Business Retention & Expansion | BR&E

The Crawford Partnership is happy to announce our first celebration of Economic Development Week, an initiative started by the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) in 2016 to recognize the work of economic development organizations and professionals in their communities. We’d like to celebrate this week by a daily educational and informative series about different aspects of economic development. David Zak, the president & CEO of the Partnership, with nearly 30 years experience in economic development talks about business retention & expansion, BR&E – the what, the history, the challenges, and the Partnership’s approach. 


Today, I want to share some thoughts about what I think is the most important activity of an economic development organization – Business Retention & Expansion.

1. What is BR&E?

Simply put, Business Retention & Expansion (BR&E) is the intentional, proactive, and strategic effort to connect and build relationships with existing businesses in order to (1) support them through economic development services and (2) to thank them for their many contributions (economic and otherwise) to our community. Since 70 to 80% of all new jobs and investment (on average) come from existing businesses, it should be near or at the top of every local economic development organization’s priority list. For the two years we have been doing member surveys, this was rated the #1 most important activity for us to work on by our board, members, and key stakeholders.

2. History of BR&E

  • Origins in the 1970s:  The BR&E movement began to take shape in the United States during the late 1970s. This period marked a shift in focus from traditional economic development strategies that primarily emphasized industrial recruitment. The realization that most new jobs were being created by existing businesses rather than new ones led to a change in tactics. Communities began to see the value in nurturing and retaining their existing economic base as a more cost-effective way to grow their economies.
  • Formalization in the 1980s: Throughout the 1980s, BR&E programs became more formalized. Economic development professionals began developing structured programs to regularly engage with local businesses to understand and address their needs. This era saw the introduction of systematic approaches to conducting surveys and interviews with business leaders to identify issues such as workforce needs, expansion plans, and potential barriers to business growth.
  • Growth and Professionalization in the 1990s: The 1990s saw a rapid growth in the professionalism of BR&E efforts. Organizations such as the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) and various state and local economic development agencies began offering training and certification for economic development professionals, with a significant focus on BR&E strategies. Tools and methodologies for data collection, analysis, and implementation of BR&E programs became more sophisticated.
  • Integration of Technology in the 2000s: With the advent of new technologies and the internet in the 2000s, BR&E programs began to leverage digital tools for better data management and communication with businesses. Economic development offices started using Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and other software to track business interactions, manage retention strategies, and monitor local economic trends more efficiently.

3. BR&E at the Partnership

Our process of “calling” on companies (BR&E Calls or Visits, what we call strategic conversations or StratTalks) contains these key steps:

  • Identifying the company to connect with
  • Scheduling an appointment and/or connecting on the fly (including involving appropriate partners)
  • Having a strategic conversation and building a relationship
  • Identify ways we can support (programs, properties, promotion, problems solving)
  • Assist the company with services they want to take advantage of
  • Rinse and repeat; stay connected to continue to build value and relationship
Our current effort is focused on two things:
  • Increasing numbers (and working harder than other counties): Ensuring a high quantity of calls on companies in JobsOhio’s targeted industries (and thus ranking highly compared to other counties); the total number of calls we make; and the total number of businesses we reach (including the ones we deem priority companies, such as the largest employers).
  • Increasing effectiveness and efficiency in working with the businesses we are serving, particularly in the area of programs.
4. Biggest challenges to BR&E
Fundamentally, the four biggest challenges to doing BR&E well are initiating a relationship, capacity and efficiency, demonstrating value, and staying connected.
  • Initiating relationship – Since our services are free, most businesses don’t know us well (or at all), and everyone’s time is at a premium, it can be challenging to sell companies on why they should talk or meet with us in the first place. There are still some companies, two years later (since I began) where we are working on this stage.
  • Capacity and efficiency – There are 1400 business establishments in Crawford County. Even if you narrow it down to the top 10% (140), you are talking three a week. Often, each visit or conversation takes time (weeks) to set up and then brings opportunities to assist, which itself adds more work demands. The more BR&E you do, the less capacity you have, as you discover projects, work with companies, etc. It becomes increasingly challenging. We also work to record and track all of our activities.
  • Demonstrating value – Businesses are interested in how we can help save them time, money, solve a problem, or help them access value-added information and resources. We are always looking for more ways to assist businesses and looking to get to know all the 200+ programs out there (with more being developed all the time), 90+ properties, as well as keeping relationships with our many partners and resources. In addition, we don’t just make referrals (although we do that too). We often ensure the business connects to the resource, and sometimes we assist the companies in filling out applications and getting approvals.
  • Staying connected – Once we do assist a company and “close out” a particular visit or strategic conversation, how do we stay connected to that company in an efficient, effective, and non-annoying way. This is a very challenging part of doing BR&E well.

5. More food for thought!

Here are some introductory videos about Business Retention & Expansion: