New seems to be the theme at the Howard County Economic Development Authority, where chief executive officer Laura Neuman has spent her first year overhauling the quasi-government agency.
From a new marketing initiative and a new method for tracking active deals to a new center for entrepreneurship and new staff, the EDA has experienced several changes since Neuman, 47, took the reigns last April, following the retirement of 17-year veteran CEO Dick Story.
Though many are hesitant to compare the two EDA leaders, those who have worked closely with them both have noticed differences in the organization.
"There's a lot more enthusiasm, a lot more energy in the office," senior marketing assistant Jill Joubert, who has been with the EDA for nine years, said.
Agriculture marketing specialist Kathy Zimmerman, who has been with the EDA for five years, added: "The fact that we're more enthusiastic about what we're doing is actually getting out in the community and they're recognizing that."
Including the CEO, the EDA has 15 positions. Joubert and Zimmerman are two of the five EDA staff who were hired by Story that still remain. Planning to take the organization in a new direction, Neuman let go six employees when she started and three chose to leave on their own. She has since filled all but two positions.
"We put together a really good team here, and we put processes together to make sure we're meeting the needs of the business community," Neuman said.
Mike Galeone, executive vice president of community banking at the Columbia Bank who previously served 15 years on the EDA Board of Directors, said Neuman "brings a much needed dynamic to the organization." He has been working with Neuman to help the EDA leverage financing resources for start-up businesses.
Though Galeone wouldn't make a direct comparison to Story, who he said also had much success during his tenure as CEO, Galeone noted that "times have changed" and Neuman is "bold enough to talk about the changes ... that need to be made."
He explained: "I think she's done a tremendous job of retowing the EDA and putting it in a direction it needs to go to focus on technology ... and to better grow the business tax base and the like in Howard County."
'More ... coaching'
Brent Rutley, owner of Just This Side of Paradise Farm, an ornamental tree farm in Woodbine, has worked with the EDA since 2010 when he swapped jobs with County Executive Ken Ulman for a day as a part of the organization's annual Farm-City Celebration.
Since then, he said the organization has helped his business bridge the gap between his typical rural customers and consumers who live in more densely populated areas.
"Mr. Story did a fantastic job," Rutley said. "Where he left off I think Laura's doing a very good job in helping us refine our business."
Regarding the difference under Neuman, he said, "I'm hesitant to use the word aggressive, but they seem to be very interested in reaching out to the business community and to be giving us a little more in the line of coaching."
Rutley noted the EDA is hosting more networking opportunities and other events aimed at helping local businesses.
Business development, Neuman said, is a central element of the EDA.
"Start a business; expand a business; relocate a business — one of those three things is happening through everybody we touch," she explained.
Though all that was happening before she arrived, Neuman said "there wasn't a tracking mechanism" for potential deals. Now, every company that shows interest is put into what Neuman calls the "pipeline" and given a code name to ensure the business retains confidentiality throughout its negotiations.
"We're creating a living history of every business we interact with," Neuman said. "It makes sure we follow through and we follow up."
Marketing is also key to the EDA's success, Neuman said. As a part of Neuman's new marketing strategy, the EDA will launch a new website this fall.
"We want the public to understand the work that's done here and the value in (it)," she said.
Under Neuman's leadership, the EDA launched the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship, which brings together several existing resources — the business incubator, the Business Resource Center, the Howard Technology Council and the Catalyst Loan Fund — with new initiatives aimed to help people bring their business ideas to life.
To help grow the center and other new EDA initiatives, Ulman has proposed to increase the organization's funding by 27 percent.
'Her own pair'
Howard County Chamber of Commerce President Pam Klahr said the chamber is partnering with EDA to help promote the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship.
"Her vision is far beyond Howard County; it's something they're really hoping to launch statewide," Klahr said.
Klahr said Neuman, who serves on the chamber's Board of Directors, "had giant shoes to fill when she came in, (and) that intimidated a lot of people.
"What I saw was that Laura, rather than try to fill those shoes, she put on her own pair," Klahr said.
Story, who is now the senior vice president for marketing at Columbia-based JPB Enterprises Inc., said he hasn't paid close attention to what Neuman is doing at the EDA.
"To give her own autonomy, I have deliberately stayed away from EDA events," he said.
Cathy Ward, EDA board chairwoman, said it's not fair to compare Neuman's leadership with Story's.
"They're two different styles," she said. "Dick Story met every goal that was ever set for him, and Laura is doing the same."
Ward said Neuman's "deep skill set in entrepreneurship" is her strength, but she was also a quick study of "the traditional economic development methodologies" like providing solutions for real estate development and land planning issues.
Others have also noted how Neuman's entrepreneurial background has set her apart.
"That's really quite helpful that she has the perspective to understand what business people think, how important it is in business to get quick responses, quick answers," said Scott Dorsey, chairman and CEO of Merritt Properties LLC, a Woodlawn-based developer that does a lot of work in Howard County.
He said Neuman is able to cut through the bureaucracy and tell businesses where they stand, rather than give the typical "we're working through the process" response.
Ulman, who nominated Neuman for the position last year after being impressed with her extensive private-sector experience, said he's really pleased with the job Neuman has done.
"She's got a new team with a lot of energy and a lot of drive toward business expansion and recruiting new companies," he said.
Ulman added, "It's hard to change the world overnight, but she's put a lot of key pieces in place to position us over the next couple of years to really thrive."