Complacency is a silent and subversive force. It can creep into and weaken a business, sometimes with disastrous results.
It also can undermine entire economies, given enough time.
Charleston knows the feeling well. Some 20 years ago, the region felt content and secure, enjoying the lavish generosity of a benevolent uncle: Uncle Sam.
The federal gravy train began to grind to a halt in 1993, when the Pentagon dropped an economic bombshell. It was shutting the Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard, the longtime bedrock of the local middle class.
Economists estimated the decision would trigger 22,000 job losses.
The closing was slow and painful, but as time wore on, Charleston dusted itself off, got its act together and worked to broaden its employment base.
Mission accomplished. Perhaps the crowning achievement of that effort was the stunning recruitment of Boeing and its 787 aircraft plant, making the Lowcountry one of just a few places in the world where widebody commercial jets are manufactured.
“I think that it’s evidence you’re a real player,” said Peter Sheahan, an Australia-born consultant and author who was in town last week.
That’s all well and good. But it’s time to get back to work, said Sheahan, whose Denver-based ChangeLabs advises businesses such as Apple, Microsoft and IBM about market-moving behavioral trends.
“You have such a great foundation to build on, but what does the leadership of Charleston really have to do to get to the next level?” he asked. “What you’ve done here is impressive. But does it take you into the next 10, 20, 30 years?”
Sheahan was at Trident Technical College on Wednesday speaking to a ballroom full of supporters of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.
The business recruiting agency is asking those same questions as it looks to attract better-paying, higher-skilled jobs to the area.
Sheahan said the region needs to seek out the answers now because in some ways it’s on the cusp of a new “inflection point” in its business cycle, much as it was back in ’93.
Sheahan isn’t suggesting that the region is on the brink of an economic disaster.
On the contrary, Charleston’s “PR is good,” Sheahan said. His point is that it’s easier to shift course and make smart, calculated changes from a position of strength than during a crisis.
“It’s so ‘not broken’ that it is, in fact, the time to fix it,” he said.
But the fix likely won’t require radical surgery. And identifying the next “big thing” doesn’t mean blindly rolling the dice on the latest trendy tech industry with the hopes of becoming the next Austin or Silicon Valley.
“Don’t chase the shiny penny,” he said.
Sheahan said the next natural path to prosperity and economic innovation is often in plain view. Only it’s typically on the periphery, waiting to be mapped out and properly exploited,
“It’s highly unlikely that you haven’t already thought of what the next big things are,” Sheahan said.
He mentioned a couple of well-known businesses that missed the whiff of opportunity even though it was right under their noses.
AT&T, for one, was a late arrival to the cellular phone game, largely because it severely underestimated global demand for the wireless devices. Competitors quickly swarmed in and grabbed market share, forcing the former Ma Bell to invest billions just to catch up.
Then there was Sony, maker of the once-ubiquitous Walkman. The Japanese electronics giant failed to identify and embrace the digital music wave, which Apple Inc. is riding to this day on back of the iPod and the iTunes store.
Sheahan also recalled a panel discussion he participated in about four years ago. The group included a satellite TV executive who predicted that online streaming businesses would have little impact on his industry before 2015. That same day, people downloaded 2 billion videos from YouTube, Sheahan said.
“And he doesn’t think that’s a threat to his business?” Sheahan exclaimed.
It’s called ignorance, mixed with a dose of complacency. It’s a dangerous combination.
Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.