Editorial: Southwest Virginia’s unsung hero

Posted: Sunday, October 2, 2016 2:15 am

The Roanoke Times

In the 1990s, when George Allen was governor, he had the idea to take some business leaders from high-tech Northern Virginia on a tour of Southwest Virginia. He hoped to persuade them to expand their operations into a part of the state that desperately needed jobs.

Nexus Communications was looking for a place to locate a call center, so Nexus executive Tony Martin seemed an obvious person to put on the list. Except Martin didn’t think so. He’d already had someone suggest Southwest Virginia as a possible location and had rejected the idea. “I was kind of arrogant about it,” he recalls. “That’s too far away. All the typical excuses.”

State officials persisted, trying to get Martin to go on Allen’s group tour of the coalfields. Again, he said no. Then one night, he got a phone call — from the governor’s secretary of commerce and trade. Martin finally gave in. “I said ‘fine, I’ll make the trip.’ I went down there, and was completely surprised.”

He liked the place. He liked the people. And the numbers added up. Before long, Nexus announced it would put the call center in Clintwood. “That experience taught me several things,” Martin says. “You’ve got to get people down in the region to see what’s there and to overcome negative stereotypes about the coalfield area.”

Our story could have had a happy ending there. Except it didn’t. Martin moved on to other ventures. A few years later, in 2000, he was reading The Washington Post when a small news item caught his eye: Nexus was closing that Clintwood call center he had opened — and moving the jobs to India. “That really rubbed me the wrong way,” Martin recalls. And that’s how Martin became an angel for economic development in Southwest Virginia. Not an angel investor, a term common in the business world, but a different kind of angel. Something of a guardian angel. Adam Smith spoke of “the invisible hand” of capitalism. Martin is perhaps the invisible hand behind a surprising number of economic development decisions in Virginia’s coalfields.

Martin — who admits only to being in his 60s — doesn’t like to call himself retired. He still has various business ventures, but says his work for Southwest Virginia has been for free. It’s simply “a passion,” he says.

The first thing he did in the early 2000s was to advise local officials to concentrate on getting federal contracts — a niche he knew from his high-tech days. “At the time there was no federal contracting done in the region, at least I could tell. They said, ‘Hey, if you want to do this, go for it.’ So I started networking around, and through a series of contacts got introduced to a company called CGI,” Martin said.

In October 2005, another Virginia governor with a keen interest in economic development in Southwest Virginia announced that CGI, a Canadian company, would open a software development center in Russell County. Mark Warner still counts the 300 jobs announced that day as one of the high points of his governorship, and rightly so — but it was Martin who made the first contact with CGI.

Last year, Warner — by now a senator — convened a roundtable for entrepreneurs in Richmond. It was the kind of wonky, networking thing that Warner revels in, but not something that generates headlines because it doesn’t fit into a partisan pigeonhole. One of the participants that day was Rick Gordon, who runs an offshoot of Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology called Mach37, which focuses on growing cybersecurity companies. Another participant that day — indeed, one of the session leaders — was Tony Martin.

Gordon and Martin are both Naval Academy grads. Both work in high-tech. Before long, Gordon was hailing Martin as “one of my mentors” and Martin was squiring Gordon on a trip to the coalfields, talking it up as a potential site for cybersecurity companies. Martin ticks off the advantages of doing business in Southwest Virginia as well as any economic development official. Costs are lower. And because there’s less competition, there’s less turnover in the workforce.

Martin also has some definite views: Politicians are often focused on the wrong thing, he says. “They’d rather have 10 low-wage jobs than one high wage job,” because the existing workforce may not be qualified for that high-wage job. However, he insists, “you need to change the economic profile of the region. You need to bring in a different type of job, and that may not be as palatable from a political standpoint.” Instead of call centers, he’s focused now on directing high-tech jobs to the coalfields.

This summer, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise signed a deal with Mach37 to bring its entrepreneur partners on regular tours of the coalfields — and the college announced the development of a “business accelerator” to house potential start-ups.

“I think I’ve now brought down 10-12 early stage companies,” Martin says. Many of those have yet to commit. But some have. Bird Dog Distributors in Clintwood makes medical kits. Micronic Technologies in Wise County is in the research-and-development phase of developing a new wastewater treatment technology.

Karen Sorber, Micronic’s founder and CEO, had been in Northern Virginia. However, she says, “it was very difficult to get investors up there to invest in an industrial project.” Software, they know. Something industrial, not so much. And manufacturing an industrial product in Northern Virginia? Forget it. Then Martin suggested Southwest Virginia.

By locating in Wise County, her company qualified for a grant from the state’s tobacco commission — which administers an endowment intended to create a new economy in tobacco-growing counties. She’s also been able to partner with researchers at UVa-Wise — and hire four of its graduates for her 11-person workforce. This fall, she’s getting ready to deploy field tests of her equipment. “We couldn’t have gotten there in Northern Virginia,” she says.

Martin says that’s another advantage of doing business in the coalfields. In Southwest Virginia, even a small company is a big deal — and government officials are eager to help. In Northern Virginia, he says, small start-ups can’t get that kind of attention.

None of that would have happened, though, if Martin hadn’t suggested the coalfields in the first place. Sorber sums up Martin’s role this way: “He’s one of Southwest Virginia’s most unsung heroes.”

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