Talk to enough business leaders in Findlay, and you’ll learn why this northwestern Ohio community is racking up the awards for economic development achievement.
Findlay — the home of Cooper Tire, Marathon Petroleum and Whirlpool dishwashers — has found the formula for sustainable success.
While many locations in America have shown the ability to excel at securing corporate facility investments in a single year, or possibly two, few can match the long-term track record of Findlay in Hancock County, about 40 miles south of Toledo.
In 2015, Findlay duplicated its feat of 2014 by securing more facility deals than any of the other 575 micropolitan areas in the country. Even more remarkable is the fact that since 2000, only four small towns in America have ranked in the top 10 at least 10 times. Findlay is one of them.
The Office of Management and Budget in the White House defines a micropolitan statistical area as one or more adjacent counties that have at least one urban core area of at least 10,000 population but less than 50,000, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties.
In 2015, Ohio produced more Top 100 Micropolitans than any other state — 19 — while Kentucky came in second with nine. Wooster, Ohio, which won this category two years ago, finished third with 14 projects, behind No. 2 micropolitan Cullman, Ala. Rounding out the top six were Tupelo, Miss., with 13 projects, followed by Batavia, N.Y., and Shelby, N.C., which each had 11.
Other Ohio communities in the Top 40 included Celena, Greenville, Sidney, Ashland, New Philadelphia-Dover, Chillicothe, Fremont, Marion, Norwalk, Salem, Tiffin and Wilmington.
Findlay’s 26 qualifying investment deals even topped its record-setting mark of 20 registered just one year earlier. For a town of 42,000 people, it’s an accomplishment that many larger cities would envy.
Many will want to know how Findlay achieved this rare mark; and that’s where the words of the corporate deal-makers are most relevant. The executives who keep spending business capital in Hancock County say they are bullish on Findlay because Findlay is bullish on them.
Danish Firm Likes ‘Farm Country’
“I like the town due to the fact that it is uncrowded,” says Martin Jones, plant manager for Hamlet Protein in Findlay. “This is a pleasant place to live. The availability of amenities like restaurants, entertainment, movie theaters and social activities is quite good. And the logistics make sense too.”
Hamlet Protein, an international animal feed company based in Horsens, Denmark, announced last year that it would invest $13 million to expand its Findlay operation by 9,200 sq. ft. (855 sq. m.) and add four jobs.
“We are expanding our production capacity here by 50 percent,” says Jones. “We originally pursued this building in Findlay in 2011 and started our first production line here in 2012 because of the availability of raw materials in the area. There are many soybean farmers in this part of Ohio. This is farm country.”
The presence of many automotive manufacturing suppliers in Findlay and surrounding Northwest Ohio brings benefits for animal feed processors too, notes Jones. “With Interstate 75 and the rail system here, there are great logistics,” he says. “The workforce is well-trained and motivated too. We have 28 employees here now. It is very attractive to work with a company that is growing like Hamlet. This is a good business to be in, and the Tall Timbers Industrial Park in Findlay is a great location.”
Others who firmly planted their flag in the city nicknamed “Flag City, USA” agree. Michael Jastifer, director of real estate for North America for Freudenberg Group, says, “Our experience was nothing but exemplary. We had some choices on where to put our investment, and we chose Findlay.”
The German automotive supplier, which makes seals for engines and transmissions, announced an $8.6-million investment that adds 25 jobs to its existing plant in Findlay.
“The elected officials and economic development leaders went far beyond the call of duty to make this deal happen for us,” adds Jastifer. “We were looking at expansions throughout the North American region. We had some challenges in Findlay because we did not own the building. We had to acquire the facility and do a 43,000-sq.-ft. 3,995-sq.-m.] addition.”
Jastifer adds that “the mayor of Findlay reached out right away to us and put us in touch with all the right people. Tony Iriti [economic development director] and his people went above and beyond to make sure we had everything we needed and did everything right. This project went seamlessly.”
Jastifer credits the city and county with helping his firm meet “a very abbreviated timeline for the project. As a result of their efforts, we will have our certificate of occupancy any day now and be fully operational. We started this project last March and we have now completed it.”
Looking back on the project, Jastifer says that “it was probably one of the most successful, problem-free builds I have ever done in my career. Findlay does everything in a very organized manner. It is a real partnership with the local community, the county, the EDO team and the utility companies. They were all at the table from the very beginning, and so was the State of Ohio.”
Manufacturing Expertise Lures Capital
Roy Schroeder, lead center manager for fluid power automotive for Freudenberg in Findlay, says the location factors that sealed the deal were as follows:
“Freudenberg expends significant time evaluating all of our facilities to ensure their operational effectiveness and whether capital investments into their real estate or production capabilities can further support their ongoing business requirements,” says Schroeder. “Findlay was one of many locations considered for capital investment.”
He adds that “the evaluations of Findlay as a location for capital investment were part of a larger North American regional analysis of all of our facilities. As it affected the Findlay location, the process took about a year and a half, start to finish.”
Tony Iriti, economic development director for Findlay-Hancock County Economic Development, says there are two major reasons why Findlay has won the Top Micropolitan award in back-to-back years: “One is that we have a really strong business retention and expansion program. We know what our businesses are doing and where we can help our local companies. The second part is that we have such a diverse manufacturing and back-office community. Over the last 10 years, we have seen about a 12-percent growth in the number of jobs. Most of that is based on internal and organic growth.”
Iriti wants the world to know, however, that this success did not happen overnight. “It truly was the result of a strategic plan that started in 1983,” he explains. “Mobil Oil tried to take over Marathon on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 1983. Cooper Tire came out and said that if we have all of our eggs in one basket and lose that one basket, it is not good for us as a community. We knew then that we had to diversify the industries in the community. A strategic plan was then put into place when our economic development organization was founded.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The leadership of Findlay and Hancock County began putting into place all of the key support programs needed to shore up existing industry and help attract new companies. By the early 2000s, Findlay had emerged as one of the top small towns in America.
Over the past decade, Findlay has only widened its lead over the competition. “We have a Workforce Strategic Plan called Raise the Bar — Hancock County. Our mission is to have a prepared and expanding workforce allowing for growth now and in the future. To fill the ‘now’ portion we have a program called Hancock HIRES. It stands for Helping Individuals Reach Employment Stability. To fill the ‘future’ we need to organically grow our employee base in cooperation with our education partners,” says Iriti.
Every aspect of the community is involved in this effort, says Iriti. “Even our pre-K education is part of this. In conjunction with our community foundation and our United Way, we were able to have scholarships for 200 more students to attend pre-school,” he notes. “At the other end of the spectrum, we have our technical education and our community colleges and universities. We have four universities within 90 miles to supply engineers. Owens Community College and the University of Findlay are both here. Bowling Green State University is nearby, and so is the University of Toledo. Ohio Northern University is just 25 minutes away.”
Is Findlay the New Windy City?
Workforce is a big reason why One Energy LLC is making a $20-million wind energy investment in Findlay. The presence of large manufacturing companies in town attracted One Energy to the area.
The Findlay-based firm has installed five wind turbines to help power the Whirlpool and Ball Corp. factories in town. “Each facility will get roughly 20 percent of its power from wind energy on site,” says Jereme Kent, general manager of One Energy. “These are 1.5 megawatts each. Each is about 400 feet tall and each produces enough power for well over 300 homes. We were able to lower the cost of power for these large factories while doing something that is incredibly environmentally friendly.”
For a town that’s made its fortune on the backs of the oil and automotive industries, the investment by One Energy marks a significant milestone. “I don’t know that this could have been done anyplace but Findlay,” says Kent. “It has a disproportionate business community for a town this size. It has Cooper, Lowe’s, Best Buy, Whirlpool, Ball, etc. We could not have picked a better location.”
Kent also likes the way that Findlay’s leaders look forward, not backward. “Findlay wants to be an innovator,” he says. “They go out of their way to help businesses innovate. We were able to do a one-of-a-kind project like this with the full support of the community. We were willing to invest because of the companies that we were doing business with.”
Kent says he knows that companies in Findlay are committed for the long haul. “We know that these companies are going to be here for decades,” he says. “This is such a welcoming environment for innovation.”
One Energy is not done investing either, he adds. “We are going to continue to expand our North Findlay Wind Campus,” he says. “This campus will continue to evolve. With the high-end office space and other development that is here, we will build out more industrial space for a mixed-use campus. Our staff is continuing to grow. We have 16 employees here now; we had eight last year. We will double or triple in staff in the next few years. This project is really the proof of concept for big corporations for using on-site wind energy generation for industrial facilities. We are a full-service wind industry supplier. We do construction, procurement, finance, etc. — we do projects for corporate entities.”
Kent says his firm is actively targeting Ohio now because “Ohio has some of the clearer and more favorable laws in the country for net metering. You can use your own green energy resource in Ohio. You are allowed to go to net-zero no matter how large you are in Ohio.”
He adds that “manufacturing requires energy, and that’s why we like Northwest Ohio.”
‘Entrepreneurship Starts at Home’
Judging from the results of 2015, lots of companies are taking a liking to Northwest Ohio. In Hancock County alone, 26 corporate facilities investments qualified for inclusion in the Conway New Plant Database. The largest was Nissin Brake Ohio’s $37-million factory investment.
Other large deals of the year in Findlay came from American Tire Distributors ($16 million); Whirlpool ($8 million); Pressed Paper Board Technologies ($6 million); and Garner Transportation ($4 million).
Iriti says the early returns from January and February point to a very promising 2016 for Findlay. “We already have six companies that we have visited, and from them at least four are going to do something this year,” he notes. “We are pretty excited about 2016.”
Findlay is attracting more entrepreneurs these days as well, he adds. “We have a small business organization underneath our EDC,” says Iriti. “We inherited a building that used to be an incubator. For the first several years, it never really did anything. Today, we have four incubator companies within that building, and they are all working on different projects. Our Small Business Resource Center was able to help these folks. We know that is important. Entrepreneurship starts at home.”