In June, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens used a Facebook video to deliver the news that he’d signed a measure called the Steel Mill Bill into law. The news came after initial failure by the state Senate to pass special legislation allowing the state’s public service commission to approve special, lower utility rates for a pending reopening of the Noranda aluminum smelter and the location of a new steel mill in southeastern Missouri.
So Greitens called a special session. And suddenly the bill wasn’t hung up anymore.
“So now, we’re going to be able to bring a steel mill and hundreds of quality jobs to the state of Missouri,” Greitens told his growing legion of Facebook followers. “And I wanted to let you know, [I’m] leaving for the White House to talk with them about what we’ve done here in Missouri. About how all of us are standing up and saying really clearly: The people of Missouri don’t want welfare. People want to work. So we’re working to bring back American jobs.”
The St. Louis-area native delivered a similar message to legislative leaders and state citizens in his state of the state address in January:
“An administration can do its part to empower business leaders to do good and to dare greatly — but the doing and daring is up to you,” he said. “An administration can render a check. But no amount of money given by a government can ever provide the meaning, strength and dignity that comes from a good-paying job.”
Greitens, like President Trump, relishes his outsider status, and also seems to take a shine to social media. And he is unafraid of ruffling feathers. His first piece of business was signing right-to-work legislation into law. The unapologetic Trump fan called another special session this summer on abortion, following past claims that people of faith are “under attack.” But his fearlessness comes from having been in situations where fear would be expected (and not just from his days as the rare Rhodes Scholar boxer at Oxford University): He served on four military deployments as a Navy SEAL, including in 2006 as the commander of an al-Qaeda targeting cell in Fallujah. After his unit was hit by a suicide truck bomb, he returned home and founded The Mission Continues, now a nationally recognized veterans organization.
Early in June, Governor Greitens talked with me from his office in Jefferson City.
The right-to-work legislation becomes law in late August. What feedback — positive and negative — have you heard from business leaders, community and economic development leaders since you signed that legislation into law in February?
Gov. Eric Greitens: We’re really excited about the fact we’re a right-to-work state, one of the things we’ve done to make sure everybody knows Missouri is open for business again. There’s been tremendous feedback from people in the state, around the country and around the world, recognizing the steps we’re taking to be a top five economy. Right-to-work was essential. Reaction has been positive across the board. At meetings with site selectors this past Monday, most had clients looking to move, and most of them said, “Missouri would not have been on our list before. Now that you’ve passed right-to-work you’re on the list.”
Like our president, you are a professed outsider. How has that helped you get things done these first months in office?
Gov. Greitens: A couple thoughts. I came in as a Navy SEAL, a conservative, an outsider. It helped that I ran my own business. And I brought with me a team of outsiders. One thing we’re doing is to set up a tax commission to make sure we can simplify and lower taxes on families in the state. That’s being led by [Missouri Dept. of Revenue Director] Joel Walters, who used to run PwC’s entire US tax practice, and before that was in Europe advising companies about where to locate in the United States. Drew Erdmann, our COO, was a partner at McKinsey & Co. — before Drew, we never had a COO. It’s a $27-billion enterprise, and we need to drive change across the cabinet to make Missouri a great place to do business. That’s Drew’s mission as well — more jobs, higher pay, by driving efficiency across government. At the Department of Natural Resources I brought in Carol Comer. She had never worked in Missouri, but had worked in Indiana, and she’s helping drive down permitting times. We know businesses need to be able to easily and efficiently get permits. We’re really bringing a pro-business perspective that a lot of site selectors have said has been really positive for them and their companies.
It’s early in your tenure, but you’ve already presided over quite a few corporate project announcements. Give us an insider’s view of how some of those projects came to fruition.
Gov. Greitens: It’s important to know that I like to be involved early. I like to sit down early with site selectors, with CEOs and their teams to know what they’re looking for. We like to make sure they have the opportunity to meet with Carol or Joel or Rob Dixon, the new head of our Department of Economic Development, to make sure they have every resource they need to invest successfully. I sat down with the leadership of Smith & Wesson, which just made a major investment in Missouri, and I wanted to make sure they knew they’d be welcomed as a wonderful corporate leader in Missouri. Instead of a traditional announcement, I went out to the range, we put a few rounds down range, and after shooting, I turned to the camera and said, “We’re really excited to welcome Smith & Wesson, and all of the quality jobs they’re going to create here.” That video had over a million views. We sit down early and figure out how creatively we can meet their needs.
Missouri is competing for a steel mill, and we had a company looking to build what will likely be the most efficient steel mill in North America. Again, we sat down with the leadership team, and talked about what Missouri has to offer. We have traditional tools, but also made sure they were connected to the people in our universities. We’re willing to go not just the extra mile, but the extra marathon. We had to get legislation passed — it passed in the House by a vote of 120 to 17, but it got hung up in the Senate. I called a special session, went down to southeast Missouri, rounded up thousands of people, and we went back and got the job done. That’s how intent we are on competing for every job and every business that will come to the state.
What is your strategy for optimizing the state’s profile among international companies?
Gov. Greitens: We’ve actually started on this from the beginning. One of the things that’s been really positive is wonderful interaction with consuls general: The consuls from Japan and Korea, and the ambassador from Italy, have come to the governor’s mansion. We’ll be doing trade missions to Europe and Asia this year, and really productive missions. We’re making sure we’re involving CEOs in the state to develop and plan those missions.
Your newly named economic development director comes from a post as president of the community college system. What is your vision for the state university and community college system when it comes to supporting company growth and economic development?
Gov. Greitens: Our entire education system has to connect better to support economic development. That goes into the K-12 area as well. We want kids to be graduating from high school with Work Ready certifications. We need to build stronger partnerships within our tech colleges and community colleges. And at four-year universities, we want to make sure they’re attracting talent and working with companies, so we have a pipeline of talent.
Your work with military veterans is well known. How would you like to see the state approach getting those veterans into the workforce?
Gov. Greitens: We’re going to make Missouri the best state in the country for veterans. We’ve already done a couple of things. One is leading the way in recognizing veteran certifications. Most recently, the Missouri Board of Nursing recognized the Air Force nursing certification. I sat down with [US Defense] Secretary Mattis and his team to let him know that Missouri wants to lead on this. Second, we’re also working with private-sector employers to help them connect to veterans who are here. I was recently at an announcement at Charter, and helped them kick off their national veterans partnership program recruiting veterans. Working with both the Department of Defense and companies, there are lots of ways to help veterans come back and integrate successfully again.
You’re a St. Louis native, and the racial and law enforcement turmoil that struck the area must have struck home to you. We’ve seen positive investments since the Ferguson unrest, such as the operations center there from Centene even as it also builds its new HQ in Clayton. But the images from that unrest linger in the minds of company leaders evaluating the metro area for investment. What reassurance do you offer in describing how the metro area is moving forward?
Gov. Greitens: We’ve already had a tremendous response from CEOs in St. Louis and in the region who appreciate the new direction in the state. I’ve been out walking with black clergy leaders walking some of the most violent streets in St. Louis. We’re also supporting police officers in ways they were not supported in the prior administration. We’ve been working with corporate leaders who are making investments in the city and in North [St. Louis] County, because they recognize how important it is to have that educational and economic opportunity. We’ve partnered with clergy and law enforcement to move the state forward. While Ferguson was a black eye on the state, people see our team is taking the state in a new direction.
We live in such polarized times, but certain areas such as infrastructure investment appear to be areas of consensus. What opportunities do you see in economic development for across-the-aisle collaboration?
Gov. Greitens: I think there are tremendous opportunities to bring people together around a common cause of making sure we have jobs at higher pay. They’re not Republican or Democrat jobs — we’re talking about jobs. One thing I think people appreciate about the approach my team has taken is we’re doing things differently. I signed a bill to make sure Uber and Lyft can operate freely here. I hailed a Lyft driver, she picked me up, I asked her what it meant to her family, I had her take me to a Taco Bell, I ordered a chalupa, and we signed the bill there in the parking lot. That video has something like 600,000 views. People are excited about welcoming innovative companies, in a free market where companies like Uber and Lyft can operate, and there was support for this bill from both sides of the aisle.
I have found that we can bring a lot of people together around this issue. During the steel mill session, we brought Democrats and Republicans together. When I was a Navy SEAL, before raids in Iraq or Afghanistan, I never turned to a guy and said, “Hey, before this mission, I need to know if you’re a Democrat or Republican.” Our mission is to build one of the most prosperous states in the country, and we’re bringing people together to make that happen.