Assessing Opportunity
7:47 am
Mon March 28, 2011

New Economic Development Chief Listens to Business

The state’s main economic development agency gets a new chief this week. On Thursday, insurance executive Catherine Smith will take up her post as Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development. As she prepared for her new role, she sat down with WNPR’s Harriet Jones.

Many people might feel daunted by the challenge that Catherine Smith has taken on. But she says when the call came from Governor Dannel Malloy, she didn’t hesitate.

“I personally feel as if there’s so much more opportunity than there is downside. We have a terrific economy here if you look at the diversity of the types companies that we have attracted to the state, the high quality of our educational institutions, and many of the attractions we have from a tourist and cultural perspective as well.”

She sees it as DECD’s job now to promote and market those advantages within Connecticut and beyond its borders. If Malloy’s proposals are approved, she’ll have an expanded agency under her wing with the office of workforce competitiveness and the commission on culture and tourism also folded into DECD. Smith comes to this position after a long and distinguished career in insurance, serving in two of the state’s biggest companies, Aetna and ING. She says the Governor’s focus on large employers is strategic.

“Yes, small business does create a lot of the new job growth in the country as a whole and here in Connecticut. But our large companies are doing two things for us: they employ a lot of people here and provide a lot of benefits for those individuals, plus they themselves are continuing to grow of course, and we want to be a state where they feel very comfortable about doing their innovation as well as their core ongoing businesses.”

Smith says that focus has knock-on benefits for the small business sector.

“I see opportunities for us to help the big businesses that need small businesses around them. We have lots of those in the state where small start-ups around a bigger business can be extremely helpful—in high tech, in support mechanisms, in services—so let’s make that easy.”

She’d also like to see much more emphasis on commercializing the research coming out of the state’s universities, providing incubator space and support for spin-off companies.

“Almost every small business, to the extent we can help it make it easier for them just plain do business in the state, we’re going to look at those opportunities as well from a cost perspective, as well as just making it easier to get around the state—those kinds of things.”

Smith hopes her years of business experience can be an asset in public service. And she says there’s one business skill she’ll be putting to work right away as she takes over the reins at DECD.

“One of the hats I’ve been wearing at ING is our Lean Six Sigma hat, I’m the quality leader for the US and actually for the region. And there are always ways to improve the ways you do processes, and there are always bottlenecks, there are always times in which we’re not meeting our customers requirements for turning things around and for the quality of the work we’ve gotten done. So I want to take a look at it with that perspective.”

Catherine Smith is quick to point out that her views on the job are still evolving. She’s in the process of reaching out to companies and to chambers of commerce in search of ideas and feedback on what DECD should be, and what it can do better.