By Anthony Clark | The Gainesville Sun
This past Nov. 29 at 2:14 p.m., an executive from MindTree Limited made first contact in Gainesville by emailing the computer science chairman at the University of Florida College of Engineering.
That started a months-long process, codenamed Project Arbor, that culminated in Tuesday's announcement that the India-based software development firm had selected Gainesville for its first U.S. development center, bringing at least 400 jobs over the next five years with an average salary of $80,000.
In between came a courtship described as a "full-scale, all-hands-on-deck recruiting effort" by the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and Council for Economic Outreach with help from dozens of people in business, government, education, recreation and the arts touting Gainesville as a good place to live, do business and find employees.
Now, economic development officials and their partners can add a high-tech feather to their cap — one which they say will help spread the word that Gainesville is a place for innovative companies to start in or move to.
Scott Staples, co-founder and president of the Americas for MindTree, credited the recruitment effort — in particular a tour and presentations over four hours on Feb. 13 — with helping persuade him and two colleagues that Gainesville was the right place for the first piece of the company's major U.S. expansion plans.
"One, there was so much passion and energy around the presentation," Staples said by phone Thursday. "The other thing, you guys came off with a message to us that was well-orchestrated, and everybody seemed to be on the same page. We told you what we needed and what would motivate our people, and you guys listened better than any other states and came out with a compelling message."
MindTree, headquartered in Bangalore, India, and Warren, N.J., develops software for Fortune 2,000 companies and independent software vendors worldwide, with annual revenue approaching $500 million. Among its 11,000 employees, 800 are stationed in the U.S., most working onsite with clients or out of six small offices in major metropolitan areas.
With plans to open larger regional development centers throughout the U.S., the company started looking late last year for its first location in the 48 contiguous states.
Staples said the company boiled it down to the Southeast because executives were looking for a place with lower costs of doing business and where current employees would want to live.
"We felt it was a very attractive location, and based on the number of emails I'm getting since we announced, I think I picked the right spot, because a lot of people have volunteered to move down there," Staples said.
The location also gives the company proximity to potential clients with whom it is not currently doing business. Florida alone has more than 160 companies with more than $250 million in revenues, Staples said.
With a general region in mind, Staples reached out to each Southeastern state's economic development agency and most major universities' computer science programs.
His first impression of Gainesville came that Nov. 29.
Gerhard Ritter, acting chairman of the computer science department at the UF College of Engineering, responded to Staples' email within three hours, writing about UF's status as the No. 1 producer of computer science graduates in Florida and No. 2 in the Southeast; the growing numbers of undergraduates, master's candidates and students minoring in computer science; and the several honors that student teams earned at an international programming contest, including the No. 1 team in North America.
He also wrote that many students would prefer to stay in Gainesville if not for a lack of companies of MindTree's caliber.
Staples replied within a half-hour that it was the best response he had received from any major university and that he wanted to learn more about how the community and university could help.
"What really caught our attention was the tone and energy of the response," Staples said Thursday. "It wasn't just about ‘here are the facts.' It was the pride and the energy and the enthusiasm that came behind the response."
Erik Sander is director of the UF Engineering Innovation Institute. He said companies contact the College of Engineering every day to look at the student pipeline or to collaborate on research.
The college was part of a group started earlier in the year that included people from the Chamber, Innovation Square and the city to talk about opportunities for the Square — 40 acres surrounding UF's Innovation Hub that is being redeveloped.
"This is a repeatable process, so we can respond very quickly in a very coordinated manner to opportunities like this — some proactive, some that come to us that we have an opportunity to react to," Sander said.
Sander contacted officials at the Council for Economic Outreach, also known as CEO, to join him on a conference call with MindTree on Dec. 5.
"We go on hundreds of these calls," said David Ramsey, director of economic development for CEO. "You don't usually get one that will offer 400, 450 jobs at a time, so we were nodding our heads and smiling and sending our information."
MindTree needed to make a decision by March 31, the end of its fiscal year, and Staples asked for a meeting.
That came Tuesday, Dec. 20. Staples spent a full day at the Innovation Hub hearing presentations from the Chamber, CEO, UF, Santa Fe College, FloridaWorks and people from the industry who gave a community overview and talked about potential employees, training programs and the culture of support for startup companies.
Kim Tesch-Vaught, vice president of workforce for the Chamber and FloridaWorks, said the process and MindTree's move will increase collaboration between FloridaWorks, UF, SF College and the Alachua County School Board.
"This is not just a one-time, 50 jobs. This is ongoing," she said. "It is going to change the career path opportunities for the community."
Staples had reached out to the state Department of Economic Opportunity before his first email to UF to seek incentives but also to gauge the state's support for business.
Shortly after his first visit to Gainesville, he received a call from Gov. Rick Scott. They would talk over dinner in Tallahassee on Jan. 25, one businessman to another.
Staples gathered co-founder Kamran Ozair and human resources director Mohan Sitharam for site visits — giving each community four hours to make its case about how easy it would be to attract employees and keep them happy.
At 1 p.m. on Feb. 13, they met Chamber and CEO officials in the Target parking lot, were greeted by Mayor Craig Lowe, jumped in a large SUV and took a tour through Haile Village, past The Oaks Mall, through the Duck Pond neighborhood and downtown, and to the Innovation Hub and the Ayers Building that will be their eventual home. They stopped at UF for 45 minutes to talk about recruiting employees with the College of Engineering and UF's Career Resource Center.
The tour ended at UF's Harn Museum of Art, where various experts in their field talked about Gainesville's quality of life, including its culture, school system and health care.
Staples said he spent the most time during the Harn part of the tour talking with executives from local technology companies — some new, some old and some recently relocated to Gainesville. They talked about their experiences with employee recruitment, when to go to UF or SF College, and what interests employees in order to keep them happy.
Staples also talked with Ed Poppell, formerly with UF and now manager of the corporation formed by UF to develop Innovation Square.
Poppell said the Square's location and available space were key to closing the deal. The property that includes the former Shands AGH site and surrounding property is within walking distance of campus and downtown's housing and nightlife, and the Square has its own plans for housing, jobs and retail — the kind of place that appeals to tomorrow's knowledge workers, Poppell said.
Poppell said MindTree wants 10,000 square feet as quickly as possible, with design and demolition permits in the works for the south portion of the Ayers building, which is located across Southwest Second Avenue from Innovation Hub. Utilizing space in the Ayers building, the company plans to grow into 45,000 square feet over the next four or five years depending on its growth.
"That number is very fluid," Poppell said. "That's the only way you can negotiate a deal like this."
Ramsey said a large space near the university had been the missing piece of the real estate offerings when recruiting companies. That hurt when a similar project for a U.S. development center came knocking in 2006.
"We lost it because we didn't have the real estate," he said. "Now we had either an option at Ayers or maybe even a built-to-suit at Innovation Square."
Sometime after its second visit, MindTree narrowed its search to three finalists — Birmingham, Ala., Greenville, S.C., and Gainesville.
CEO started putting incentives together, getting state and local approval for as much as $1.2 million in tax refunds depending on the number of jobs created — with the city and county each covering 10 percent of that $1.2 million. FloridaWorks got federal permission to add technology companies to its grant to reimburse companies for on-the-job training, making MindTree eligible to apply, on top of Quick Response Training funding from the state.
"Other states were offering $7,000 to $9,000 per employee in training incentives, so we needed a little more Quick Response Training," Ramsey said.
Staples said incentives were a component of Mindtree's decision, but not a critical one.
"What we found was that Florida actually seemed to understand and be more inclined to services industries, where Alabama and South Carolina incentive packages are really built around manufacturing," he said.
In the end, a well-coordinated message and everything Gainesville and Florida had to offer won the day. The site selection team persuaded senior management and the board to approve Gainesville. The final decision was pending approval of incentives, ending with the Gainesville City Commission on March 15.
Tuesday came Gainesville's largest economic development announcement since Wal-Mart opened a warehouse in Alachua with 650 jobs in 2007, but this time with larger average wages of $80,000.
Ramsey said CEO has a template for recruiting companies, with 10 to 12 site visits a year. From working with Innovation Square and the College of Engineering, many of the players have been assembled before.
"I think it's a direct offshoot of Innovation Gainesville, having everybody in the room," Ramsey said of the Chamber's economic development initiative. "We've done that before, but I think all the effort around Innovation Gainesville and Innovation Square in saying, ‘This is where you can be, you see the students walking by right now. They can be your MindTree minds.' That was powerful."
"A lot of things came together at the right time," Poppell said. "The energy, the excitement is there to go do it again and again and again.
"Our secret's out now on Gainesville and what we offer," Poppell continued. "I think this is going to be one of more that come forward and say ‘let's see what you've got.' "