When Gov. Larry Hogan appointed R. Michael Gill to be the new head of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, it was not the first time Gill had taken on a public role.
The longtime businessman was appointed to a five-year term on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents in 2004 and had served on the boards of numerous companies, schools and nonprofits in the area. Still, he said, to find himself in the middle of state government — leading an economic development agency for a governor who put the economy front and center — was a change in perspective.
"It's almost like a movie — a big poof of smoke — and now I'm standing in the middle. Now my optic is not out there, looking in. I'm here, looking out," he said.
Gill, the son of a county councilman, grew up in the Baltimore area. He attended Calvert Hall College High School, and Clemson and Towson universities; he received a degree in business from Towson in 1974. His first job was in sales at IBM. In 1984, he founded AMERICOM, which provided cell products and services to Maryland-area businesses. When the company was acquired in 2000, it employed more than 1,000 people.
Most recently, Gill served as chairman and principal at Columbia-based investment bank Evergreen Advisers LLC.
But his new role feels more like his first job, he said.
"When I walk into the governor's office … the governor says to me, 'What did we sell today? Did we get any new business? Did we save any business? Did we find any businesses that are growing we can help?'" he said. "I feel like it's my manager at IBM wanting to know if I'm going to make my quota for the month — which isn't a bad thing."
Gill recently spoke to The Baltimore Sun about his new role.
What's top of your mind in terms of how you and the governor are thinking about the Department of Business and Economic Development, and economic development in Maryland?
At DBED today we're busy as can be with many, many projects. We're working closely with the Sparrows Point gang and the exciting things out at the old Bethlehem Steel site, [Under Armour CEO] Kevin Plank's announcement with Port Covington, which I think when all's said and done it will be the eighth wonder of the world because Kevin Plank does things that are the eighth wonder of the world. We're excited about the possibility — a lot of work left to be done — about the FBI coming to P.G. County. That's a really, really big deal. And the Harbor Point project — that's an exciting project.
When Governor Hogan began his campaign, he put just about all of his emphasis on the economy — that was really the No. 1 theme of his campaign, and it was really the belief that we can do better. With a strong, vibrant, productive economy for the state — if you can achieve that, then everything gets better and you have the ability to invest in all the other things that make a state great.
One of the things that's big in Maryland's economy is the dominance of government jobs and government contractors. Do you think that's something we need to change? What role do you see for DBED?
We absolutely have a role to play in changing the distribution, the mix of jobs. Here's what happened in the economy of Maryland at a high level. We went through the first decade of the 21st century adding a lot of government jobs. Well, all of a sudden, it's toward the year 2009, 2010, the economy had tanked, everybody was just trying to hold on. We had become so top-heavy with federal jobs that when the federal government had to dial back the numbers, we really felt it. And the challenge was, we didn't have a Plan B because the nongovernment sector — it experienced a tsunami, but we weren't doing any of the proactive things to grow the nongovernment sector. It was almost as if we were satisfied we have a lot of these government jobs. And they're pretty good-paying jobs, so let's just focus on that.
They're great jobs and we do want to keep growing them, but at the same time, we want to work even harder to grow the nongovernment sector, and that's what we weren't doing.
Are there particular things you hope to do focused on rural counties?
One of the things I intend to do between May and June and the summer is spend some quality time in every single jurisdiction in the state, meet with the leadership of each of the jurisdictions, the county executive and the economic development folks and the county administrative officer and then meet with the business people. I know it's going to be helpful to me. I hope ultimately it will be successful and meaningful for them.
The governor has talked about making the state more business-friendly. Did you have experiences at your businesses when government was an obstacle?
No, I've never experienced that. If anything, when I started a company in 1984, I got a Small Business Administration loan, so you'll never hear me complain about government agencies like the SBA. I think the other thing too is having the positive attitude. I believe in that expression, 'If it is to be, it's because of me.' If we failed it was because maybe I wasn't smart enough, maybe I wasn't quick enough, maybe there were opportunities out there and I missed them, as opposed to people or events or competition being the reason that I wasn't successful. I always sort of put it on my shoulders.
How did you get involved with starting the Charles Street Irish pub, Mick O'Shea's?
It's probably somewhere in the mid-'90s. I was driving up Charles Street one night, a Friday night, and there was a place called McGinn's. It had been there for years. I go in. I walk in.
First of all, it was when they still allowed people to smoke in bars and it was terrible. And there was an Elvis Presley tape playing and then I ordered a Guinness and it was just terrible.
And I'm thinking: Huh? Smoky, Elvis Presley tapes and a bad Guinness.
I had a business partner then. I called [him] up. I said, 'Have you ever been to McGinn's? I was in there last night and it was terrible.' He said, 'You know Mike, Mike O'Shea, who's a mutual friend of ours, has always wanted to have an Irish pub. We should get together.' Next thing you know, we're buying McGinn's. We gut it, we change the name to Mick O'Shea's — a little take off on Mike O'Shea's.
R. Michael Gill
The Evening Sun
Title: Secretary of business and economic development
Previous job: Chairman and president of Evergreen Advisers LLC
Education: Towson University, 1974 (after first attending Clemson on a baseball scholarship)
Family: Mary, wife of 40 years; three grown children