Q: Tennessee is famous for producing Jack Daniel’s whiskey. What other products and sector is the state associated with?
A: Of course we make Jack Daniel’s, but in general we have been known for years as a state especially strong in manufacturing, particularly when it comes to automotives. Nissan, Volkswagen and GM all have major plants here and there are a lot of auto parts suppliers functioning around them. Additionally, we are a major exporter of medical devices, in large part thanks to the fact that FedEx has its main hub in Memphis. And we have fun stuff too. Not only do we make 300 million M&Ms every day, but also Unilever is currently building the world's biggest ice cream plant here.
Q: Before going into politics, you ran a petroleum corporation headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee. When pitching for your state, how often do you rely on your experiences as businessman?
A: I think that nothing sells like a personal testimony. The fact that I have been a part of a company that started small with three employees and now has 20,000, and it happened here in Tennessee, shows that it is a great place to run a business. Not least thanks to its central location [within the US], work ethic and a very business-friendly environment.
One of the lessons that I think I brought from the private sector is that in business, the two most important things that a CEO does is hiring the right people and allocating capital in the right way. States are the same. It is about hiring a great team to work for you, and in my case it is about hiring great commissioners and deputy commissioners, and when it comes to allocating the capital it is about investing in the workforce and making sure it meets the needs of investors.
Q: How important is it for you to attract investment from overseas versus attracting companies from other states?
A: We have about 120,000 Tennesseans who work for foreign companies that have made an investment in Tennessee, a lot of them in the automotive sector. Hankook Tire out of South Korea recently announced it will build its first US plant in our state. It will invest almost $1bn dollars and create 1800 jobs. But obviously we will take either, domestic or international, and we have had pretty good success with both. In general, we focus a lot more on our existing businesses, with the old theory that it is easier to expand existing consumers than it is to find a new one.
Q: How much do you rely on incentives when attracting companies to Tennessee?
A: We would love to be as light on incentives as possible, but you have to realise that it is a competitive world. So the way I look at it is just the same way I did when I was making investments in business. What is the return going to be for my shareholders, with my shareholders being 6.5 million Tennesseans? I think the danger for people in my position is, you want to go and get that big trophy, the mount on the wall to say that so-and-so came to Tennessee. But if you do that without ensuring certain citizens get a good return on that investment, you are not doing them a favour because that makes the state less financially sound. Business wants states to be strong in that respect.