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Q&A: Dean Monske on northwest Ohio's growing international successes

Dean Monske, President and CEO at Regional Growth Partnership in Toledo. Photos Ben French
Dean Monske, President and CEO at Regional Growth Partnership in Toledo. Photos Ben French
Prior to your role with the city you were with RGP for four years and before that with the Oregon (OH) Economic Development Foundation. How has the landscape for northwest Ohio changed since you've been working in economic development?

The automotive industry was really really good to northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan for a long time. The landscape has changed in that businesses were forced, because of the automotive downturn, to really look at their markets and say 'we need to diversify.' Solar and advanced energy is probably the thing that has gotten the most press for the last five years, because we've had a lot of success in that area. So you're seeing our traditional industries finding ways to incorporate themselves into the new emerging industries. We've also done a lot of work in strengthening regional collaboration. Whether it be the counties in the region, the cities, agencies from chambers to port authorities, to universities, they understand that the closer we work together the more opportunities we're going to have to improve the region.

What are the biggest strengths of the region and what do you see as the missing pieces?

Every single state -- at least a lot of them -- wants to tout themselves as the crossroads of America. Well, if your definition is where the intersection of the busiest north-south and busiest east-west (corridors) is, that's in our backyard: the Ohio Turnpike and I-75. From truck routes, to four class-one railroads intersecting in this region, having Bax Global and Schenker, which is one of the biggest freight carriers in the world, then having the Port Authority, which is the largest port by landmass of any port on the Great Lakes, you've got all four modes of transportation. And, you're in an area that has a greater concentration of industrial space, (access to) a greater concentration of population of North America than anywhere else period. You can go to China and say 'no matter what industry you're in, if you want to get a foothold in the North American marketplace there's no better spot to design it, build it or ship it than this region.'

How about the missing pieces?

Let me talk about (the Toledo region's) experience internationally since last September. We tell our story, they come and see it for themselves, and every time that has happened, someone has made a decision to make an investment or to locate a company. So that to me says that we have all the pieces needed.

You recently announced new offices in Senzhen and Beijing. How did those come about?

A friend of mine, Scott Prephan, is a local real estate guy and he had been going to China for approximately six years. He found out there were a heck of a lot of opportunities, but you really need some contacts. He had met a gentleman several years ago (at a Toledo conference) by the name of Simon Gou. Simon was the founder of the CEO clubs in China. Now, there are about a dozen countries that have CEO clubs, and Simon is pretty well connected with founders of those. (One of the original clubs) is the Phoenix Club, which has about 5,000 members throughout China. So here is a guy who fell in love with Toledo, just loved the region, understood the opportunities that were here for Chinese companies now looking to diversify outside of China. The gentleman who now runs the Phoenix Club was bringing 43 CEOs from China to New York City to meet with the CEO Club in New York City. Scott brought that gentleman here to Toledo to see what we had before going to New York City, and the gentleman was blown away. He said this is where our CEOs need to come. About two months later, last September, we're on a plane to China. And since then we've had a dozen delegations visit Toledo.

Fast forward. We had made the decision after coming back in September that we were going to go to China again and started talking about how we could actually have an RGP office in China, for which Simon is now the appointed president of RGP China. So when we were there (in May) we opened the office in Shenzhen and the office in Beijing. And the main purpose is to gain credibility, a space that when we're there we can have meetings, people can come to see us and we're not flying all over the country. And we'll have a third before the summer is out, either in Shanghai or Suzhou. But the goal is international development, not just China. (Monske notes that Gou's connections with CEO clubs in the United Arab Emirates may lead to an RGP office there as well, followed by other countries around the world.)

Has anybody committed investments to the Toledo region because of the new offices, or is it too soon?

Yes they have. A gentleman who was here just a month ago with a large pharmaceutical company is looking for a research and development partnership with the University of Toledo that could lead to manufacturing opportunities. It's a privately held company and that same company is looking at a couple of other opportunities that we are in the due diligence phase before we close. There are probably two or three others that are in that phase.

RGP doesn't have a huge staff. How are you going to manage RGP's expansion as well as relationships with the other economic development interests in the region?

We're working right now on membership packets for RGP China. Our goal is going to be when you've got an organization like the Phoenix Club, which has 5,000 members, you kind of tack on a couple of hundred dollars to their membership to say you're also going to be members of RGP China, and here's what it gives you -- literally, a home here in north America at one of the best spots you could go to if you want to get your foot into that marketplace. They will now have a connection with the business community, with the top CEOs in the area and top government officials. So it's a huge benefit to them and we can raise millions of dollars for our international efforts through the very people who will benefit. So that's kind of our goal this summer -- to have that done and hopefully have a much larger staff on the international side to handle this growing opportunity.

Where do you think things are going to be in the next five, 10 years?

I feel pretty confident that the face of this region is going to be a whole lot different in the next 24 to 36 months. My confidence is there because I already know the deals we have in the pipeline. And with the resurgence of the auto industry here in the U.S., we're certainly going to play a big role in that going forward. We're not going to be flying saucers anytime soon, we're still going to be driving cars and this region is going to play a big role in that. And we are not anywhere close to being done with continuing to pursue the alternative energy markets because we've had a lot of great success there. You put on top of it the simple assets we have with location and access to market and I'd say the future of this region looks as bright as anything I know about today.
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