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Thursday, June 23, 2005
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Governor, other participants talk about Utah's economy

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Utah summit — boosting business

Huntsman hears from executives around state

By Brice Wallace
Deseret Morning News

      PARK CITY — Early-stage capital access and health-care cost containment were among the issues presented to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. on Wednesday during a meeting with top executives from across the state.
      More than 100 people attended the governor's first economic summit, which Huntsman described as "a listening and learning opportunity."
      What he heard was a divergent set of comments — everything from funding for start-up companies to improving recreational opportunities for the state's blue-collar workers.
      While no one suggested major changes to the administration's focus areas — tax reform, business facilitation, industry cluster development, education and work force development, capital and advisory services, business and technology parks and image-building — several topics were dissected during the hourlong comment session.
      Among the most-discussed was access to money for start-up companies.
      Josh James, co-founder and chief executive officer of Omniture, said many of his company's competitors were able to secure millions of dollars "whereas we'd put together rounds of $150,000s or $400,000s or $50,000s."
      "We still need some more that are willing to say, 'You seem like a bright, young kid. You've got a great idea.' Instead of, 'Here is 150 grand,' 'here's a million bucks and let's see what you can do with it.' So I think that's something that still needs to happen," James said.
      But's president and CEO, Bruno Vassel III, suggested that venture capital firms sometimes have "a different agenda" than people trying to grow a business.
      "I think if we really want to build businesses here and have small businesses that can get big, we need to focus on how can we do this in a way that's not just lining the pockets of VC firms, where they have an agenda to do that," he said. "But let's put together something that helps those of us who are trying to build businesses."
      Brent Brown of the Brent Brown Automotive Group said a tax deal with the city of Provo allowed his business to grow.
      "The point I want to bring up is it doesn't always just have to be venture capital and going to the bank and so on," Brown said. "I would hope that the state would look at the city of Provo model and say there are ways to invest and get a return on investment. If you ask the city of Provo people, they're going to tell you that the sales tax that we're generating for them right now is an enormous return on investment. It got us started. It allowed us to grow."
      Business growth was another common subject. Tim Miller, president of Echelon Biosciences, said the state needs more facilities for business incubators and suggested using some of Fort Douglas — a handy spot because space at the adjacent Research Park is full.
      Bob Carter, CEO at First Choice Solutions, broached the idea of companies sharing administrative resources and expenses. And Brown added that Utah has a "phenomenal talent pool of upper-level management, but, boy, being able to see a way to get from there to ownership and then building a company is just ominous."
      A few people mentioned high health-care costs as an impediment to business growth. Pete Ashdown, founder and president of XMission, said he opted to pay dental costs out-of-pocket.
      "I wish I had done that with health care, because over the past decade it has gotten worse and worse and coverage has dropped and dropped and dropped. And I'd like to see creative thinking in government as to what we can do for this problem."
      A business cooperative for health care is one idea, he said. "I would be happy to pay what I am now if I could get better benefits," Ashdown said.
      Employee training was another hot topic. Steve Smith, CEO of Utility Trailer, said he wants to add employees, but few have trade skills, which he considered a failure of high schools.
      Wilford Clyde, president and CEO of Clyde Cos. Inc., said language and technical training are needed for minority employees and others, in addition to having affordable housing.
      "Sometimes we de-emphasize the more blue-collar-type jobs, but they are available out there, and a lot of those are good-paying jobs, and we need in our educational system to make sure that we still make those attractive to young people and let them know they can receive training," Clyde said.
      Jordan Clements, managing partner with Peterson Partners, said Utah's education is "falling woefully behind" the quality found in India, China and other parts of Asia.
      Several other people spoke about Utah's image problems, and one offered the idea of having the state issue a "common message" that businessmen could use when talking to outsiders about Utah.
      Huntsman, who said at the beginning of the summit that he wants it to be an annual event, concluded by asking businessmen to provide more input and collaboration.
      "We don't have easy answers. If I gave you easy answers, I'd be fooling you. I'd be disingenuous," he said.
      "These are tough, complex issues today that confront our society that we didn't think much about 15, 20 years ago. So we're all in it together. We all want Utah to succeed and prosper, and we're on the cusp of some excellent years ahead. Let's make sure that we do it for all Utahns. That's why we're here today."