Michele Brown surprised the business community in January when she announced she was leaving her job as the CEO of the Economic Development Authority to head Choose New Jersey.
As a trusted confidante of Gov. Chris Christie (some say she is one of the few people that can tell him what to do) and as one of the most powerful people in the state (we had her as the top woman and No. 5 overall in the NJBIZ Power 100), why would she leave a job that was seemingly made for her (one she admits she loved) for one many would considered to be a lateral move?
In her first interview since becoming the CEO at Choose, Brown sat down with NJBIZ and explained it all: not only why this job marks a “wonderful progression” for her career and how she intends to change the way the state attracts (and retains) business, but whether her career will include campaigning for Christie or (spoiler alert) include running for public office herself.
In short, she explained why the move made perfect sense.
NJBIZ: Let's start from the beginning. When Tracye McDaniel, your predecessor and the founding CEO of Choose New Jersey in 2011, announced in December that she was leaving to take a job in her native Texas, did you have interest in this role?
Michele Brown: I did not think it was necessarily the job for me, in large measure because I was having such a marvelous time at the EDA. But in the last couple of months, (the search committee I was a part of) tried to figure out not only what is right for Choose, but what is right for Choose within the Partnership for Action — and what Choose has done well and what else we would like it to accomplish. As we did that self-reflection and self-examination and we tried to figure out where we wanted to position Choose, it became clear we wanted to strengthen their position within the PFA and within the state, we wanted to make sure all the partners were playing well in the sandbox so we could maximize the utility of each individual organization as a whole and make sure the businesses who are investing in Choose feel they are getting value.
The question became: How do you go find someone who can fulfill all those roles? As we started talking to all the board members, people started asking me if I had an interest in doing it. I had to think long and hard about it, but at the end of the day, as gratifying as I found the job at the EDA to be, this would be a wonderful progression and I could be a value-add to the organization.
NJBIZ: You have given Tracye credit for getting Choose off the ground. What is the next step?
MB: I think Choose has done a remarkable job in business attraction out of state and overseas. I think that's fundamental to what the organization does, but it's become clear that we have work to be done at home. I see Choose moving into providing additional resources and help to our statewide retention efforts as well as our challenge of bringing more companies here.
NJBIZ: Additional resources — what do you mean?
MB: I would like to make better use of our partners who sit on the board at Choose; they are our best advocates for business in the state. I want to involve them in meetings with other CEOs so they can talk to them at their level about the challenges and opportunities here. Who better than the CEO who already has decided that they want to be in New Jersey? They are zealous advocates. We can do that in conjunction with my old haunt, the EDA, as well as the Business Action Center and the lieutenant governor's office. It's another layer we can provide.
NJBIZ: Let's talk about your old haunt, the EDA. How do you think that experience will help you do this job better?
MB: Choose is a different mission. If you put it on the chain, the EDA is at the end, Choose is at the beginning with the Business Action Center in the middle. But my experience at the EDA is one of the things that made the job attractive to me. It's one of the attributes I had that made me attractive to the board. Because I have these existing relationships, we will just be better at marketing all the things that we have here at Choose.
Here's an example: Choose has historically supported the BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization) event in Philadelphia and historically has done it with just casual support from the EDA and the Business Action Center. This year we'll have people from BAC and EDA working with us to make sure our presentation is as great as it can be. That's a change that you'll see will just make us more competitive.
NJBIZ: We hear about these presentations — how they can make or break whether a company even considers your state. How are you going to improve the way Choose presents?
MB: In the past, Choose made different kinds of presentations depending on the company or how we were introduced to the company. Now we'll have a broader group get involved. We'll have the lieutenant governor there, someone from Choose, someone from the Business Action Center and someone from the EDA.
I may have someone from the board — and even if they aren't in the same industry, they will have something to offer, like the potential location of a move. If they can speak to someone about location, whether they live there or work there, that makes a big difference when someone is trying to figure out where they want to locate in the state. And when appropriate, I would like to involve other cabinet-level officials, simply so they can see there is a broad array of support for what we are selling and what we have to sell.
NJBIZ: We appreciate the insight. In the past, Choose always has been closed-lipped about what it was doing, often criticized for it. Is more transparency a goal?
MB: The criticism may be related to the fact the majority of Choose's efforts have been out of state and overseas. Getting Choose involved in retention efforts will raise the profile of Choose in the state. And I think we'll also start doing some marketing and advertising within the state whereas before they would have been spent outside the state. Part of our mission of being business advocates will be enhanced by having more of our work stay inside the state of New Jersey. And there our other things we can do. But give us time — we're only on Day Three.
NJBIZ: Yes, it's the first week. But some quietly are saying your days could be numbered. Talk about your relationship with the governor: We've heard the quote from many people that Michele Brown will be traipsing through the cornfields of Iowa if Christie asks her to.
MB: I can assure you that Michele Brown will not be traipsing through the cornfields of Iowa.
I have been fortunate to have a close relationship to the governor for the past 12 years. And it has been an amazing experience. I wouldn't trade it. But I'm not going to Iowa. I'm fully committed to being at Choose and I have no intention of being anywhere else.
NJBIZ: OK, we'll take your word on Iowa. But how about the Pine Barrens? We have to ask. With experience as a prosecutor and in the governor's office, and as now the head of two of the biggest economic agencies in the state, you have a résumé that any politician would love to have. Would you consider running for public office?
(Wait for hearty laughter to subside)
I am very happy not to have to be involved in that end of politics. I have enormous respect for those who choose to serve the public in that way, but I have found I'm better further off the line. So, no.
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