The very first firm formally doing site selection, Fantus Factory Locating Service, was founded in Chicago in 1919, making this year the 100th anniversary of its founding. Coincidentally, during the 2019 Site Selectors Guild annual conference in Salt Lake City this past March, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal interviewed me, as well as many of the Guild members and some of the economic developers. His questions gave me the opportunity to go back through the boxes of archives I still maintain from the later Fantus years through the early years of the Guild.
The Fantus anniversary, along with the Wall Street Journal article, made me think there would be some value in writing this brief and undoubtedly biased perspective of the site selection industry and to draw some inferences as to what the future holds for site selection and economic development.
The Early Years – The Fantus Factory Locating Service
By all accounts, Fantus was the origin of the site selection industry that we know today. My dad, Bob Ady, started at Fantus in Chicago in the early 1960s; he ended up running the place by the time he left there in the early 1990s. Those of you who knew Bob know that he was a gifted storyteller, but many of the consultants who worked for Fantus during those year have shared their own touching and often hilarious stories of the early days. That makes me think there was something special, even magical, about that period of time when the site selection industry really became established. Those stories reflected the unique culture that defines the site selection industry today: Hard-work, skepticism, a reliance on facts, an ability to evaluate both the hard and soft aspects of a community, and a generous sense of humor to help weather the unexpected.
The stories weren’t just funny, though. They talked about the role that site selectors played in opening up the south to heavy industrial manufacturing, of the creation of what are now known as industrial revenue bonds, of dodging as many political bullets as possible while recommending the best location for a project. And even, of trying to create a “business climate” database that could capture all the quantitative elements of a community or region. Sounds so 2019, doesn’t it?
In reviewing the early history of Fantus, what strikes me is how many of the foundational elements of the site selection were established during that time: the “what” hasn’t changed even as the “how” has. For example:
- Confidentiality has always been crucial. Site selectors need to protect relocating and expanding companies from tipping their hands to competitors, and to enable their clients to manage their employee relations.
- Site visits are another longstanding practice, except that highways and airlines have replaced trains and buses for travel to remote locations! This factor alone has been a major driver in increasing both the depth and the speed of site selection projects over the years.
- Along with the site selection industry, the rise of economic development incentives signaled the recognition of states and local communities of the growing competition for business attraction. Over the years, incentives have occasioned public scrutiny, as they are now in the wake of high-profile projects like Amazon HQ2 and Foxconn. As always, communities need to be certain that any incentives they put forth result in an ROI for them. I know that Bob consulted with many states and elected officials on this topic, and that his predecessors in the field continue to do so today.
In our next blog, I’ll discuss the more recent years of the site selection industry and my take-aways of what the future holds.
At Ady Advantage, our second-generation site selector experience offers value to both our corporate and economic development clients. Let’s discuss how our depth of expertise can serve you.