We Need SWAG!
Quentin Messer, president and CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance, lays down a call to action.
He’s not a native New Orleanian, and he has no former ties to our fair city, but don’t hold that against him. Quentin Messer Jr.’s passion to see New Orleans succeed globally runs deep in his veins.
“As people give New Orleans a chance, they’ll find themselves richly rewarded,” says a fervent Messer.
The 48-year-old president and CEO of New Orleans Business Alliance (NOLABA), holds a wealth of insight that only an outsider with keen business savvy can see through a different lens, and from a vantage point that is without preconception.
Messer, who is known as an economic ambassador for New Orleans, shares the pros and cons of our great city in hopes that we, too, will climb aboard to bring her to new economic heights.
Biz New Orleans: Can you give us a glimpse into your vast background?
Quentin Messer Jr: “I am a non-native from Jacksonville, Florida, who has positively fallen in love with south Louisiana and New Orleans particularly, and it’s been a long, strange trip that got me here.
I lived in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Dayton and Akron, Ohio, prior to coming to Baton Rouge, and then ultimately New Orleans.
Biz: What do you believe is the city’s biggest strength?
QM: Without question, it’s the people. You are not going to find more passionate, creative, authentic and resilient folks than New Orleanians.
Biz: What do you believe is the city’s biggest weakness?
QM: I think New Orleanians tend to be pretty humble about our city. What I mean by that is, when you are in an economic development space, and you are competing globally, you have to be your biggest cheerleader; I think sometimes New Orleanians don’t toot their own horn, and I think that sometimes this can be a weakness when competing. It goes back to this thing I always say: If you ever sat next to a Texan on a flight, you are going to hear about how wonderful their little part of Texas is. There’s something for us to learn about that.
Biz: How is NOLABA capitalizing on the city’s biggest strength?
QM: I think one we are working to build out the world’s view of who we are. You know, we are not a city still under water, and we did not get flooded in those tragic Louisiana floods of earlier this summer. We are a city of passionate business folks, creative folks, people who enjoy our unique culture, but can also get down to business and compete with anybody globally.
Secondly, New Orleans is really an unrecognized college town, a brain magnet. There are over 80,000 young people engaged in higher education in any day during the academic year. We are one of 15 U.S. cities with two medical schools; there are two law schools, and three business schools. I think we have to tell that message more clearly and get people to see us beyond this sort of one-dimensional image.
“…those who think New Orleans is just the French Quarter and Bourbon Street,” says Messer, are missing out on the city’s bustling growth and booming industries.
Finally, there is such a fierce loyalty that this city imbues in people that, even if you don’t live here, you are connected to it. If you ever see Cokie Roberts on TV or Donna Brazile or Harry Connick Jr. or Wynton Marsalis or Tyrann Mathieu, they all speak with tremendous pride and love and affinity for New Orleans. We want to tell everyone, you can come home and there’s an opportunity befitting of your talent; maybe not like those in the media or music, but others such as lawyers, doctors and businesspeople. It’s a process, it takes time, and I think you have to be intentional about it.
Biz: How is NOLABA addressing the city’s biggest weakness?
QM: New Orleans’ challenges are the challenges of any major urban area: How do you make sure there’s enough economic opportunity? If you ask people here, they always say New Orleans is great, but there’s always a caveat. If you ask a New Yorker, “Is there any other place to be in the world?”, they respond, “No,”, and there are no caveats, and I think we have to have that same view, that New Orleans is a great place period, no buts or qualifiers. I think companies are attracted to cities that have a little swag and confidence.
Biz: You have stated that New Orleans has a “perception problem.” Can you explain this?
QM: I think that there are three different divisions of it.
One, you have people external to market, where perception lags reality. People who think New Orleans flooded this summer, and those who think New Orleans is only the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. It’s not 365 days of Mardi Gras; you have serious businesses here, you have serious thought leaders here.
Secondly, I think there’s a little internal perception problem. We are humble, but I think we also have to be a bit more like a cheerleader, like people in Houston, Atlanta, New York and Austin. I hope in time we all say, “You know, New Orleans is a great city, period.” All of those places have challenges, but very few people refer to those cities and qualify their enthusiasm.
It’s great that we won most flirtatious and most humorous, but we … could be the best all-around and the most reliable. I like to say that we can be sexy smart!
And I think the final perception challenge is that we are not serious in regard to businesses, particularly those who see only one dimension of us, the tremendous leisure and travel amenities. They don’t fully understand and realize the richness of our higher education community or our legal community or our maritime, banking, or energy communities. It’s great that we won most flirtatious and most humorous, but we … could be the best all-around and the most reliable. I like to say that we can be sexy smart!
Biz: How is NOLABA different from other local business organizations?
QM: We partner with a lot of folks who have a strong bias toward collaboration because economic development is a team sport. You have to make sure that everybody is in the boat rowing in the same direction. We are the only economic development organization focused on growing the New Orleans economy. We are not a member organization where you pay a membership and you have a bunch of networking events; that’s great, but that is not what we do. We tend to do longer-term, multiyear business retention, business attraction, storytelling.
Biz: Does NOLABA work and partner with anyone?
QM: We will partner with anyone; it’s very multidimensional. You’ve got partners who focus exclusively on small businesses, larger businesses, and partners who are making sure the economy works for all New Orleanians, independent of which ward they were born in.
The thing that sobered me when I took this job is that, in New Orleans, there are less than 400,000 people. In the Atlanta metro area there are about 5 million people; in the Houston metro area there are about 6 million people. If we’re going to compete, we have to get over ourselves and figure out how to work together because we just don’t have the numbers. We’ve got a brand that far exceeds our number, but we have got to be more than the sum of our numbers if we are going to compete.
Biz: Where do you see New Orleans two, five and 10 years from now?
QM: The big picture is, and I hope that the readers of Biz New Orleans will hear this message: We have made tremendous strides in getting talent in creative digital media, software development, IT implementation, big data analytics, as well as bio innovations. We are, and have been focused on executing Prosperity Nola, our five-year strategic plan. We have a very well-thought-out pathway; we just have to execute against it.
I think that five years from now we will begin to see the full impact of the VA’s opening, as well as the University Medical Center at full operation, and the continued great work that’s happening at Ochsner, HCA Tulane Health System, Xavier and the LSU Health Sciences Center. We believe that you are going to see New Orleans really rise to a point of leadership in the area of digital health where you see technology improving patient outcome and the delivery of health care.
Companies have been flocking to New Orleans from across the country. Pictured here are three that relocated last year. TOP: Matt Findley, president of inXile Entertainment, a game development company based out of California that chose New Orleans for its first satellite office. MIDDLE: Courtney Williams is CEO of Torsh, an ed tech company that moved here from NYC and is now located in the Dryades Public Market. BOTTOM: Nick Jordan, CEO of Smashing Boxes, made the choice to expand into New Orleans from North Carolina.
We believe we can compete globally on that, given some of our unique assets. Five years from now, the north terminal of the airport will be open, and so you are going to have greater flight connectivity, which means that it’s easier for companies to stay here in New Orleans and have access to customers, foreign markets and capital.
And I believe you will see a greater awareness of the full impact of our higher ed community. You know, talent wins, and when you are one of the few cities that can say you have 80,000-plus people being educated in some form of secondary education, that’s a pretty big statement.
Biz: How can people get involved and/or help?
QM: I think the best way is becoming better ambassadors for this great city which we so love. We need to have that swag, and if you’ve got people evangelizing about a place, then people want to go there, and we’ve seen that throughout history. We need to once again claim New Orleans as a big city worthy of attracting people — and she is, she is.
Biz: What can New Orleanians do to help NOLABA improve the New Orleans economy?
QM: I think it comes down to something deeply personal. New Orleanians really believe in family first, and I think there are too many New Orleanians during the holidays that have to get on a plane to see a loved one and fly back here. I am not saying we can have 315 million people move to New Orleans, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be a city of half a million.
We can get back to where we were pre-Katrina because we do have opportunities; I think that there were some things that were challenging about New Orleans that are significantly less challenging today.