Fortune Magazine editor touts Omaha's offerings

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Posted: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 12:00 am

Even in these uncertain and sluggish economic times, there are reasons to be optimistic if you are an American and especially an Omahan, a nationally acclaimed speaker on business trends told an Omaha audience Tuesday.

Geoff Colvin of Fortune Magazine said the Omaha area's noteworthy education system, work ethic and overall quality of life are an “envy” and should be huge draws for today's companies increasingly able to operate wherever they choose.

“Since so much work today is information-based and can in theory be done anywhere, it's really important for people to understand the quality of life in Omaha and in this region,” said Colvin, author, anchor and Fortune's senior editor-at-large.

From the national perspective, he said, oil and gas development is going to “revolutionize the U.S. economy.” And he cheered on a U.S. culture that he said embraces risk-taking, looks past failure and roots for the underdog striving for innovation.

“That's part of the air we breathe in this country,” Colvin said. “They don't have that everywhere; it's worth a great deal.”

Colvin was the keynote speaker at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce's annual economic outlook luncheon. Nearly 800 attended the event at the CenturyLink Center, where the chamber made public results of the 2014 Economic Outlook survey.

Of business leaders who responded, about 60 percent expected faster economic growth next year in the Omaha area; about 25 percent expected it for the nation.

Colvin, a native of Vermillion, S.D., acknowledged in an interview that few feel as if the national recession has been over for more than four years, as U.S. unemployment remains high and the recovery is slow. He said it is more difficult than ever before to predict what is next for the economy, in part because of uncertainty over government policies.

“The danger,” he said, is that business will be “paralyzed by indecision.”

Colvin gave pointers — based on interactions with corporate leaders — on how to stand above the rest in the current economic environment. To even be in the game, he said, companies must make wise use of information technology and create the right corporate culture.

Other tips:

» Regularly renew your business model by changing the answer to the question: How do we make money?

“Fundamentally, it means being able to change the direction of the organization; that is the hard part,” he said, adding that high performers also entertain trendy ideas that some might even find ridiculous.

Colvin cited Amazon's business model that started with online book sales and expanded to electronic books before offering cloud computer services and eventually producing TV series-like programs.

» Integrate all parts of a company to create a “total customer experience.”

Typically, he said, CEOs lean on revenue and cost managers as top advisers. But a chief at a profitable company like Apple also brings to the same conference table all creative minds including software, hardware, physical and online designers so that decisions are made simultaneously, not sequentially.

While that sounds simple, Colvin said, it's not the way most companies operate.

» Never stop building human capital.

“Most companies don't behave as if they actually believe that,” Colvin said.

Even in tough times, he said, employers such as IBM and General Mills didn't cut leadership development and training, and it shows in their bottom lines.

» Get radically customer- centric.

In today's information- and technology-savvy environment, he said, it isn't that hard to tailor services to each individual customer.

Colvin's talk gave pause to audience members like Kelly Bierman, Vern Junker and Doug Knight — program managers at SAIC (Science Applications International Corp.) — to ponder their own business strategies.

Bierman said he enjoyed Colvin's anecdotes, which made him reflect on how once seemingly preposterous inventions have become profitable.

Junker kidded that he had a “rough morning” and was going to return to the office and “take customer focus back.”

Knight said the presentation prompted him to rethink: What is the total customer experience? “Things are changing so fast,” Knight said. “You do have to look at the big picture, pull it all together and evolve.”

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