Denise Dyer, Pierce County’s director of economic development, and Susan Suess, senior vice president at Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, are on a mission – and it encompasses many miles.

The two work in partnership to attract and retain aerospace firms in Pierce County. In late July, the pair returned from Farnborough Air Show, 40 miles southwest of London, where they met with dozens of both domestic and international aerospace supply chain companies to gauge their interest about locating operations in our region.

Dyer and Suess were part of the 39-member Washington state delegation that traveled to Farnborough to represent Washington’s stake in the global aerospace sector.

“We were part of Washington state Department of Commerce (delegation), and we were all focused on helping aerospace companies consider locating in Washington,” Suess said. “So we were partners in that endeavor and then we had targets on our own that we met specifically to continue relationships with companies we had met in the past that had expressed an interest or that we targeted for being a good fit for Pierce County.”

Dyer said she and Suess also aimed to identify opportunities for existing clients that are based in Pierce County.

“So what Susan and I found was some of the meetings that we went to, that we thought could be recruitment targets, we identified that wasn’t an option,” Dyer said. “Either they weren’t interested in coming to the U.S. or they were already breaking ground (in a different state) and we didn’t know it.

“But on those cases, then, we talked to them about our supplier network and if they (were) looking for companies, we’d be happy to introduce them to companies (in Pierce County). In fact, we took information on our companies,” Dyer said. “So, it wasn’t just about getting new companies, but about supporting existing companies.”

For roughly three days, Dyer and Suess walked the year’s largest air show. In one day, Dyer estimates they probably walked six miles or more. There were more than 1,500 exhibitors at the show.

“We crosschecked about 500 Boeing suppliers against the Farnborough list and from that, suppliers to Boeing that don’t have a Northwest presence,” Suess said. “That narrowed the field to about 70 – those were our targets.

“We had them divided out by country of origin,” Suess said. “These were the targets that we particularly wanted, and we set up meetings with or met with them on site. In addition to that, we added companies known to be major players in the industry that were attending Farnborough that may not actually be a current Boeing supplier, but may want to do business with our local companies here, or try to get in with Boeing. So, when we go we’re very targeted with who we meet.”

One might think that it’s easy to attract and retain aerospace companies to the region – that it’s as simple as a company or supplier signing a purchase and sale agreement to locate in Pierce County. But Dyer and Suess said that is not how it works.

“Relationship building comes first,” Dyer explained. “It’s a long-term dance you enter into.”

The process to attract companies to Pierce County sometimes occurs over the course of several years. One example is GKN Aerospace, a multinational aerospace and automotive components company based in the United Kingdom.

“That’s one that the state took the lead on when it was determined that Boeing would build the 737 MAX here,” Suess said. “GKN was bidding for a contract to assemble and paint the winglets. Boeing wants those winglets assembled and painted very close to its facility. The 737 MAX is done in Renton. GKN knew they wanted a presence in Washington state and Western Washington.”

GKN worked privately with the State Department of Commerce which put out calls to numerous Economic Development Boards and Economic Development Councils in the area that an aerospace client was looking for land to build on.

“We didn’t know who the client was, we just knew it was an aerospace supplier considering locating a facility in Washington state and they needed ‘x’ amount of space,” Suess said. “So, we responded.”

Suess collected from brokers in the Pierce County region what land was available. She assembled it into an Excel spreadsheet package and delivered to the state agency’s offices. The department then presented that information to GKN. The company narrowed it down to where they wanted to locate.

Then, in 2014, Dyer and Suess and others representing Washington, met with the president of GKN, informing him what Washington state and what Pierce County could do for them.

“That was a follow-up and connection at the Farnborough Air Show in 2014 that helped seal the deal,” Suess said.

In quick order, GKN representatives arrived in Sumner and leased 57,000 square feet of commercial space. The company has since invested $10 million in the region, and by 2018 and 2019, when the 737 MAX production ramps up, it will support upwards of 60 living-wage jobs.

“This is all about relationships, it’s all about connections, it’s about follow-up and it’s about partnerships,” Suess said. “City of Sumner was awesome in the permitting, the workforce delivery people, workforce central on training, they were awesome. It’s all about trying to help make it happen. 

“This is one that we had meetings with GKN at the Paris Air Show in the odd number of years and the Farnborough Air Show in the even number of years. The state has had relationship with them. It’s all about making sure they have confidence that we can do the job; that we have a great workforce, great training pipeline; that we can deliver. It’s about how to help their construction go smoothly.”

Dyer and Suess said that, after a company locates operations in Pierce County, the relationship doesn’t stop there. Work continues to keep the companies happy and to provide to them the resources to be effective and to continue to grow in the region.

An example of this is in Toray Composites (America) Inc. Pierce County and the EDB for Tacoma-Pierce County has had a fruitful relationship with the Japanese-headquartered company since the early 1990s. The company located its first U.S. operation – a carbon fiber composite materials supplier for Boeing’s original 777 – in Frederickson in 1992. Today, the firm supplies composite materials for production of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the 777X.

In March 2014, Toray broke ground in Frederickson on a fifth expansion. An additional production line for composites opening this year brings Toray’s footprint in Frederickson to 375,000 square feet. This year, employment will increase to close to 600 at its facility.

“There are a number of companies that do business with Toray that have located here, because Toray is here,” Suess said. “So, you have an initial company that comes, and then there are other companies that come to do business with them.”

Dyer said that she and Suess don’t always know when a deal that they’ve been working on gets cut.

“And that’s okay,” she said. “We don’t really care, as long as it gets done.”

Suess said their pay-off is the job opportunities and investment that happens in the area.

“That’s the value that we get, and that’s sort of our receipt,” Suess explained.

Of the prospective calls Dyer and Suess made at Farnborough, two very strong leads emerged that they will continue to pursue. There will also, of course, be follow-up on other prospects. Because again, it’s all about relationships.