Sullenberger guarded Shenandoah Valley’s heritage
Before he retired as CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership at the end of August, Robin Sullenberger typically put 1,000 miles a week on his car. Much of that mileage came from his daily drive between his home in Highland County and the partnership’s offices in Harrisonburg. The commute is 70 miles, one way, “over four mountains,” he says.
For the past 13 years, Sullenberger has promoted economic development in seven counties and five cities in the valley, a territory generally stretching along Interstate 81 for nearly 150 miles. While heading the partnership, the Highland County native also continued to serve as a member of the county’s Board of Supervisors, stepping down at the end of last year after five, four-year terms.
A graduate of Virginia Tech with a degree in marketing education, Sullenberger began his career as a teacher and coach in Bath County before working in various management posts at Dominion Resources for 10 years. He served as chairman of the board of the 18-year-old Shenandoah Valley Partnership before becoming CEO in 2000.
Greg Campbell, the partnership’s current board chairman, says the organization is now better known and well respected because of Sullenberger’s ability to promote collaboration and get things done. Besides that, “he’s a great guy,” says Campbell, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.
During Sullenberger’s tenure, the valley has prospered while preserving its pastoral ambience. Unemployment in the Central Shenandoah Valley region served by the partnership was 5.9 percent in July, according to figures from the Virginia Employment Commission. “We’ve retained the heritage of the valley, but we’ve added to that and made it more compatible with the global economy,” Sullenberger says. “It’s been a good mix.”
A major link to the world marketplace was cemented with the 2006 arrival of SRI International, a nonprofit research organization based in California. SRI formed a partnership with James Madison University, using JMU facilities while the firm’s 40,000-square-foot research facility was being built at the Innovation Village @ Rockingham outside Harrisonburg.
SRI Shenandoah Valley moved into its building in 2009. Earlier this year, it announced its first spinoff, Redcoat Solutions, a company focused on developing products to detect and treat insect infestations. More spinoffs are on the way, Sullenberger says, but he won’t disclose any details.
He says SRI has been a game changer for the valley “in terms of our reputation and our ability to sell the area as a legitimate, technology-driven, economic location. I would say, obviously, that the best is yet to come.”
While SRI has raised the valley’s profile, much of its economic growth in recent years has come from expansions by existing companies. “We typically get expansions of the existing businesses here because our productivity level in this region is so high,” Sullenberger says. “We actually can quantify the fact that productivity is higher than most of these places these companies have other facilities, so they look for expansion opportunities here first.”
Many of these expansions have involved high-dollar investments but not necessarily a high number of jobs. The new jobs, however, require more skills and pay higher salaries, Sullenberger says.
One of the initiatives begun by Sullenberger has been passed on to his successor, Dennis Burnett, the former economic development director for Augusta County. The partnership is trying to create a business-to-business network promoting supplier relationships between companies in the valley.
In retirement, Sullenberger plans to spend some time fly fishing and horseback riding while helping his wife with her cattle business. He will stay involved in valley affairs, serving on several boards and working as a consultant. “I think doing this cold turkey would be a mistake and something I wouldn’t handle well, so I will be doing some consulting work and specifically to start off with SRI,” he says.
Nonetheless, there is one part of the job he won’t miss. “I’ve spent so much of my life on the road, I just plan to relax a little bit,” he says.
Virginia Business interviewed Sullenberger at his Harrisonburg office on Aug. 19.
Virginia Business: What makes the Shenandoah Valley distinctive as far as marketing it as an economic development region?
Sullenberger: I think probably the most outstanding feature of the valley is the fact that the reputation of this region is outstanding from a work ethic standpoint, from a quality of life standpoint. But in recent years we have evolved into a more technology oriented business climate.
We’ve retained the heritage of the valley, but we’ve added to that and made it more compatible with the global economy. It’s been a good mix. I think the diversity is one of the great keys here. Our economy remains stable because of the diversity. We have four of the top five agriculture counties, and agriculture remains a strong focus, as [does] tourism. As a matter of fact, we’ve married the two to some degree this past year with our Fields of Gold [agritourism] program.
We have a huge advantage because of the educational opportunities that we have. We have 12 colleges within our footprint, and we have moved into an arena where we strongly promote education-driven economic projects. Of course, [James Madison University] is the centerpiece to that, but one of the things that has really been a delight to me is that the private schools have gotten actively engaged in economic development activities in recent years. They understand that they have a very positive impact on the region.
VB: In talking about university interaction with economic development, how did SRI come here and become involved with JMU?
Sul lenberger: SR I was considering establishing an East Coast presence … When we began talking to them through one of our local companies that they contracted with, we advanced the idea that JMU would be an ideal partner. I’m not sure we truly understood how true that was until we started looking at the SRI model and the overlap of some of the things that they viewed as being their key components. It was actually what we considered first when we were talking about SRI coming here.
We moved immediately into biotech because biotech was evolving at the time into a very viable economic engine.
Obviously, this project would have never come to the valley had JMU not been an active player. Linwood Rose, who was the president of JMU at the time, was one of the key players in this entire process.
This was a leap of faith, frankly, because the manner in which SRI is structured does not allow for it to meet the Virginia model in terms of capital investment and job creation. So we had to come up with some creative ways to finance [the project]. The state certainly stepped to the plate on that in terms of operational funding, and then Rockingham County built the facility and did a lease-back for them. All of this evolved over a relatively short period of time …
There have certainly been some obstacles in terms of the economy. Sequestration has an impact on SRI because so much of its activity is geared to grants from [the National Institutes of Health] and different entities that fund them. We’re pleased with the progress. We’ve had our first spinoff [Redcoat Solutions. It develops products to detect and treat infestations by insects, including bedbugs].
JMU has remained an active partner with SRI. They do some joint ventures, and there is likely to be a strong ongoing relationship in the future.
We also are starting to see our private schools, Eastern Mennonite and Bridgewater, get more actively engaged, too, particularly in the biology field. We are trying to diversify the SRI model here, which potentially could include cybersecurity, IT and alternative energy. There certainly are opportunities for us to do things in a lot of different areas.
VB: During your tenure, is that the biggest deal?
Sullenberger: I think so. I would certainly say that’s been my most successful venture. One of the things that we have done is keep a tremendous amount of focus on our existing industry base.
In fact, our industry base has grown significantly. Most of our economic success in the last couple of years has been from existing industry. We typically get expansions of the existing businesses here because our productivity level in this region is so high. That goes back to my original comments about work ethic. We actually can quantify the fact that productivity is higher than most of these places these companies have other facilities, so they look for expansion opportunities here first.
There’s a significant change, though, that’s taken place as a result of that. These expansions are high capital investments … not necessarily as many jobs as in the past. Manufacturing took a nosedive during the economic downturn, and only about a third of those jobs have come back. The jobs that are coming here, however, are higher skill sets and higher-paying, and we have relatively low unemployment rates …
One of the things that we’ve done here that’s really been successful is to develop leadership teams, which include the top people at our major companies plus the hospitals and the universities. We also have the university presidents …
We have two small groups of top-level people who we consult on a regular basis on building a stable and positive business environment, and we ask questions.
We’re looking now … my successor will be following up on this … to develop a business-to-business network because we believe that there can be a lot more business done between the companies here.
VB: How would you do that?
Sullenberger: We sit down with these people and find out what their needs are, what they have trouble accessing, what their overhead costs are in terms of shipping and logistics and all that and then figure out if there’s anybody close. The [Virginia Economic Development Partnership] is working with us on that issue right now. It’s been a help for us to have a regional liaison assigned from the VEDP to work directly with us.
VB: What do you see as the region’s biggest challenges going forward?
Sullenberger: I think investment in infrastructure. Economic stability has been a little challenging because it’s in some cases made us a bit complacent in looking to the future and understanding what we need to do to be successful and proactive in the future.
One of the things that’s always a challenge here is the fact that on paper we always look like we’re in better shape than most of the other rural areas of the state.
Our localities like their autonomy. They’re very strong individually. They make their own decisions … It’s very difficult for leaders to make commitments on things that may not have an impact for 10 to 20 years down the road. It takes a lot of strong leadership to do that.
I will say that the quality of the elected officials in terms of their outlook on economic development has consistently improved over the past 10 years.
VB: What can the state do to help Shenandoah Valley or other regions of the state be more competitive?
Sullenberger: I think one of the things that the state can do, and actually is looking at doing, is leveling the playing field so to speak and looking at opportunities for incentivizing better sites, better facilities in terms of economic development, and building the infrastructure that makes us more competitive.
We do really well with training and workforce development now. That has improved dramatically in the past few years. We still need some additional monies built into infrastructure development and models that are sustainable. The state is discussing that.
Some of our leaders here in the valley in terms of the legislature have really risen to prominence and are very much involved. We just had an economic development summit, as a matter of fact, [recently] at Blue Ridge Community College, and three of our delegates were there and discussed the local economy. I think we’re very fortunate in terms of the quality of our leadership, and we’re well positioned in terms of them being advocates and strong promoters of the valley.
VB: How is the valley doing as far as retaining its college graduates?
Sullenberger: I think that’s another thing that I would put under the challenge list. I think we’re making improvements on that. To say that we’re there would be an exaggeration.
One of the things that we talk about in our marketing strategies is keeping the best and brightest in the valley. That includes both those who grow up here and those who come here to go to school. We have a great influx of blue-collar workers in this region for all of the various companies that operate here. We do still lose some white-collar workers to Charlottesville, to D.C. and other places.
Again that’s one of the reasons that we’re putting so much focus on technology development or technology-based development … We are trying to grow businesses that have better opportunities in terms of not only pay scales but benefits.
We also have quite an interesting dilemma on occasion with trailing spouses [because of JMU]. The interesting thing about that is that model has changed tremendously over the years because it’s just as likely to be a woman bringing her husband as vice versa, particularly in the university environments and things like that.
We’ve developed an active program of trying to figure out where to plug in these trailing spouses based on their own personal résumés.
It’s always a challenge. When you’ve got a rural area that is changing rapidly, you have an evolution process that just constantly presents you with new opportunities but new challenges as well. It’s just the reality of the situation that we’re dealing with here. I think the valley does better than most areas would do simply because we are so inclusive, and we’re so collaborative, and we tend to sit down and keep our challenges and our battles in house and always try to present a positive image to the outside world.
VB: What sort of perspective did you have coming to this job as a [member of the Highland County Board of Supervisors]?
Sullenberger: I think what I would say to that is that it probably made me a little bit too cautious and too conservative in regard to being a guardian of the public resources. What I had to learn was to balance growth and success versus the public trust … I tend to be a risk-taker in regard to this job. Not in my personal life … .
We actually had someone from Silicon Valley come here and do a SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats] analysis for us. What they said to us was that Shenandoah and the Shenandoah Valley are synonymous with quality of life, the bucolic lifestyle, and have a positive image, but not as a business location.
So we set out to change that … to being accepted [as a business location, without losing] the valley’s basic core values. We’ve been very careful about that.
The localities here, thankfully, have been exceptionally positive and forceful in creating urban growth corridors but retaining the overall rural heritage of the region. We have a lot of people who have moved to the area who understand the quality of life, which has been so important.
VB: Speaking of quality of life, what are you planning to do in retirement?
Sullenberger: We have a large cattle farm operation, which I’m only sort of an ancillary part. That’s my wife’s operation.
I have access to a huge amount of recreation opportunities. I do fly fishing and horseback riding and things like that … I think doing this cold turkey would be a mistake and something I wouldn’t handle well, so I will be doing some consulting work and specifically to start off with SRI … I’ve spent so much of my life on the road, I just plan to relax a little bit.