Just a few years ago, the Utah Economic Summit was a bit of somber affair as the state’s economy struggled through the worst recession since the Great Depression.
The 2012 edition of the event on Tuesday, by contrast, was an upbeat Utah love fest, coming on the heels of a slew of corporate expansions and top-tier national rankings for Utah in terms of business and job growth, and overall economic well-being.
“We’ve never been on anyone’s radar screen as an economic powerhouse before,” Gov. Gary Herbert told The Salt Lake Tribune after a keynote address to the sold-out gathering of about 1,300 people. “It feels good to be out front.”
The sixth annual summit was part business-development conference, part update on what some of the largest companies in the state have announced or are planning.
And these days, there is no shortage of companies expanding, drawn by a mix of comparatively reasonable operating costs and an affordable and skilled workforce that’s also multilingual, largely because many young Utahns serve missions around the world for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The combination is a powerful draw to high-tech companies, said Scott Murray, vice president North America customer service for eBay, who spoke at the conference. Utah has a “favorable business environment.”
Michael Therson, a manager for McLean, Va.,-based ITT Exelis, said workforce quality is a big factor in the company’s expansion plans here. The company plans to add about 100 employees this year to its Salt Lake City staff of 400 and another 100 per year in 2013 and beyond. The company constructs carbon-composite structures for military and commercial aircraft and fabricates acoustic sensors for military, medical and other commercial uses.
“This is a great place to find people,” he said.
IM Flash’s Co-CEO Keyvan Esfarjani said his company, which employs about 1,600 people in a massive facility in Lehi, will hire 100 to 200 people over the next year. IM Flash makes flash-memory chips used in devices ranging from iPods to cellphones to cameras.
ITT Exelis, eBay and IM Flash were recently given Corporate Investment and Community Impact awards by Birmingham-Ala.-based Trade & Industry Development magazine for their growth in Utah.
Managing editor Mary Helen Sprecher, who attended the summit, said the fact that three of the company’s 30 awards this year were for Utah expansions is noteworthy given the state’s small size from a population perspective. “Three companies receiving awards from Utah —that’s never happened before,” Sprecher said. “Certainly, it speaks to all of what’s happening in the state right now.”
Herbert said interest in Utah has been climbing in the past year, both among corporations seeking to expand and the national media. The governor recently spent time with not one but two reporters from Reuters, who tried to answer the question: Why are so many companies expanding in the Beehive State? (Read their conclusions at http://reut.rs/zZr0fM)
Richard Nelson, president and CEO of the Utah Technology Council said after the governor’s address that he could relate. Tuesday morning, Nelson said he received a call from a French reporter wondering about all the expansion activity. “They all want to know why Utah is a such a standout state,” he said. “It’s really incredible.”
Also attending the summit was Kristina Narvaez, president and CEO of ERM Strategies in Cedar Hills. She said she was surprised to learn about all economic activity in Utah. “I didn’t realize until today just how well positioned Utah is.”
Earlier in the day, an executive for Union Pacific Corp. said his company expects continued modest growth this year as the economy slowly heals.
The company, considered an economic bellwether because of the breadth of goods it carries, saw higher freight volumes in the first three months of 2012 after a 3 percent rise last year, Chief Financial Officer Rob Knight said.
To keep up with expected economic growth, Omaha, Neb.-based UP will invest $3.6 billion this year in projects that beef up its 23-state rail network. The company, which is incorporated in Utah, plans to hire more than 4,000 workers this year, including 100 in Utah, Knight said.
“The future for us looks extremely bright, even with the challenges that we have today in the economy,” he said.
Acclaim for Salt Lake City and Utah
One of the Best Cities for Business • Fortune magazine (one of only 15 cities worldwide selected for 2011)
Best State for Business and Careers • Forbes magazine (second year in row, November 2011)
Third-Best City for Finding a Job • Forbes magazine (March 2011)
Best Business Climate • Business Facilities magazine (August 2011)