Wilton’s Peter Denious Plays Key Role with Revving Up CT’s Economic Development

Wilton residents may notice something familiar about the man tapped to help lead business development in Connecticut–he’s one of their neighbors. Peter Denious, who calls the 06897 his home, is the president and CEO of the non-profit organization formerly known as the CT Economic Resource Center (CERC), now rebranded as AdvanceCT.

Last week Denious was the guest speaker at the annual Wilton Chamber of Commerce “Eggs and the Economy” economic forecast breakfast. He gave a glimpse of plans his organization has to help stimulate Connecticut’s economy as it works hand-in-hand with Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration.

“The name is telling it all–we’re trying to advance the state forward and do so by partnering with the business community, the government and the not-for-profit community. And that kind of trifecta, to see if we can be more effective at moving the state forward at economic development, Denious said.

While AdvanceCT is not a public state agency, it is funded in part by the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) as well as the private sector. That lines up with what Denious said fits with Lamont’s agenda:  he’s a “big fan of public private partnerships.”

However, he made clear that he doesn’t work for Lamont, but instead reports to the business leaders being tapped to steer and contribute to the effort as AdvanceCT’s board of directors and partners–a group that Denious called “world class and it represents Connecticut’s most important companies.”

Among the board members are co-chair Indra Nooyi (former CEO, PepsiCo); co-chair James Smith (former Chairman, Webster Bank); Greg Butler (Eversource); Jim Loree (President & CEO, Stanley Black & Decker); Thomas Rutledge (Chairman & CEO, Charter Communications); Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Sr. (Sr. Assoc. Dean, Leadership Studies, Yale School of Management); and more.

“These are Connecticut’s most important companies that have kind of signed up and said, we’re ready to engage, ready to help any way I can. And we’re leveraging not just them and their networks, but their entire organizations.

The focus, says Denious, is three-pronged:  business engagement, business retention and business recruitment. In fact, he repeated that mantra multiple times as the one that motivates his team:  engage, retain, recruit. Engage, retain, recruit.

“We’re trying to keep businesses here and we’re trying to attract businesses. We all know we need that as a state. We’ve got to grow, we’ve got to get the state moving forward,” he said, adding, “and we’ve got to do it in a more creative way that taps the resources of a broader community that historically has been the case.”

“We Have Real Problems, Real Challenges”

Denious isn’t shying away from taking an honest look at Connecticut’s economic problems, but he’s also optimistic about whether the state can fix things.

“We do have real problems here in CT, real challenges. But we are a small state–3.8 million people, 1.7 million jobs–and we can move the needle. If this were Texas, if this were California, Pennsylvania, this job and this role in this challenge would be very, very difficult. But we’re not, we are a small state, we can do better. We can execute, we can tap those resources and change the game. That’s why I signed up because this is doable and I’m all about the challenge. That’s what’s motivating me every day to try and move the state forward,” he said.

On the ‘retain’ part of the mantra, Denious and his team have been actively trying to do outreach to CT businesses of all sizes, talking to 60-100 businesses each month.

“So many businesses talk about how they never heard from the state, never have been able to verbalize what their challenges and frustrations were,” he said.

He’ll do the same with municipalities, with people working on economic development in towns around the state.

Denious said he was frustrated that Connecticut has never done what other states like South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina are actively doing with businesses based in CT–calling and luring them away. At one time, 35 Fortune 500 businesses called Connecticut home–a number that’s now down to my 16.

However, he hinted that that the tide may be turning, with that number soon growing to 17, with a Fortune 500 company possibly moving to CT and choosing Fairfield County as its base.

“This is why I signed up… We’ve got to go play offense. This is basic. This is just business execution. Can we move the needle in an economy of 1.7 million jobs, can we add 80-100,000 jobs in the next five to seven years? Yes, we can,” he said.

Before that can happen, however, is the state needs to figure out its own messaging and what it actually offers to the business world.

“What is CT selling? What’s our value proposition? The answer is, no one knows what we’re selling here in Connecticut. We don’t know what we’re selling to ourselves. We have a whole branding image problem that we have to address. We don’t know what we stand for.”

Denious says AdvanceCT will be unveiling an “action plan” it has developed with the DECD, with specific steps to implement, linked to growing jobs and the CT economy. And it has to address several challenges:

  • CT’s Job Growth rate lags other states:  in 2019, CT added about 6,000 jobs, or 0.3%. Denious said top states are growing 1.0-1.5%. “We’re not growing all that fast, and we’re at the bottom of the heap, relative to other states. We’ve got to do better than that.”
  • CT has an “enormous” wealth gap:  Denious says the action plan has to be inclusive. CT is in the top 10% in terms of median household income, but 40% of the households are not earning a living wage. “This plan has to address these challenges.”
  • CT faces job losses because of technological innovation:  Nearly one-third of CT jobs are under threat of being disrupted or replaced by technology. CT has to talk innovation–or get left behind, Denious says. So CT needs to look for opportunities, attracting businesses and investing in technology that will add jobs. Some possible areas:
    • Bioscience–CT can build on the ecosystem in New Haven
    • Digital media services–strong in Stamford, with companies involved in software, data services and artificial intelligence
    • Young entrepreneurs–many coming out of Yale, who need to be retained here

Finding Opportunities

Denious says investment has to be made in Connecticut’s urban centers, which can be growth hubs for technology companies–as well as attractive to a younger workforce.

Not being able to attract a younger workforce is a bigger problem than the aging demographic and perception of people leaving the state.

“People are retiring. When people retire they go south, let’s not get all completely tied up on that. We have this massive problem on the exit side, we have headwind there. But the real problem is we’re not bringing in young people and to do that, we’ve got to invest in our cities. We have to invest in our communities and make them more livable and make them more interesting. Make them the kind of places where young people want to live,” he said, pointing to Stamford as a city that has done a good job at that.

The state has to do a better job meeting the needs of companies that have to fill openings for high-tech manufacturing. That’s something, Denious said, Fairfield County residents need to better understand.

“I’m not even sure that we’re aware in Fairfield County, what’s going on in the Eastern part of the state where we have some incredible companies. Electric Boat, which is building world-class nuclear submarines and is growing, has got a real workforce challenge. They can’t find the talent that they need in our state, he said, pointing to the demographic challenge faced statewide. “We need to bring young people in and make sure that we’re delivering people that have the right set of skills for those jobs–high tech manufacturing jobs, and they pay incredibly well.”

One way Denious challenged the group was to say that Fairfield County residents need to better understand the needs of the rest of Connecticut.

“It’s almost like we have 2-3 different states in this tiny state. We talk about Hartford like they’re different worlds. Fairfield County, I’m sad to say, lives in its own world. It needs to pick its head up and think about the rest of the state.  It’s Red Sox/Yankees… we’ve got to break that down. We’re just not a big state. It’s enormously frustrating to me I’m determined to break down these silos,” he said.

As for recruiting new businesses, Denious said that he’ll be starting with the state’s “industries of strength”:  financial services, insurance, advanced manufacturing, bioscience and software/data services. He’ll look to partners for leads, and to help sell CT.

“Hey, Stanley Black and Decker, who in your supply chain, who is adjacent to you as a customer or as a competitor even and who might benefit from? Who can we go sell Connecticut? And we have a lot to sell. We have one of the most highest educated workforces in the country. We have incredible schools, highly strategic location and we’ve got these great competencies that again, we can use to engage in this conversation.”

The prospect actually makes Denious optimistic.

“This is why I’m optimistic folks, because this gets back to basic business development. We just haven’t done it yet. What have we been doing for the last 10 years? We’ve got to go out and tell our story and talk about those strengths again. We have them. We are optimistic. That’s why I’m here. But it’s just basic execution.”

Tactics

One thing you won’t hear Denious push is any tagline that uses “CT is Open for Business,” one he said multiple other states use.

But what he does get behind is the need to invest in Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure.

“We have got to do this as a state. We are ranked 35th in terms of commute times. Our roads are ranked 43rd out of 50 in low quality,” Denious said.

He called knocking 15 minutes off the commute between Manhattan and Stamford “a game changer for Stamford.”

“That would make Stanford effectively a borough of Manhattan. The commute time right now from Brooklyn to Manhattan is like 50 minutes. And I just talked to a company the other day, they are thinking about leaving Brooklyn because they’re completely aggravated with the commute, the space, the expense,” Denious recalled.

There are other stats to tout as well according to Denious:  CT is the 4th most innovative state according to Bloomberg; R&D investment is in the top decile.

“Where we fall down is commercializing it–we’re ranked like 35th and 40th in terms of startup density and new company formation. We’re generating intellectual property, and investing in R&D, we fall down in commercializing that.”

What about Wilton?

So if the investment is concentrated in the urban cores, where does Wilton fit in?

Denious points to a trickle-down effect.

“Four out of five CT residents live within 45 minutes of Stamford, New Haven, and Hartford. This is going to touch everybody if we get it right. Wilton is going to benefit. We’re going to bring businesses to Fairfield County. We’re going to bring businesses into New Haven, to Bridgeport, to Hartford, and everybody’s going to benefit from that.”

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