Not long after graduating from college, Ron Kitchens returned to Ozark, Missouri, and realized there was a problem.
“Nobody could come home to my hometown because there just weren’t any jobs,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do about it or who was at fault, so I marched my way down to city hall and got myself on the ballot on city council and had three terms.”
It was the beginning of a 30-plus-year economic development career that took him to Texas, Michigan, and now Birmingham, where he is chief executive officer for the Birmingham Business Alliance.
“My job is to get up every day, along with an incredible team of men and women, and to be MiracleGro for job creation,” Kitchens says. “When I put MiracleGro on my plants, I put it on my tomato plants, I put it on the flowers, I throw it at the base of the trees, in the ivy that’s growing. I know the plants don’t need every element of what’s in MiracleGro, but the plant will get served and grow because of that product that we’re putting in there. For us at the Alliance, our job is be that MiracleGro. Every opportunity is going to need a slightly different nutrition than the previous ones, but it’s our job to bring those elements to bear and to serve companies toward our ultimate goal.”
FULFILLING THE PROMISE
It’s in the Magic City, Kitchens believes, that he’s found a city ripe for the business philosophy he wrote about in his book “Community Capitalism.”
“It’s this idea about bringing business, government and philanthropy, both faith-based and community-based, together,” he says. “If you can get those together, you can create a true winning economy. If you don’t, you’re going to have an economy that doesn’t serve the most vulnerable in a way that ensures that they have the economic opportunity that we all seek.”
Birmingham has a number of things going for it in this regard, including Mayor Randall Woodfin’s Birmingham Promise, a public-private initiative that provides internships and apprenticeships for students in Birmingham City Schools.
It’s an “important” initiative, Kitchens says, and one he has seen succeed first-hand in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the first Promise program was created 13 years ago.
Kitchens finds similarities between Birmingham and what he saw in Michigan, where he was CEO of Southeast Michigan First.
“Michigan struggled with years and years of high unemployment and a cyclical environment with the auto sector,” Kitchens says. “They’re still very dependent on auto in the state, very similar to our dependency here on steel and iron and understanding that we can celebrate our legacy while also spring boarding into the future.”
Kitchens also points to the University of Alabama at Birmingham as a lynchpin in the area economy.
“The power that a Tier 1 research university can have on a community is almost indescribable, so when I look at Birmingham, it is far ahead of where most communities of this size are because of the $600-$700 million that UAB is bringing in in research dollars,” he says. “It cannot be overstated how important that is both for annual economic impact and cultural impact on new ideas, new companies, new people, new talent that comes into the community. It’s exhilarating what the future can bring.”
FOCUS ON THE WORKFORCE
Workforce is key to growing what Birmingham already has, Kitchens says.
“We’ve got to make sure we get more people, and then make sure those people’s skillsets match the jobs of the future,” he says. “We have more people retiring than we have a next generation entering the workforce, so we’re going to have a shortage. If we can figure out a way to retain college students in our state, we can grow our economy using them as our raw materials for growth. … We’ve got to focus on retaining talent. And then we’ve got to get people to come home. We forget that that’s an option, and it’s something that our team is going to focus on dramatically.”
One way to do this is inclusiveness, and Kitchens, who came on board at the BBA in January, says diversity initiatives are already underway.
“We made a commitment as an organization prior to my arrival — and I support it 100% — that we are going to create more access points, more opportunities for women and people
of color to participate in the economy,” he says. “We believe it’s critical. And we want to support organizations that already have a commitment to that. We’re not the Lone Ranger coming in to save anyone, but we want to be great partners, and we have to open up more doors.
“We all end up spending our lives working in crisis management mode instead of having the privilege of being strategic and working on long-term goals,” Kitchens adds. “We have to do both. … Now is the time that we have to change the structure of our economies and not just be focused on the immediate.”
Kitchens has great dreams for Birmingham.
“Ten years from now, I hope we’ll be talking about Birmingham as one of the centers of excellence in the nation for human genomics in terms of personalized medicine,” he says. “I hope we’ll be talking about us as the place that is the national leader in creating and supporting businesses that are owned by people who are diverse. … I also want to be the place that people look like they do at Nashville or Boise or Columbus, Ohio, that exceeds expectations on economic vitality.”
For Kitchens and his team, that means innovation, relationships and resources.
“It’s about being out working with companies and supporting them and asking what their needs, wants and desires are and then helping them grow and meet those expectations,” he says. “It’s about working with our team on understanding that we can go faster every day and
challenge expectations, and it’s about spending time with peers in the community about how we can participate in
their success and support them. In the end, economic development is a team sport. It’s my own team, and it’s the team of philanthropy, government and the business sector working together that ultimately will dictate whether or not there’s one fewer mother tonight putting her kids to bed hungry. In the end, that’s what it’s about.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business
Alabama and photographer Joe De Sciose is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor.