Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) launched his Rhode Island in Business initiative Monday, a week-long tour giving him the opportunity to hear from business owners about the challenges they face, as well as to highlight business success stories and show that local businesses are working hard to change the image of Rhode Island as a negative business climate.
Atrion, an IT services company headquartered in Warwick that has implemented workforce development programs and invested heavily in properly training its employees, served as the kickoff for the tour.
Joining Langevin at the kickoff were Atrion CEO Tim Hebert; Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis; Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation; Davide Dukcevich, owner of Daniele, Inc. foods; and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian.
“I visit many businesses and they lament and talk about the skills gap they experience,” Langevin said, adding that many say they have positions available but aren’t able to find personnel with the right skill-set. “Atrion is being pro-active and doing something about it. Their internship and apprentice programs are a model for the rest of the state.”
Hebert said business owners can choose how they respond to the challenges they face.
“Atrion started 27 years ago in a spare bedroom with only a dream,” he said. “We now employ over 250 and have tripled business, exceeding $100 million in annual revenues.”
Hebert said the IT services industry faced a talent crisis seven years ago.
“We knew we had to challenge ourselves to change, so we created a robust apprenticeship program,” he said, adding it was the first of its kind to be recognized by state government.
“This program focuses on recruiting individuals based on their soft skills, and then we as a company take the first 12 to 18 moths of their employment to teach these individuals the technical skills needed to become advanced engineers at our organization,” he said. “Our workforce development system is a diamond in the rough. We’ve graduated over 70 candidates with the proper skills and character needed in the industry.”
Hebert said this gives not only Atrion a competitive advantage, but Rhode Island as well.
“Atrion knows Rhode Island is a great place for any business to thrive,” he said.
Hebert said one of the areas of focus for Atrion is dealing with cyber security, which, he said, covers a broad spectrum.
“We’re at the center of the security field and we’re expanding more of that and following that and investing in developing security talent,” he said. “It’s the next wave of what we do. The last 15 years have been about connecting people; the next 15 years are about protecting people.”
Hebert then asked how do you secure the perimeter of an organization.
“You think of it as being this hard outer shell, but if something breaks through, the next level occurs,” he said, adding that is where Atrion is focused, on establishing that second line of defense against a cyber threat.
“The perimeter is not enough [protection] anymore,” he said, using the example of the Target incident, in which hackers gained access to Target through a security vulnerability in another company’s system. “We’re starting to see indirect threats, like what happened with Target. As a society, we need to work on both the perimeter and the next line of defense.”
Internet security and the threat of cyber terrorism have long been a concern for Langevin, who has advocated for the need to train staff to combat that threat and prevent it from becoming an even larger issue.
“It’s an incredibly important issue and a challenge. Not a week goes by that you don’t hear about an incident,” Langevin said. “There’s an opportunity for growth in that field for a long time to come, and with companies like Atrion and others training personnel in that field, they’re investing in human capital to fill a need for businesses for IT services.”
Hebert added, “The congressman advocating well in advance and investing in that now is a tremendous asset to the state and the country.”
Mollis said his office has observed an up-tick in new businesses in the state, an approximate 6.9 percent increase over the past two years. He listed several features offered through his office to help existing businesses and assist new ones to foster that growth.
“We’ve developed E-Commerce tools to allow existing businesses to conduct business from home,” he said. “We have an email subscription service to not only keep in touch about when reports are due, but it also helps avoid identity fraud.”
The next feature Mollis highlighted was the Quick Start Program, a nationally recognized program that allows business owners to open up a business online.
“As you answer questions, the number of forms you have to fill out gets reduced, and you can also pay fees right there,” Mollis said, before moving on to the First Stop Business Center, which he described as “like Quick Start but face to face.”
“A person walks you through the forms and answers your questions,” he said. “When starting a business, make sure your first stop is First Stop.”
Finally, Mollis talked about the We Mean Business Expo, which has been running for the past seven years. This year it will be held at the Rhode Island Convention Center on Sept. 3 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“There will be 70 to 80 vendors; federal, state and local agencies; free workshops; and elected officials to answer your questions,” he said, before wrapping up. “Our goal is to re-focus the Secretary of State’s Office as an identity to help businesses.”
Langevin said he understands a big part of the challenge of changing the perception of Rhode Island’s business climate is marketing.
“Davide said we need to re-brand the state if we want it known as a food capital, and we need to apply that same concept to other businesses,” he said. “We need to collaborate and innovate to let everyone know growth is happening here, and we want more.”
Dukcevich said he envisions Rhode Island as the “Silicon Valley of Food.”
“We have the ingredients to do it,” he said. “One of the things that was missing was recognition of the talent. We need a spotlight here on the state. If people recognize Rhode Island for good food, it will draw more workers here.”
Dukcevich said there are many reasons to be optimistic about Rhode Island’s future.
“Rather than focus on the negative, we need to celebrate and build on our strengths,” he said. “One of our greatest strengths is our small size and talented population, which contribute to collaboration and dialogue among the public and private sector.”
Langevin called Steinberg, along with Dukcevich, one of Rhode Island’s loudest cheerleaders, saying he’s on a mission to change the culture of the state. One of those ways is through the Rhode Island Foundation’s public awareness campaign, dubbed “It’s All In Our Backyard.”
“There’s a self-esteem problem in Rhode Island. Little Rhode Island, high this, low that; but there was a pride everywhere we went,” Steinberg said. “We wanted to highlight that everything is right here in our backyard.”
Using Atrion and Daniele foods as examples, Steinberg said both companies have grown in Rhode Island and both have reinvested in the company, and in the state.
“Rhode Island can fight above it’s weight class,” he said, saying Rhode Island is a like a “5’10” point guard that can make it in the NBA.”
Using another sports analogy, Steinberg said Rhode Island needs to play to its strengths, just as a tennis player might play to the backhand while improving the serve.
“When you hear the frustration about filling the skills gap, not all businesses are investing in being part of the solution; Atrion is doing that. If we can have others follow their lead, it will benefit both companies and the economy going forward,” Langevin said. “Rhode Island punches well above its weight. If we highlight our successes and play to our strengths, we can show that Rhode Island is the best place to do business.”
As part of the tour, Langevin visited Xzito Creative Solutions, at 2820 Hartford Ave., in Johnston, and Yushin America Inc., 35 Kenney Drive, in Cranston on Tuesday.