Driving Leadership; Rob Simpson

On this episode of Driving Leadership, our guest Rob Simpson, President and Chief Executive Officer of CenterState CEO and Emergent Partner, Bill Berthel discuss the very exciting future for Syracuse and Central New York’s growth and how that’s only possible due to the people that live, lead and grow here!


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*Note: The following text is the output of transcribing from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases may be incomplete or inaccurate due to inaudible passages or transcription errors



Bill Berthel: Joining me today in this episode of Driving Leadership is Robert Simpson, President and Chief Executive Officer of CenterState CEO. Our episode’s a little different this time, we’re gonna have an inside scoop conversation about the growth and prosperity of this beautiful central New York City called Syracuse.

So, I really want to get to know you better and understand your path in leadership. ’cause part of our video podcast premise is to make leadership so much more approachable. And so I like to think of it as demystifying leadership. There are so many great stories right here in Central New York of leaders who are really passionate about the community, really passionate about what they do.

What got you into leadership? How, how did you find yourself here in this space?

Rob Simpson: I mean, the God’s honest truth is, I’d say, you know, somewhat accidentally. It wasn’t necessarily it wasn’t necessarily something I always aspired to. In fact, I think I. As the youngest of two siblings in a family, where both my parents were clear leaders.

My dad was the president of an academic institution, Utica College over in the Utica area. My mother was a minister. So every Sunday, you know, preaching to you know, to her church. I think frankly, as a young kid, I shied away from leadership roles. I saw my parents doing it right.

I didn’t want to do it right. I wanted to do the opposite, right? But clearly by osmosis, when you’re in a situation like that, I think you learn, You, you learn how to lead people perhaps. But it wasn’t something I ever really wanted to do. I just wanted something that was a little bit more simple, to be honest.

I wanted to not necessarily be recognized when I went in public. Mm-hmm. I have all these memories of my dad. When I was a teenager, we’d go out to the mall ’cause I needed a new pair of basketball sneakers. Or whatever else it may be. And you know, the second you walk in the door, you’re running into people that everybody knew.

He dealt with, work, everybody knew him. He was a tall guy like me is a tall guy like me. And so I said to myself, that’s not the lifestyle I necessarily wanna live. And yet here I am.

Bill Berthel: What shifted for you?

Rob Simpson: I think, I think a couple of things. One, I think just being presented with the opportunity.

When I moved back here to Syracuse in 2003 from Washington, DC I think very early on in my return to Syracuse I was put in a position where I was around leaders. I was working for an organization that was a business leadership organization. They were CEOs that were on our board, that were helping, to drive our agenda.

And so as a result, we were constantly working on projects that were designed to move the community forward. And when you start doing that, it gets interesting, it gets exciting it gets into your blood and you start to want to figure out how to leave your imprint on that. The second thing that changed for me was that I found something that I was passionate enough about.

So be willing to make the sacrifices that I saw my parents make. To be willing to give up that anonymity, to be willing to give up sometimes weekends or sometimes vacations, to be willing to go the extra mile For the future of the city of Syracuse in Central New York. I love this place.

You know, I’ve always loved upstate New York. Having grown up here my whole life, I’ve seen what happens to communities when jobs and people leave. Right. I grew up in the Utica area and so I had a front-row seat to Griffiths Air Force Base shutting down. 5,000 service members and their families overnight.

Sure. Picking up and emptying out Rome Utica, parts of Mohawk Valley And you can still see some of the scars of that today. And the chance to come back to upstate New York in a place where my family has deep roots, where I have deep roots to be able to help lead that community forward and to put it back on the proverbial map, was just an opportunity that I think at some point dawned on me, you’re either in this and you’re gonna make a difference, or you’re just kind of along for the ride. And being along for the ride is not how I was raised.

Bill Berthel: So a lot of changes are gonna happen in our community.

Yes, they are. I mean, there are some large opportunities for Central New York, whatcha talking about, right? Micron?

Rob Simpson: Micron, yep.

Bill Berthel: Come on.

Rob Simpson: Micron. It’s pretty good.

Bill Berthel: What an amazing opportunity for this community. Micron could have gone just out anywhere they wanted to go.

Rob Simpson: They could’ve gone anywhere.

Bill Berthel: Why’d they go here?

Rob Simpson: There isn’t a place in this world that wouldn’t have welcomed them with open arms.

Bill Berthel: Exactly. Why here? Why Syracuse?

Rob Simpson: You know I, I think there’s a couple of reasons why Micron chose to be here. First and foremost, we had an amazing site. Microns investment, a hundred billion dollars, four fabs, 2.4 million square feet of clean room.

Like it is a challenging, complex thing. You need a large site, you need a flat site, you need water capacity, you need wastewater capacity, and you need power. And ideally you need clean emissions, free power. The reality is the number of places around the country that could check all those boxes are are not as many as you might think.

Call it less than a dozen. You know, the county exec deserves a lot of credit, put a great site together out at White Pine. Simultaneously, we were able to show Micron that this was a community that was on the rise. And I think even five years ago. We would’ve struggled to convince Micron that Syracuse and Central New York were capable of scaling at the pace that they need to grow.

They’re gonna have 9,000 direct employees. Mm. They’re gonna have another 9,000 plus people that are contractors that are on their site, you know, along with their full-time employees. And all told, we’re anticipating somewhere between 45 and. 50,000 net new jobs as a result of this investment.

Our community hasn’t seen that kind of growth. And so we spent a lot of time working with Micron to convince them that we could scale our workforce, we could scale our housing, we could scale our infrastructure to accommodate their growth. Now, the good news is our infrastructure was actually built to accommodate more people and live here, right?

We’ve seen population decline over the last 30 or 40 years. Yeah. So a lot of our core infrastructure was built to scale. Maybe most importantly, Our higher education assets are unmatched. One of the statistics that we had a lot of fun sharing with our friends at Micron during the site selection process was that 6% of all the graduates from US engineering schools graduate and get their degree within two hours of where we’re sitting in downtown Syracuse.

There are 17 colleges and universities within a two-hour drive of here that have engineering degree programs. That graduate 7,250 engineers every year across every discipline, and so it’s this massive renewable resource for technology companies that are looking to. Not only do research and development but also do the most advanced manufacturing in the world.

And that’s what Micron needs. The differentiator, I like to believe was the way our community collaborated to win their business. And I think you’ve been around long enough to know, and I certainly have. We’ve, we’ve seen times in this community where the public sector and the private sector didn’t work together, where government officials from one party and another didn’t work well together.

And every single time that happened, our community lost ground to the rest of the world. And the reality is, in the case of Micron, every layer of government, public sector, private sector, community institutions, academic institutions came together to do something that could be dramatic for central New York.

And I’ve never seen anything like it. I hope it’s not the last time I see that kind of collaboration because it was the most. Fun I’ve ever had working. It’s a good reminder of the fact that no accomplishment in a community like Syracuse, no accomplishment is singular. It’s all the product of, of teamwork and collaboration.

And when we worked together, I’ve said it a hundred times when we worked together, we win. And I think what Micron saw was great collaboration, great physical assets, amazing site. Phenomenal workforce, grit, perseverance, tenacity. They figured out how to turn their economic trajectory around just the way Micron did.

Right. They’re a small, scrappy company, started 50 years ago in Boise, Idaho. And now they’re at, the top of the global food chain, of advanced manufacturing and technology companies in the semiconductor industry. So I think, I like to believe we saw something of ourselves in them and I think they, they saw something of themselves in us.

Bill Berthel: That’s fantastic.

So on the streets with Rob Simpson, this is awesome, man, right in Syracuse. This is cool.

Rob Simpson: This is, this is the city that we love. Right. It’s, come so far and I think that’s what’s, what’s so exciting. You’re out on a, on a beautiful day, downtown’s alive again. And. I remember when I moved back here in 2003, getting from one side of downtown to the other and feeling safe or not having to walk by 17 vacant or boarded-up storefronts was a struggle. And today we’ve got literally new businesses. You know, everywhere we look from new restaurants to gourmet grocery stores and beyond, it’s it’s just awesome to see.

Bill Berthel: Absolutely. The new bookstore is across the way and thriving. Things happening on the sidewalk. It’s pretty fantastic.

So tell me a little bit about some of the challenges for CEO CenterState. Like what’s, what, what are you, what are you wrestling with currently?

Rob Simpson: I think right now it’s just more opportunity than we’ve ever seen. I mean, you know this, for so many years we’ve been in the business of trying to create new business opportunities.

To create momentum, to give people a reason to be excited. And right now there’s no shortage of reasons for people to be excited. So I think our challenge today is handling the volume of work that’s coming at us. Obviously, we have all the Micron support and implementation. The workforce development, the construction activity.

Their effort to secure additional funding down in Washington through the chip sack. There are all these different work streams that need to be taken care of. At the same time we got, we still have our local business community. They’re our bread and butter.

Bill Berthel: Absolutely.

Rob Simpson: Those are the people that are our members.

They have kept this community alive for so long. And they still need the support. They still have growth challenges. They still have opportunities. So there’s all that care and feeding. And then I think the most, maybe the most remarkable part is our economic development pipeline is exponentially larger than it was even four years ago.

In July of 2019, that pipeline was about $600 million in capital projects that we were working on. And today, as of literally as of this week, that number’s $7.8 billion.

Bill Berthel: Holy cow. Yeah.

Rob Simpson: And what, what most people don’t realize is that’s not Micron. Microns not in that 7.8 Micron supply chain isn’t in that 7.8.

These are predominantly local companies that are looking to grow and expand. Wow. And they are also a significant wave of companies. Think about solar manufacturing, renewable energy. Projects that even five years ago were going shore. They were going to China, or they were going to Vietnam or Malaysia.

And those, those projects are looking at the Northeast United States again. So it’s an incredibly exciting time. But what that means is we’ve gotta grow in scale as an organization too. We need different types of expertise. Housing’s one of the most important things, we can be focused on as a community.

So we need, you know, more expertise around housing. We need more expertise around workforce, you know, economic development. So we’re going through the same growing pains that Central New York I think is going through. So, you know, this is an area where our organizations, you know, has tried to do a lot.

I’ll tell you right now, we’re still learning. We’re still growing. We’re still evolving and building capacity, but I’m really proud of how hard we’ve leaned into issues around race and socioeconomic inequality and inclusive growth and development. And by God, this Micron opportunity gives us a unique chance to be one of the first communities in America to paint a different path forward, that that really does lift more people up instead of grow that wealth and income gap.

And you know, if I do one more thing before I retire, I want it to, I want that to be the legacy that, that we did it better than anybody else has done it before.

Bill Berthel: Well, we at Emergent have taken your lead. We hired Dr. K. She’s amazing for the DEI training. She’s awesome. Right. And learned so much about diversity, equity, inclusion from, from your team and your staff.

And I think this is an amazing place to pause because. Look at what’s across the street.

Salt City market.

Look at those flags.

Rob Simpson: Yeah.

Bill Berthel: Right. It’s a beautiful idea of inclusion. So tell us a little bit about the incubator of Salt City market.

Rob Simpson: I think, the idea originally with the Allen Foundation, Dominic Robinson and our team, Martin Jacobs, so many, it was pretty simple, right?

It’s our, our community is, has historically been a home to immigrants of, of all nationalities. And we should celebrate that, right? That’s actually something to be incredibly proud of. It has made us who we are today. And it’s gonna make us who we are tomorrow. And instead of taking that for granted, we wanted to celebrate it.

We wanted to put it front and center in our economic development strategy. We wanted to put an incubator for our refugee and minority-owned business community and restauranteurs right in the heart of downtown Syracuse. And this is the most popular place in town.

Bill Berthel: It’s a great, great spot.

Rob Simpson: You know, it’s almost too popular.

I spend way too much money here, whether it’s on lunch or coffee. Have so many meetings here and anytime we bring someone of importance through Syracuse, we take ’em to the Salt City Market. Because we want them to see not only the amazing project and it’s beautiful. But we want them to understand what we stand for.

We want them to understand our values. And I will tell you just, a quick inside story. Back in January 2022, the very first time we had a chance to engage with Sanjay Mehrotra, the CEO of Micron, they were on the ground for 36 hours and we had a chance to show ’em around town, see the site, talk to key stakeholders.

We finished our day right here. We spent the last three hours of that 36-hour visit at the Salt City Market. Talking about how equity and inclusion was a key piece, not just about regional strategy, but it was important to the business community and, and letting them know that if not just us trying to sell them, but letting them know that if they wanted to choose us, that we are gonna expect them to be a partner in that work and, and I’ll tell you what, they have been a phenomenal partner in that work already.

Bill Berthel: That is awesome.

Rob, thank you so much for your time and your energy, man. Great conversation.

Rob Simpson: Thank you. Appreciate all you guys do.

Bill Berthel: Awesome. Thank you.

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