a multiplier effect that’s simple in its complexity. Therefore, the first step is to create quality jobs. This may sound simple, but sometimes keeping it simple is the best way to start.
What particular challenges does the central Illinois region face?
One challenge I propose we tackle is our perception of an economic success. A significant opinion base in our community still measures economic success by the number of traditional manufacturing jobs it creates. Perhaps a more accurate measure should be the quality of jobs an economic development creates. Perhaps we should factor in the number of jobs it will stimulate within the next five years. It’s been estimated that within five years, 85 percent of our nation’s workforce will be employed by companies of five to 25 employees. These relatively small shops stimulate indirect employment that reaches into the triple digits, but because they don’t rank as major manufacturing entities, they’re discounted as an economic priority. The manufacturing we’ll see tomorrow isn’t the same manufacturing that supported our families a decade ago. It’s high-tech manufacturing that’s supported by the five- to 25-person lab or development company that we’re trying to recruit today. It’s time we enhance our perception of what our economic development target is.
What would you like your legacy to be after leaving this position?
When I leave the Heartland Partnership, I want there to be a foundation in place that provides for relatively seamless leadership succession. No one person should be the lynch pin of success for a business. An organization needs direction and vision-the board of directors and CEO should initiate and maintain this direction. Supporting this CEO and board leadership, however, is an entire team of skilled professionals that truly make the organization successful. I would propose that this team has fully adopted a set of goals and objectives that will successfully carry out this mission. My goal is to have this organization capable of running with or without me. That’s how you know you’ve been successful and that it’s time for new leadership in the organization-a new agent for change that pushes the organization to change in different ways through different measures. When you’ve driven your organization to meet and exceed contributions and challenges-that’s the kind of legacy you can be proud of. IBI