Business Monday

Q&A with Beacon Council’s Larry Williams: Sports, culture, transit key to luring businesses to Miami-Dade

Larry K. Williams is president and CEO of the Beacon Council.
Larry K. Williams is president and CEO of the Beacon Council.

In 2013, Larry K. Williams was named president and CEO of The Beacon Council, Miami-Dade’s economic development agency jointly funded by tax dollars and private funds.

His appointment came after a tumultuous time for the organization. Longtime CEO Frank Nero had been ousted, in part over his outspoken opposition to destination gaming. Relations with government officials were strained at best. Permission for a much-touted commercial air show had been turned down by the federal government.

Williams, a North Carolina native who previously worked with economic development agencies in Seattle and Atlanta, assumed the post in October 2013. In the months since, he has focused on smoothing relations with government, encouraging entrepreneurs, helping existing businesses expand and recruiting new companies to the county.

Q: You speak Spanish fluently. How and where did you learn?

A. I had the opportunity to study in at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica and subsequently at the Instituto de Estudios Internacionales in Seville, Spain. Early in my career, I had responsibility for business development in Latin America and traveled there frequently. Language skills were essential.

Q: When you first came to Miami, you spent some months on a “learning” tour. Now that you’ve been here almost two years, how do you view Miami differently from when you first arrived?

A. I’ve learned a lot and continue to learn new things about Miami every day. Miami is diverse in so many ways — the people, the languages, the communities (from Florida City to Aventura, Miami Beach to the Everglades). Miami has a diverse economy with a long history in industry sectors including trade and logistics, aviation, banking and fiance, healthcare and life sciences. Our diversity is a tremendous business advantage; company leaders tell us that a diverse workforce makes us more attractive as a world class 21st-century city.

When I first arrived here, people described Miami-Dade as being in its “infancy” or “teenage” stage of life. In my observation, Miami is a sophisticated region that is becoming more refined. I would describe it more as a young adult, who is maturing and ready to take its rightful place in the world and build its legacy.

I’ve also learned that Miami is a college town. It has more higher education students per capita than most areas. We have excellent institutions for academia, research, development of intellectual property, and partnerships with the private sector — all this comes together to make them hubs of innovation producing a large, educated talent pool.

Q: From the point of view of businesses considering locating in Miami, what are the city’s greatest attractions?

A. Miami’s greatest attractions include our exceptional quality of life, our competitive business climate with low taxes and no personal income tax, and our centrally located geographic position, which provides access and connectivity to the world’s most important markets. Miami’s multicultural and multilingual workforce makes it easier to penetrate the global marketplace. Florida’s status as the third-largest state in the U.S. allows businesses to locate in Miami to reach the growing Florida and U.S. markets.

We also have space options for businesses throughout the county, whether they require Class A offices or room to build warehousing and larger facilities. The recent NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises decision to make Miami-Dade the site for its new global headquarters is a great example of a company finding the right space for its needs.

Q: From the same viewpoint, what are the city’s biggest drawbacks?

A. As a global business destination, we are affected by shifts in the world economy. That is why it’s so important that we continue to build businesses that are adaptable to the changing global landscape.

Q: Locals complain a lot about traffic and the lack of transit options. Is that also a concern for business recruiters and the businesses that consider moving here?

A. Business leaders want to know that their employees can get to and from work easily. Employees want to get to and from work and to the grocery store and perform other daily routines. Miami has many good options, but like most U.S. metropolitan areas, the demand continues to grow. The up-and-coming workforce wants more public transportation. We need to provide practical, thoughtful options that will meet both employers’ and employees’ needs.

Q: How important a consideration are housing costs for attracting and keeping firms?

A. Housing costs are a consideration for companies looking to relocate. We have a wide variety of options around the county from urban apartments and condominiums to suburban homes. Companies tell us they are impressed with the options available. It’s an area that we need to continually watch to ensure housing needs are being met with appropriate inventory. Good transit can increase housing options.

Q: How do cultural offerings, sports teams, public schools and higher education play into the equation?

A. They are high on the list. Today’s business leaders are looking for exceptional quality of life and high-quality educational offerings when choosing a locale. Miami has them all — professional sports, including basketball, football, baseball, tennis and motorsports; plus, world-class theater, symphony and art. We are proud of our award-winning public schools and excellent private schools. Not only do we have a vibrant educational ecosystem, the various universities, colleges and our school system are also united in working with the business community to prepare the workforce of tomorrow. That is unique and helps set us apart from our competitors.

Q: We don’t have many large corporations here. Is it realistic to expect we can attract them?

A. Absolutely. Miami can and has attracted large corporations as the outdated perception about being solely a tourist destination diminishes. Today we have many companies that are north of $1 billion in revenues. That’s why it’s so important to tell the contemporary story about Miami’s emergence from gateway to Latin America to a global business hub. In the near future, trade and logistics companies will capitalize on MIA’s recent designation as a Pharma Hub (only the second in the world) as well as the Panama Canal expansion.

Q: Hospitality and real estate development have always been pillars of our local economy. Both fields offer a lot of jobs, but many of those jobs don’t pay well. What are the best prospects for industries that pay a middle-class wage?

A. There are higher-paying jobs in our target industry sectors including aviation, banking and finance, creative industries, healthcare and life sciences, hospitality and tourism, technology and trade and logistics. And keep in mind that even within hospitality and real estate development, there are many opportunities for successful careers and career paths with great wage potential. There is demand for people in these areas now, and we expect it to see continued growth.

Q: One of the Beacon Council’s chief goals has been to broaden the local economy beyond those traditional sectors. How would you rate the progress?

A. I’d rate us very high. We should all be proud that Miami has a great mix of established industries and new, leading-edge industry sectors with great growth potential. Miami was founded on trade and logistics. Today, 1 in 5 jobs is in trade and logistics. We were pioneers in the aviation industry. We continue to see strong growth in both areas. In addition, we have become a great center and innovator in healthcare, life sciences, creative design and technology where we are seeing significant interest and investment. Miami has also become one of the largest media industry hubs in the U.S. Through great efforts like eMerge Americas, Miami receives global exposure for our burgeoning innovation and entrepreneurial sectors.

Q: For several years, The Beacon Council has been trying to draw a commercial air show to the county. The federal government denied permission to use Homestead; a site in the Everglades has been mentioned. What’s the current status?

A. In partnership with [Miami-Dade] Mayor [Carlos] Gimenez’s office and Miami International Airport, we continue to look for opportunities to build an aviation industry trade event here in Miami to promote this very important and growing target industry sector. We know that it has to be the right location and right timing for this to be successful.

Q: Locals also complain about the permitting process here, especially when it comes to building. Is the situation here very different from other places? Easier or more cumbersome?

A. This has been an issue in every market in which I have worked. At The Beacon Council, we work closely with the county to facilitate permitting and minimize issues that can inhibit economic growth and frustrate business people.

Q: What issues currently before the legislature are of special interest to the Beacon Council?

A. We support the governor’s proposal for tax cuts for businesses and for performance-based incentives to retain and attract companies willing to commit to significant job creation and investment. Florida competes with other states and nations which offer generous incentives; our model for performance-based incentives is smart, cost-effective and provides substantial return on investment.

Q: When you look down the road three years from now, what challenge do you hope has been resolved, or what goal would you like to have met?

A. I’m unabashedly passionate about Miami-Dade being THE greatest place in the world to locate and grow your business. I look forward to a time when more of us believe it and are willing to stand up for this amazing place we call home.

Q: What is the best advice you ever got?

A. Make yourself invaluable to your organization. You’ll feel better about your contributions and they’ll recognize the commitment.

Larry K. Williams

Job title: President & CEO, The Beacon Council

Age: 52

Previous positions: Vice president of technology development at the Metro Atlanta Chamber; director of economic development and international trade, Washington State Department of Commerce

Spouse: Pamela Williams, digital process manager, Fidelity National Financial Corp.