Episode 49: Trade Shows + Persistence = 105 New Jobs: The Story Behind ACMT’s Move to Bay County, Florida
September 18, 2018
According to Ben Franklin, “Energy and persistence conquers all things.” And that’s a good way to describe this story.
It took three years, two trades shows, six site visits, dozens of telephone calls and probably hundreds of letters and emails. But in the end, aerospace manufacturer, Advanced Composites and Metalforming Technologies (or ACMT for short) decided to build its first new facility outside its home state of Connecticut in Bay County, Florida. ACMT is making a $20 million investment that will initially create 105 new jobs. In today’s podcast, we speak with Michael Polo, President of ACMT and Becca Hardin, President of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance.
Patience Fairbrother (DCI): It took three years, two trade shows, six site visits, dozens of telephone calls, and probably hundreds of letters and emails. But in the end, aerospace manufacturer, Advanced Composites & Metalforming Technologies, or ACMT for short, decided to build its first new facility outside of Connecticut in Bay County, Florida.
Andy Levine (DCI): In today’s podcast, we speak with both the company’s president as well as the central economic development player in the story for a behind-the-scenes look at this investment decision. And while the data and figures all checked out for ACMT, you’ll also hear how responsiveness and good old-fashioned salesmanship won the day for Bay County, Florida. So welcome to Episode 49 of “The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions.” I’m Andy Levine of Development Counsellors International.
Patience: And I’m Patience Fairbrother, also with DCI and Andy’s co-host of “The Project.” So, Andy, you did the interviews on this one. Tell me about ACMT and the characters in today’s story.
Andy: So ACMT is a family-owned company, started by a man named Michael Polo back in 1982. That’s who we’re going to hear from today. It’s a rapidly growing company. It’s run by Michael along with his brother and his father. He’s a great storyteller and he really was very open in talking about today’s site selection process. On the economic development side of the equation is Becca Hardin. Becca is the president of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance and she is a former winner of DCI’s 40 Under 40 competition.
Patience: Andy spoke with both Michael and Becca about two weeks after ACMT announced their decision to build a new manufacturing facility that would initially employ 105 people. We’re going to start this one with Michael and a little bit of background on the company.
Andy: Can you give us the elevator speech on your company?
Michael Polo (ACMT): Sure. So we’re a 32-year-old manufacturing company. We’re a sheet metal fabrication and composites manufacturer and we use a lot of advanced technology. We develop internally as well as acquire to compete with the world because we’re in Connecticut right now, which is a high-cost state but has a tremendous workforce.
Andy: How many people do you currently employ?
Michael: We’re at 147 here in Connecticut. Eighteen months ago, we were 47 so we’ve grown pretty quick.
Andy: That’s very fast growth. And a family-owned company?
Michael: Yes. Yes, yes, I started it 32 years ago at a phone on my dad’s desk, who owned a similar manufacturing company, just much bigger.
Andy: Michael’s first contact with the state of Florida happened at the Paris Air Show in 2014 and he started at the very, very top of the food chain.
Michael: I was at the Connecticut booth in the international pavilion for the United States and Florida was adjacent. Their booth was actually adjacent to the Connecticut booth. And so Governor Scott was coming through the Connecticut booth and I was on one of the outskirts. And he stopped at our booth and he said, “So where’s your governor?” And I said, “Well, our governor’s not here.” And he said, “Well, if you were located in Florida, your governor would be standing in front of you.” And that was the beginning of a conversation and at the time, we were obviously looking at Florida but we were also looking in Georgia and some of the Carolinas as well. And so that kind of struck me and he and I have since had three conversations pursuant to us locating in Florida.
Andy: So that was back in 2014. When Michael Polo was attending the Farnborough Airshow exactly one year later, he took a meeting with Becca Hardin of Bay County, Florida. Here’s Becca’s recollection of the meeting.
Becca Hardin (Bay County Economic Development Alliance): I was in a meeting with the Polos, who are with ACMT, at the Florida booth and it was raining so hard that part of the exhibit hall was starting to leak and the rain was coming through and the power began to flicker. And then, all of the sudden, the power in the pavilion went off and we had people that were working at the show that were going around the different exhibits saying, “I’m sorry. You’ve got to leave. You’ve got to leave. We’re in a dangerous situation.” And I was so…
Andy: And you kept selling, it sounds like.
Becca: I was so intense on…we were in the middle of a very good conversation and I was so intent on finishing my conversation and they were so intent on listening to the conversation, we weren’t leaving until finally, somebody came and really, kind of, forced us out of the pavilion. That was a funny story that we get to tell that we got kicked out of the Farnborough International Airshow because we wouldn’t stop our meeting.
Andy: I asked Michael about the same meeting.
Michael: So she comes in with a presence and right away, I could tell that she was beyond many of the economic development people that I’ve ever met. And so we had a meeting. It actually ended up being kind of an interesting meeting because right when she was in the middle of her plight to why Bay County, we had a tremendous storm, first time ever in this show and the power went out and she kept talking. And then there was flooding and emergency lighting and the show people came over and said, “You’re going to have to leave.” And she said, “No, no. I’m not done yet.” Everything worked out well but she was, right off the get-go, a very positive, very strong voice for Bay County and economic development. So one of the big reasons why we chose to pursue it was because of her passion.
Andy: What were some of the key filters that you looked at as you were sort of comparing Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida? What were some of the key things, the must-haves in what you were looking for in a facility?
Michael: So, number one with us is workforce. The nation is struggling for manufacturing workforce so we look at that first and what Bay County had that was unique was they had this, you know, another incredibly positive…Dr. Holdnak who’s running the college and so he had a great positive way about him. But also, they showed us that they have a filter to have the vets that were coming back coming through the programs and, you know, setting up training for all of our people because we’ll be looking at 100-plus people being in this facility. And the more we talk about it, it’ll be far beyond those numbers but workforce is the biggest driver for us.
Patience: During the course of ACMT’s exploration, there was a separate location announcement that definitely played in Bay County’s favor. GKN, one of the aerospace industry’s largest players and an ACMT client announced plans to open a new facility in Bay County in February 2017. Here’s both Becca and Michael on the importance of this news.
Becca: The GKN opportunity for Bay County has been a gamechanger and we knew it would be because GKN is the largest Tier 1 parts manufacturer in the aviation industry. They have 60,000 employees worldwide so we knew that if we could get GKN in our community, it would be a tipping point for our recruitment efforts, specifically targeting aviation and airport.
Michael: Definitely got my attention. Definitely helped the situation because we deal with, I wanna say, four, five GKN facilities now and they’re based out of England and they’re a great customer of ours. Them putting some roots there was a big deal for us. So yeah, so that was another telltale sign that Bay County was definitely going in the right direction.
Andy: So the final shortlist included just two communities, both in Florida.
Michael: And so they both started out being, I would say, kind of equal. It was funny because I was looking at the other one as more of an interest to me just strictly because I had known people in that area and they loved living there and so people that were moving down there were hiring. The quality of living is really important to me. Each county has their own representation and, you know, opportunity for strength so they were really competing with each other. And we found early on that Becca and Bay County were doing a lot more what I would call forward vision than the other one was. And at first, it became a joke internally because at first, I was almost leaning to the other one just because I wanted to be there and then I realized that if you’re gonna compare apples to apples, that Bay County definitely stood out as, you know, eventually being the place that is gonna service our requirements much better.
Andy: Is that forward-thinking in terms of workforce development? Is it in other areas?
Michael: Yeah, definitely workforce development. They have this team approach that they all sit at the same table talking about programs as they’re coming up so they’re all kind of versed about it before it hits them. And that whole thing doesn’t happen anywhere near as good here in Connecticut. I wished it did but, you know, so things move much quicker by having all the people who are making the decisions in the right areas at the right time. And frankly, that was probably the deciding factor was looking at how well they worked together and what mechanism they had to move things at a very fast pace.
Andy: So on August 8th, 2018, ACMT announced a $20 million investment with the initial creation of 105 jobs in Bay County, Florida. We’ll give the final word on this project to Becca Hardin.
Becca: You know this, Andy. What we do is a marathon, not a sprint. I mean, we’ve been talking to this company for three years so, you know, everything we do is about relationship building. So we continued to stay in touch with them and invited them to come and visit Panama City and they did. And we introduced them to our key leadership team and our workforce partners because workforce is a critical component of what ACMT and GKN need to be successful. And if we can’t answer the workforce question, we never can get…we’ll never be able to get to the table to negotiate incentives.
Andy: Now, there is one final quirky aspect of this story that we just have to share with you.
Patience: This goes in the strange but true category and it focuses entirely on Michael Polo’s background.
Andy: So my final question, and this is a personal question and if you don’t want to answer it, I understand but from a review of your LinkedIn profile, I don’t see like a college degree and I was just curious. Have you built your company without a Bachelors or an advanced degree?
Michael: Yeah, I do not have a degree. I took business in high school. Out of high school, I have a cousin who was very successful in cosmetology so I got my hairdresser’s license and went to California and all that stuff.
Andy: And just so I get this, a guy who got his hairdresser’s license now runs a multi-million dollar company that employs 250 people or something like that?
Michael: Yeah. So when I go to schools, I always say to them, “Here’s 50 bucks if anyone can guess what I did before I started my manufacturing business, I’ll give it to you.” No one ever gets it but someday, hopefully, someone will.
Patience: So, Andy, we are up to the takeaways portion of today’s episode. What stood out to you about the ACMT project?
Andy: First of all, Patience, I just really…I loved this project and I love telling this story. First of all, kudos to Bay County and the Bay County Economic Development Alliance. You know, the three words that sort of describe to me their response was first of all, dynamic. Becca Hardin made a fantastic first impression at the Farnborough Airshow. That was very powerful. The second one was responsive. You know, there were a lot of, sort of, steps along the way over the course of three years and every time ACMT needed something, every time there was a change in direction, they adapted and they responded.
And the last one was just persistent. You know, this is, my father would have called it DAB, dumb animal persistence. Actually, he would’ve called it DAP but anyway, dumb animal persistence and certainly Becca and her team had that.
Two other interesting aspects, a little bit shorter. GKN was clearly a gamechanger and we didn’t profile it in the podcast but Bay County’s had 4 other wins in the aerospace industry since GKN announced about 18 months ago so that really helped put them on the map with the aerospace industry. And finally, last one, Michael Polo, I just really liked him and I loved the aspect that he had no formal training.
He was trained as a hairdresser and now, I’m just floored that here’s a man running a multi-million dollar, highly successful, technical aerospace manufacturer and he has never studied business outside of high school and he’s just a really smart, good guy.
Patience: So that is a wrap on Episode 49 of “The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions.” We’re almost to 50, Andy.
Andy: That’s just amazing to me. Our sincere thanks to Michael Polo of ACMT and Becca Hardin of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance.
Patience: “The Project” is sponsored by DCI. We are the leader in marketing places and have served over 450 cities, states, regions, and countries. You can learn more about us at aboutdci.com.
Andy: And if you’re going to be attending the International Economic Development Council’s annual conference in Atlanta, that’s September 30th through October 3rd, please make sure to stop by the DCI booth and say hello.
Patience: We hope you will keep listening. There are many more projects to come.