ike Mallett knows a thing or two about building a successful business. Over the last 20 years, he’s built two companies that have been ranked among the INC. 500 fastest-growing firms in the nation. His latest venture, Liveshopper Sassie, ranks No. 5 in the country with an astounding three-year growth rate of 37,386%.
A software company in the market research space, Liveshopper Sassie is experiencing exponential growth, and Mallett says it is by design that he chose to build this firm in the small town of Findlay, Ohio.
“I graduated from the University of Findlay and then went to Washington, D.C.,” says Mallett, the founder and CEO of Liveshopper Sassie. “Five or six years later, I realized Findlay was a great town, so I sold my first business and moved back to Findlay. Findlay is a safe environment. The school systems are good. The people are good. It is a friendly town. It is like a Rockwell painting. It is just a really cool place.”
What Mallett says about Findlay is true of many communities in the Midwest, but most other cities in this part of the country don’t share Findlay’s economic strength. Site Selection magazine has ranked Findlay as the No. 1 top performing micropolitan area in the U.S. in corporate facility investment projects for each of the past nine years.
This Northwest Ohio community of 40,000 people about 100 miles south of Detroit rests on Interstate 75, a freeway that for decades has transported many a Midwesterner southbound seeking greener economic pastures in the Sunbelt.
Findlay, however, wins the battle against Midwest brain drain by offering gainful employment at companies large and small, from juggernauts like Marathon Petroleum and Cooper Tire to industry-disrupting upstarts like Liveshopper Sassie.
To see just how aberrational Findlay is in the American Heartland, consider a recent economic performance study by FinanceBuzz. In an October 26 report titled “The Fastest Growing and Declining Cities Across the U.S.,” researchers at FinanceBuzz scored every city of 200,000 people or more on eight metrics of economic growth, from population and job growth to new businesses and new home construction, from 2019 through 2022.
Only three Midwest cities placed in the top half of the 117 U.S. cities studied: Grand Rapids (24th); Toledo (46th); and Indianapolis (49th).
Conversely, five Midwest cities were ranked among the 25 U.S. cities that are experiencing the fastest decline: Detroit (5th); Chicago (6th); St. Louis (11th); Wichita (16th); St. Paul (20th); and Minneapolis (25th).
Following the Findlay Formula
Mallett says it’s instructive for people to understand why he elected to build his company — one that powers market research at Hilton Hotels and most of the Fortune 500 — in Findlay. “The cost of living is better here than in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “The lifestyle of being able to walk to work is great. You can get anywhere in town in 10 minutes. There is a great talent pool in Findlay. I have hired really good people for Liveshopper Sassie here. I buy my own buildings and open them up for my team. A huge, five-story building was just sitting there downtown for 100 years. I bought it and restored it. It now serves as a great headquarters for my company. Findlay has great leadership that makes progress like this happen.”
“There is a great talent pool in Findlay. I have hired really good people for Liveshopper Sassie here.”
– Mike Mallett, Founder and CEO, Liveshopper Sassie
Forget brain drain, Mallett says. It’s more like brain gain. “I have hired people from Valparaiso, Findlay, Ivy League schools and the Carolinas,” he says. “They wanted to come home. I hired 40% of my staff that way. They found me and wanted to come home. We’ve also hired graduates from Ball State, Bowling Green, Toledo and other schools in the region. I have people who retired early from Marathon and wanted to work here.”
Mallett says other Midwestern communities can learn a lot from Findlay. “Findlay has done it right for a long time,” he says. “It has the amenities, the schools and the proximity to pro sports teams in Cleveland, Detroit, Columbus and Cincinnati. We are just 90 minutes from an international airport in Detroit. And you cannot overstate the importance of Marathon. We bring in a lot of new people to our town. Our restaurants are locally owned; and the Hancock Hotel is a five-star hotel built by Marathon. If you want to get where Findlay is today, look at places like Lima and Tiffin. People are investing in those Northwest Ohio communities too.”
Dan Sheaffer, director of Findlay-Hancock County Economic Development, says that Findlay is successful because it is a regional jobs engine. “About 56% of our workforce comes into town daily,” he says. “We have been increasing investments in different areas of our economy. We have invested in our city and county with crosswalks, landscaping, parks and bike paths. Those amenities make a difference.”
Having companies that pay competitive wages makes a difference too. “We often rank in the top five locations in average wages across the state — right there with places like Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo,” Sheaffer says. “And we are constantly improving our affordable housing stock, our child-care offerings and our workforce development programs. That is how you grow your economy organically.”
Madison Leads in Tech Talent
Others would say that it all depends on how you choose to measure economic progress. Another recent study, this one performed by CommercialCafe in September, ranked the 20 best Midwest metropolitan areas for technology development across nine separate metrics for tech and tech job growth. Madison, Wisconsin, ranked No. 1 in the Midwest, while Ann Arbor, Michigan, ranked No. 2 and Chicago ranked No. 3.
Minneapolis ranked fourth and Columbus fifth, according to CommercialCafe. The rest of the top 10 metros in the Midwest were Detroit (6), Columbia, Missouri (7), Des Moines (8), Kansas City (9) and Indianapolis (10).
Madison leads all of the Midwest with the highest ratio of tech employment opportunities, according to CommercialCafe. Other Midwest communities ranking high in tech job density, per the study, are Des Moines, Ann Arbor, Minneapolis-St.-Paul, and Rochester, Minnesota. Chicago scored the highest in the region in wages and patent awards.
Mayo Clinic is planning a $5 billion expansion of its campus in Rochester, Minnesota, with a heavy emphasis on technology.
Renderings courtesy of Mayo Clinic
In the survey’s life quality index, which factors in cost of living, educational attainment, unemployment rate and overall quality of life, Columbia ranks No. 1, followed by Fargo, North Dakota; Lincoln, Nebraska; Rochester; and Madison.
Melissa Hughes, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., says that Wisconsin is winning the battle against brain drain because of its ubiquitous University of Wisconsin system and its non-stop effort to recruit technology companies.
“Wisconsin won the billion-dollar Microsoft data center campus in Mount Pleasant and the Haribo confectionery plant in Kenosha due to our ability to attract, retain and develop talent,” says Hughes. “Microsoft has acquired both Area 2 and Area 3 of the Foxconn site for development of large-scale data centers in Racine County. Haribo originally selected Wisconsin in 2017 after a North American site search came down to Illinois and Wisconsin. They needed a highly talented workforce in the food manufacturing industry, and they found that in Kenosha.”
While it’s tempting to think that Madison is the outlier in the battle against brain drain, Hughes says the entire UW system of campuses across the state “does a fantastic job of developing and retaining talent.”
UW-Stevens Point, for example, found that 95% of its graduates remained in Wisconsin for five years or more after graduation to pursue their chosen career.
“UW-Madison and UW-Eau Claire have also excelled at this,” says Hughes. “In Wisconsin, we are intentional about talent attraction, development and retention. That’s why you see so many companies, like Johnson Controls in Glendale, choosing to grow here.”