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Growing Up with the Job

Economic developer Brian Hilson grew up with the profession — from the promotional, industry-centered ’80s to today’s more comprehensive focus on community and innovation.

Brian Hilson started his career in economic development as a pencil-and-paper researcher and it has served him well.

Brian Hilson started his career in economic development as a pencil-and-paper researcher and it has served him well.

In many ways, economic development work is all about the numbers — tax rates, property prices, wage averages, financial incentives. At some point in the bottom-line world of big business, the figures simply have to add up.

Still, Brian Hilson learned early in his career that economic development is ultimately about the people. Not only in terms of the relationships built with government officials and corporate executives but also in the way such work affects members of the local community.

“It’s the satisfaction of accomplishing something that directly improves the quality of life for people and the well-being of a family,” Hilson says. “There’s something about being part of that — even if it’s just a small part — that has always appealed to me.”

That attitude has served Hilson well over the past 35 years. In fact, it is one of the reasons he has gone from being an intern with the old Birmingham Metropolitan Development Board to serving in his current position as the president and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance, with a 19-year stint at the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce in between. Through it all, it has been the people — not the numbers — that have mattered most to Hilson.

“There is a common thread in all of this, and that’s the teamwork aspect of what we do,” Hilson says. “That always has to exist, and it has to involve both the public and private sectors at both the local and state level. There have to be good relationships that run really deep. We not only work together but we also know one another personally.

“Each community is unique. Every project is different. The circumstances always change. There is no cookie-cutter approach to what we do. So you have to get to know the people. That always helps whenever you’re doing business.”

While growing up in Huntsville in the early ’70s, Hilson says he used to watch television detective shows such as Mannix with his father. He eventually became intrigued about following in the gumshoe steps of these fictional private investigators. During his senior year of high school, Hilson worked occasionally for the Allied Detective Bureau, earning $3.50 an hour going on stakeouts for divorce and child-custody cases.

“It was nice to make a little spending money, but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to do this for a living,” Hilson says, smiling at the memory of how his career path could have been drastically different.

Instead, Hilson developed an interest in city planning. He graduated from Auburn University in 1978 with a degree in public administration, when few colleges offered majors in economic development. He then took several graduate-level courses at UAB. He interned at the Birmingham MDB in 1980 before being hired full time in 1981.

In this pre-computer age, Hilson started out doing the pencil-and-paper grunt work in the research department. This was not the involvement with people that Hilson came to enjoy most about economic development, but he says it was an important first step in establishing a base of knowledge for his career.

“Starting on the research side was a blessing, because I was learning the business from a factual perspective,” Hilson says. “I was taking really solid information and facts and creating an objective approach to what we were doing.

“I began developing databases and trying to put things in perspective. How do we use this information? What’s important to a company? How do we anticipate what the next business prospect is going to need? What differentiates one community from another, or one state from another? Things that companies use to make decisions about where they’re going to grow.”

Hilson discovered he was entering the field during a time of transition. He says the backgrounds of many people in the business were geared more toward marketing than true economics, and, as a result, he says they “were more about style than substance.”

That began to change in the ’80s, as the country shifted from a manufacturing-based industrial economy — the field previously had been called “industrial development” — to one more focused on technology. Suddenly, through his research work, Hilson had become knowledgeable about aspects of the economy that others had ignored.

“As that was happening and I started developing and managing a lot of information — and understanding it — I started getting called into meetings,” Hilson says. “All of a sudden I found myself being asked to answer questions that people who were much senior to me should have known. There were a lot of people who got into the profession mid-career, and they just didn’t know that facet of economic development.”

Before long, Hilson was organizing trips to meet and recruit prospective companies and managing projects to entice businesses to come to Alabama. He eventually returned home to join the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce. He served as the chamber’s senior vice president of economic development, from 1992-97, and then was named chamber president in 1997. Hilson took over at the BBA in 2011.

Over the years, Hilson has worked on economic development projects with a wide variety of national and international companies, including Lockheed Martin, Toyota, LG Electronics, Sterilite Corp., UPS and Delta Air Lines. And behind each of those well-known names there were people and a relationship to be developed.

Once, Hilson was told to meet a private plane at the Birmingham airport for a visit from a company that demanded strict confidentiality, to the point that even Hilson did not know who was coming. When the plane arrived, however, the Owens Corning logo was clearly visibly on the side of the plane. Hilson pointed that out to the executive who had made the trip, and they both laughed at this distinct lack of secrecy.

On another occasion, during Huntsville’s successful bid to land a Toyota manufacturing plant, Hilson toured the prospective site with the company president. Soon after arriving at the 500-acre, overgrown former cotton field, the president expressed interest in a 5-foot-tall plant with a purple bloom on top. He sniffed it and, through an interpreter, asked Hilson, “What is this beautiful Alabama flower?” To which Hilson replied, “Actually, that’s an Alabama weed.”

“He laughed, and we got things off to a good start,” Hilson says. “I think that might have been the clincher for us.

“You meet a lot of people from all over the world in this job. Government officials at all levels, business leaders, community leaders. There are just a lot of stakeholders involved in the process. And what I’ve learned is, ultimately, you don’t have success in an economic-development project unless eventually you meet face-to-face. There’s just no substitute for that.”

Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelancers for Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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