Kelly Smallridge almost passed on an interview with the place where she has spent her whole career.
Thirty-four years ago, she had answered a classified ad in the Palm Beach Post from a little-known organization called the Palm Beach County Development Board. They wanted to speak with her on a Saturday. Smallridge, who had come home from the University of Florida, wanted to attend SunFest.
But her mother pushed her to take the interview, which led to a $23,000 job as director of membership sales. Now Smallridge is executive director of the Palm Beach County Business Development Board (BDB), making about $350,000 and trying to exploit the pandemic migration in a way that reshapes the county’s economy.
“We are at a peak now,” Smallridge says. She’s never been busier. She recruits like a college football coach. She checks mega-mansion buyers for corporate connections. She cold-calls. “You may have kissed a million toads,” she says, “before you get the prince.”
Since getting the top job in 2004, Smallridge has received many awards. Among others, the Sun Sentinel named her Small Business Leader of the Year, and the South Florida Business Journal proclaimed her the “ultimate CEO.” In 2013, Rick Scott gave her the Governor’s Ambassador Medal.
Smallridge’s biggest accomplishment, though, may be streamlining the countywide business recruitment and retention effort. Here is how she explains the respective roles:
Inquiries from corporations or CEOs about moving to Palm Beach County go to Smallridge’s office. So do questions about local companies that want to expand. The similar-sounding Economic Council of Palm Beach County is the business community’s advocacy group on issues. Example: the county’s consideration of higher impact fees for developers.
When an inquiry comes in, Smallridge and her staff ascertain what the company wants: location, amount of land or office space, workforce. The staff offers options.
When a company or individual expresses interest in a city, the BDB contacts local officials, such as Boca Raton’s economic developer director Jessica Del Vecchio or Sara Maxfield, who has the same job in Delray Beach.
Smallridge and her staff ask whether the city might offer an incentive, such as from Boca Raton’s economic development fund. They ask how the city could help with, say, expedited permitting. They may ask local officials to check out everything from schools to country clubs to veterinarians.
Then Smallridge and her staff set up interviews in each city where a company has shown interest. Company representatives make the rounds and decide.
“You don’t have 30 chambers [of commerce] and 39 cities going after the same deal,” Smallridge says. “They have entrusted us” with putting cities in contention for a corporate move.
But the cities do this knowing that they might lose, right? Smallridge says, “We all do it knowing that we may lose.”
Del Vecchio calls the partnership with the BDB “phenomenal,” adding that she learned much from Smallridge about setting up the city’s office. Corporate inquiries also come to Boca Raton directly, Del Vecchio says, after which her office contacts the BDB. “The best way to describe it is ‘efficient.’”
Smallridge says her organization ultimately doesn’t care if a company goes to Boca Raton, Delray Beach, West Palm Beach or Palm Beach Gardens: “Nothing changes in my world.” It matters only that the company comes to Palm Beach County.
But it can matter to mayors. They call Smallridge, asking why their city missed out. She explains. The company wanted more office or land than the city had available. An executive had a family connection to a city. “The CEO,” Smallridge says, “drives the decision.”
Sometimes the script gets flipped. Smallridge recalled that Cancer Treatment Centers of America originally wanted to be in West Palm Beach. As negotiations progressed, however, land became available in the Park at Broken Sound, and the company chose Boca Raton.
Despite its enviable corporate tax base, however, Boca Raton is at a competitive disadvantage in one area compared to some other cities in the county. Smallridge points out that there is no new “five-star, Class A office product” that many companies are seeking.
Predictions of post-pandemic high office vacancies, she says, don’t apply in Palm Beach County. West Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens are benefiting from new office space. The Business Development Board’s Wall Street South campaign has brought financial firms to West Palm Beach.
Smallridge says Boca Raton has “a lot of strengths” when going after companies. Among other things, the city already has numerous corporate headquarters—including technology firms—its own airport and a higher education cluster of Florida Atlantic University, Lynn University and Palm Beach State College. There’s an “educated workforce.”
Boca Raton, though, also has a major shortage of workforce housing and lacks what Smallridge calls “a vibrant downtown where you don’t need cars.” Delray Beach has that with Atlantic Avenue, but Smallridge says the city needs more “parking options.”
During the first 10 months of the board’s 2021-22 fiscal year, Smallridge says, about 65 percent of the new jobs went “north or central” in the county. One or two went south or west.
With Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter has emerged as a draw for young workers. Smallridge believes it’s because so much of the city’s entertainment area is waterfront, offering an amenity that other cities can’t match.
Corporate moves get lots of publicity, but a key part of the BDB’s mission remains helping local businesses expand and keeping them happy so they don’t make headlines elsewhere by leaving. Smallridge still recalls when companies such as IBM, Motorola and W.R. Grace shrank or left.
Roughly 65 percent of the BDB’s revenue comes from membership fees—the rest from the county under a contract that, among other things, requires the board to visit at least 100 local businesses a year “to make sure we address the needs of companies in our backyard.”
Smallridge says the BDB will focus on “targeted industries and mix it up every year.” They may hear from a local official or a chamber about a company that has “an issue.” Businesses need not be members to get a visit.
Looking ahead, Smallridge sees an added role for herself and the board. She wants to “join the conversation” about “issues of competitiveness” with state and regional competitors.
Those issues are transportation, housing and education. Rather than react, BDB representatives will start serving on organizations that set agendas and make policy.
Every company, Smallridge says, wants to know how its employees will get around and where they will live. Companies ask about education at all levels because schools and colleges produce their workforce. Smallridge praised School Superintendent Mike Burke, who had been the district’s CFO, for his eagerness to work with the BDB on how better to produce job-ready high school graduates.
Smallridge also praised her predecessor, Larry Pelton, who resigned in 2004 after a controversy—not involving Smallridge—stemming from where Scripps Florida would go. But Smallridge also remade the BDB in her image, down to the business cards.
To succeed, Smallridge needed more than a work ethic. When she became the interim director 18 years ago, her mother left a career to care for Smallridge’s three sons. When she slept on the couch as a new hire 34 years ago, her father would bring her dinner.
To get that job, Smallridge had to impress “a room full of white men” who were considering about 200 other candidates. She bought her “first suit, from Burdines” and put her hair in a bun to look older.
Three people at the BDB, Smallridge says, now have the responsibilities from that first job. It’s hard to imagine a career path today starting where hers did. “I don’t know of a 21-year-old today,” Smallridge says, “that would ever do it.”
Who are your biggest competitors in Florida?
Tampa and Miami. Tampa has a very urban lifestyle that offers a good balance that’s attractive to a young workforce, and companies follow the workforce.
Miami because they have a very international gateway to the Americas. Companies are going to want those direct flights and that whole international ecosystem that doesn’t look anything like West Palm.
Who’s your biggest competitor outside Florida?
Probably the North Carolina area and Atlanta—areas that have big, empty plants available, which you don’t find here. If you look at these corporate relocations, the vast majority of the time there was a large land donation or a large grant, and we don’t have that.
What’s your biggest ‘get?’
The Wall Street South initiative that has attracted over 100 financial firms to the county is a huge win.
What’s the biggest one that got away?
Amazon’s second headquarters.
What’s the breakdown of your work between business recruitment and business retention?
Years ago, it was 70 percent growing what’s in our backyard. Today, after COVID, it’s 70 percent from out of state. We imagine that there will be a leveling off of economic activity. We imagine that it will go back to 70 percent retention and 30 percent recruitment. We’ve brought in a lot of people, and we don’t want to lose them.
Is all this activity because of the pandemic?
COVID did not cause this. It probably accelerated what would have happened within 10 years. It’s technology, and there’s something else.
There’s a huge sentiment among this generation that it’s not the corporate ladder that they’re looking at or the money necessarily. It’s a work/life balance. And Palm Beach County offers that work/life balance.
What’s the biggest challenge for the county?
No workforce housing, and if we don’t start getting busy in building supply, and if we don’t start getting serious about the necessary infrastructure to support this onslaught of growth that we’ve had, we will lose what we’ve worked on creating over a 10-year period.