Planning for Prosperity: A Q&A with Woody Thrasher
August 18, 2017|
By Samantha Cart
The new secretary of the West Virginia Department of Commerce is no stranger to promoting economic development. A thriving entrepreneur, engineer and business owner, Woody Thrasher has proven himself to be a successful businessman and is now tasked with putting those skills to work managing the state’s commerce department, bringing new businesses to West Virginia and helping diversify the state’s economy.
For this Q&A, Thrasher took time to share with West Virginia Executive magazine his background in business and development and his passion for the state of West Virginia. Here he discusses initiatives that are underway to attract new business and the role the West Virginia Department of Commerce will play in balancing the state budget in years to come.
WVE: Tell us about your background as an entrepreneur and business owner.
WT: I’ve always enjoyed working. I had a paper route when I was 10 and worked on a farm bailing hay when I was 14 and on a survey crew at 16. I was a cashier at A&P in high school, and I worked construction throughout my college career. I ventured into the realm in which I have had a lot of success, The Thrasher Group, with my father in 1983 because I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I saw a lot of work in engineering that routinely went to out-of-state firms, and there was a perception within our state that a lot of West Virginians weren’t capable of doing more complicated things. My main reason for starting that company was to prove to people that we could do things.
WVE: How do you plan to use your past experience to help move West Virginia forward?
WT: I’ve always been really interested in economic development, both on a personal note and a statewide basis. I got my start in business in 1983, and I learned a lot in that process about how to create jobs and stimulate economic activity. I’ve applied a lot of those lessons to this role already. Fundamentally, I think it’s about dealing with the strengths you have and shoring up your weaknesses.
I’ve always been passionate about economic development. I absolutely love my state. I am also frustrated with my state. I genuinely feel we can be doing dramatically better than we are, and the first thing we need to do is change our attitude. We have to have a sense that we can accomplish these things. We can compete with other people around us. Once we change that fundamental attitude about ourselves, other things will fall into place.
WVE: Tell us about your decision to accept this position and the sacrifices you made in order to do so, including turning over your businesses’ operations to colleagues.
WT: I took this position because I was inspired to do so by the governor. His businesses are significantly greater than mine, and the fact that he was willing to make that personal sacrifice was an inspiration to me. I was fortunate in that, within Thrasher, we have a really good management group. I felt confident they would be able to run the firm just as successfully if not more so than I had. So that made the decision a little easier.
To have the opportunity to perform public service at this point in my career is really fun. First of all, I don’t need the job, so if they fire me, that’s okay. I’ll have a fallback position. But it gives me the liberty and the latitude to make decisions that I believe are good ones. That gives me a freedom and an effectiveness that other people don’t always enjoy. So, public service at this point in my career is particularly rewarding.
WVE: Give us your perspective on the current state of the economy in West Virginia.
WT: Our current situation is not good. You can see that when you measure categories, and we are 50th in category after category. We can do dramatically better. I think we suffer from a self-esteem problem—we don’t recognize how good we can be.
One of our biggest challenges is the fact that we are losing people. The good news is I totally believe we can turn this thing around. One of the keys that attracts businesses to areas is quality of life, and that is one of the reasons people live in West Virginia—the quality of life is second to none.
I think we need to focus on those bright spots. We still have a great workforce. No question about it, a lot of folks have picked up and left, but our high schools turn out good graduates every year. If we have opportunities for them, they’ll stay here and work or ideally come back. At the core of it, West Virginians are great workers, and I think if we can provide opportunities for them, we’ll see good things happen.
WVE: Based on these observations, what goals have you set for the commerce department over the next four years?
WT: One of my goals is to dramatically change the economic landscape of West Virginia. That’s a pretty significant goal, but it’s nothing less than that. In order to do this, we must dramatically increase the number of employment opportunities within the state, and to me, it’s all about jobs. My job is to bring in jobs, and I have a variety of venues to do that. In the short time that I’ve been in this role, I’ve seen a lot of opportunity. Everything from manufacturing to forestry to tourism—there are all kinds of areas that we are not performing to the level we could be.
WVE: As the secretary of commerce, you are charged with bringing new businesses to West Virginia. As such, how will you avoid conflicts of interest in regard to The Thrasher Group and White Oaks Development?
WT: You have to be very cautious about even a perceived conflict of interest. In order to accept this position, I had to set up a blind trust and put all of my companies in it. It’s aptly named because I am blind to the activity taking place, and I can tell you that was a significant effort. The more complicated your businesses are, and quite frankly the more successful of a business person you are, the more complicated that gets to be.
While it’s very important to be sure we don’t have conflicts of interest, I think it’s also very important to be sure we make an avenue where people from the business arena can serve politically, whether it is in appointed positions or elected positions. If it becomes so difficult and so challenging that business people aren’t able to serve then what you are really left with are those professional politicians, and I don’t think that is the fundamental basis our country was formed on. I think it had to do with citizens serving and being public servants for periods of their careers.
WVE: What will you do differently from past cabinet secretaries in terms of promoting West Virginia as a world-class tourism, business and relocation destination?
WT: First of all, I knew and was impressed by the people who previously held my position. I think they did a great job under very challenging circumstances. They had very little to work with.
Under the theory that in order to make a little money you have to have a little money, I was very clear with the Legislature on the importance of supporting the governor’s SOS program. I believe it is critical for the Legislature to provide additional resources if we’re going to be able to attract industries to West Virginia.
The other thing we’re going to do is be proactive and not reactive. This development office has always done a great job reacting to opportunities that show themselves. That is exhibited by the Procter & Gamble facility and the Toyota facility. When those opportunities present themselves, we are very effective at bringing them in. What we have not been as effective at is generating entrepreneurial activity in the state, particularly in the form of capital. We need to have better opportunities to finance growing businesses in West Virginia. I think we’ve been limited by staffing, and I think we’re going to have ways to solve that problem.
WVE: What do you believe must be done to resolve our financial crisis?
WT: If we’re going to change things, we’re going to have to do something dramatically different. I think, to some extent, being rich in resources has led to a certain level of complacency within state government. We have not diversified our income or our sources of industry. We’ve tolerated the removal of our resources and watched them leave the state. I think it is mandatory that the department of commerce refabricate our economy. I think we do that through diversity, whether it’s bringing broadband to small communities, which will allow them to attract businesses, through automotive manufacturing or taking advantage of the shale gas initiatives. In the end, we’re the ones who should be responsible for solving the problem of how we diversify our economy and move up in the rankings.
WVE: What are the most important actions you believe the state needs to take in order to resolve this financial crisis?
WT: The first step is a dramatic infusion of stimulus. I think the governor’s initiative to do a massive highway construction is a great idea. I can also tell you that we’re working on more projects in the pipeline in the last six months than we have in the previous four years. I can see the opportunities are there, it’s just a matter of doing the right thing to capitalize on them.
WVE: What does West Virginia need to do to be more competitive with surrounding states?
WT: I think we have laid a great foundation to be competitive. The right-to-work bill, workers’ comp bill and judicial reform have all resulted in West Virginia being able to finally have a seat at the table. That’s the first step, but it’s not the only step. I think some of our legislators are misguided when they believe that all government needs to do is get out of business’ way. While I agree with that, there is a second very important component. We have to be able to incentivize businesses to come to West Virginia. We have to have the capital to be able to generate sites, train workforce and set up entrepreneurial coaching if we’re going to be able to compete.
WVE: What initiatives is your department working on to improve the business climate in West Virginia?
WT: We’re doing a bunch of exciting things that cover all of the different divisions throughout the department, including the Division of Natural Resources, tourism, workforce, forestry and certainly at the center of that is the development office. We really want to not only be reactive to businesses that are interested in West Virginia, but we want to be proactive. We want to go out and identify those businesses that we stand a good chance of recruiting. To do that, we need dramatically more staffing. We’re very excited about a new initiative called the EXCEL program, which will recruit loaned executives and retired executives to help with our staffing. In that way, we’re going to be able to go out and target a whole bunch of industries and cover a lot more bases than we have in the past.
We have some key things that are in our favor. Contrary to popular opinion, we have a great workforce. Every year these great high schools are turning out kids with a lot of potential that are leaving. We have to find the sort of activity that is going to keep them at home. I also think we have huge opportunities in tourism. In conjunction with our state parks, it has great potential for West Virginia.
WVE: In order to create jobs and attract new businesses, how will the commerce department address current challenges with the state’s workforce?
WT: We are going full-steam ahead using the resources we currently have, and we’re stretching every dollar. We have had more pipeline projects in the last six months than we’ve had the previous four years, so we are aggressively going after that, using every single resource we have to try to fill in those gaps we need to bring those businesses here. Additionally, we need staffing. There are so many different opportunities we could be pursuing, but we simply do not have the staff to do it. We’re also burdened with the problem that we don’t have enough money to go out and hire a bunch of staff. That is why we’re unveiling this EXCEL program, through which we will take loaned executives and retired executives and populate the department of commerce with high-quality people working on very important initiatives.
WVE: What do you see as the most successful or fastest-rising industries in the state right now? What about that industry can be duplicated in others for additional success?
WT: When you look across West Virginia, you see a number of success stories. In the Eastern Panhandle, you have the Procter & Gamble facility that’s under construction, and it’s going to employ 600-700 people. I think we have other industries that we’re going to be announcing in the very near future that are going to be adding to that, so I think that’s a huge bright spot. When you move over to my hometown in the Harrison County area, we have the aerospace industry. Bombardier is looking at a major league expansion. Pratt & Whitney is as well, and there are a number of other businesses there that are very vibrant and growing. If you continue to the west and look over to the Parkersburg area, you look at the automotive industries we have growing there, and they’re going to continue to grow. Toyota has been a great partner for West Virginia, so I think there is a lot of opportunity in that realm. If you go to the north, you’ll see shale gas initiatives that are going to continue to grow. In Southern West Virginia, working closely with Major General James Hoyer of the West Virginia Army National Guard, I think we’re going to really ramp up our military training. All of these are initiatives that already existed, and we’re going to build upon them. In addition to that, we need to bring in new things, and I think there are opportunities for those new things. We’re doing a variety of studies that are going to identify those areas where we think we can really be competitive and make a strong push to be successful.
WVE: Tell us about the state’s shale gas opportunities and how you are working with manufacturing organizations to turn these resources into new manufacturing investments and jobs.
WT: The shale gas initiative has the opportunity to be a total game changer for West Virginia. I think we can have a whole renaissance of that chemical, plastics and carbon fibers activity. The reason I believe that is, first and foremost, we have the raw materials. When you look at the Chemical Alliance Zone and MATRIC—they are populated with a whole lot of smart people who understand how to make this a success. The combination of a steady supply of raw resources—those raw materials that industry needs—for the next 50-100 years coupled with the brain power we have within the Chemical Alliance Zone and MATRIC is a great combination that ought to produce great results.
WVE: What role will West Virginia’s small communities and homegrown businesses play in diversifying the state’s economy?
WT: I educated myself on what makes West Virginia attractive to businesses, and one thing that became apparent to me was that our quality of life is a huge attractor. When you look at the quality of life in West Virginia, that is fundamentally the fabric of those small communities across the state. They create our culture and identity. Having those communities be viable and relevant is tremendously important to our future, and we need to do everything we can to bring a vibrancy to those communities so they last and hopefully grow. There’s a negative side to that, too. I spent my whole career working for small towns, and as I’ve said since I started, there are only a handful that are really in better shape. It’s a long trend downward that needs to be reversed, but I think we can do that.
I don’t think West Virginia is going to get out of the situation it’s in by hitting home runs. It’s nice to hit a home run on occasion, but I think day in and day out, we need singles. We need to keep our small communities vibrant. I think some key elements are needed there. First and foremost, we need broadband. We really had a coming together of those broadband providers in passing that legislation, which was very encouraging. Because it’s like water, sewer or roads—if you don’t have broadband access in a community, there is no way they’re going to grow. With the ability to communicate through the internet, suddenly small communities become the most attractive communities to live in.
WVE: You’ve identified state infrastructure, building sites for companies and workforce training incentives as top priorities. Tell us more about your plans in these areas.
WT: In terms of infrastructure, the broadband bill was important. The governor’s highway bill is the key element, and that is really going to generate economic activity and provide the kind of highways we need to get from point A to point B. Workforce training is an area we need to improve. I am really excited about working with two people. Steve Paine, who is an old friend of mine, has returned as superintendent of schools, and I am a great believer in Steve and his abilities. I am also really excited about Sarah Tucker, who is the chancellor of the community and technical colleges. I think she has a lot of potential and a lot of great ideas. I am in the preliminary phase of putting together a collaboration between the three of us to really make our workforce training top-tier.
WVE: What types of projects are you currently working on that will help move West Virginia forward?
WT: Within the department of commerce, we are working on a significant initiative to rebrand West Virginia. We need to rebrand it for a variety of reasons. First of all, we need to feel good about ourselves, and we need to project that positive image to everybody else. We can own our mistakes, but let’s not let that define who we are. Second, we need to rebrand who we are because it’s a very positive message. Tourism is going to be the immediate beneficiary of that. You’re going to see within tourism a significant increase in marketing activities, and it’s going to be a cohesive message that ultimately will translate not only into tourism but into parks and really over into commerce as we attract businesses. We’re going to come up with a new image that West Virginia wants to reflect and is reflective of who we are.