Rebel’s own Bryn Tindall and Greg Shimer recently sat down with Chris DiPentima, the President and CEO of CBIA to have a candid conversation about Connecticut’s business climate, challenges, and how to change perceptions about the state’s future. Listen to the full conversation, or follow along via the full transcript below.
How It All Began
0:00:09 – Greg Shimer, Director of Business Development at Rebel Interactive Group
Bryn Tindall is the founder and owner of Rebel Interactive Group, a digital marketing agency located in Cheshire, Connecticut. They recently expanded into a much larger facility coming from Southington, to bring nearly 100 jobs to the community, which range from website developers, SEO specialists, audio-visual professionals, designers, strategists, content creators and more. Bryn Tindall, a serial entrepreneur, has started and sold several businesses in his career. Originally based in Florida, he moved to Connecticut about 20 years ago because of the opportunity he saw in being in an ideal location between Boston and New York. Before becoming President and CEO of CBIA, the largest business organization in Connecticut, Chris DiPentima was General Manager at Leggett and Pratt Aerospace in Middletown and President of Pegasus Manufacturing. Prior to joining Pegasus, DiPentima spent eight years as an attorney representing corporations and individuals on a broad range of issues, including labor, employment, contract, workers’ compensation and mergers and acquisitions.
Greg Shimer, Director of Business Development at Rebel Interactive Group, continued:
The state of the state of Connecticut is one of two seemingly opposite perspectives. On one side of the discussion, everything is fantastic and going well. The state has added over 14,000 new jobs since the beginning of the year. On the other side, Connecticut ranks 44th in overall job growth nationwide and while the national job growth rate is 2.9%, Connecticut’s is at 1.7%. While Connecticut has 39% more job openings than at this time in 2020, the state’s labor force lost 2,000 people in February and has declined by 42,800, or 2.2%, over the last 12 months. According to Chris DiPentima, the President and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the CBIA, the solution lies in bringing more people to the state. Bryn Tindall, owner and CEO of Rebel Interactive Group, one of the fastest growing companies in Connecticut, concurs but believes that there is a deeper challenge at play. Rebel Interactive has grown by double digits even during the pandemic, but has found recruitment challenges because of the overall sentiment that expenses, especially taxes, are higher in Connecticut and that there are fewer opportunities around here than in our other New England neighbors.
Recently, the two leaders shared breakfast together in downtown Middletown and had an informal discussion about the current state of the state, the business climate and the challenges of modifying residents’ perceptions and more. This fascinating and informative exploration led to this podcast, an extension of this conversation that was built on the ideas and thoughts that came from the original discussion. So, one of the first questions we’re going to talk about today is the current state of the state of Connecticut, for both the positive and the negative job numbers and concerns regarding the perceptions.
So, this question is to both of you: What do you see happening here in the near future, both in the business community and also for residents, and where do you see the potential roadblocks and avenues for growth, whether in business, demographically or otherwise? And again, that question is to both of you Chris, do you want to go first?
Chris DiPentima: I’ll start, Bryn.
Hearing from Chris
0:02:58 – Chris DiPentima, President and CEO of CBIA
Yeah, you know the state of the state. It’s a bit of a mixed bag right now and I think that’s why sometimes you have people who are looking at it as a half glass full and then other people who want a half glass empty. But a lot of our economic numbers are really middle of the road and, as I was just saying before we came on, we got some really good news today with the GDP numbers (Gross Domestic Product) from 2022 and Connecticut was 17th in the country.
Better than middle of the road.
Yeah, right, that’s really good and better than we were last year. And, yeah, there was some softening in the fourth quarter, but that was across the whole country. But that combined with two really good job numbers in January and February in Connecticut, where we added 14,000 people over the last two months to the job force. That’s 30,000 that we added last year, so that’s almost half of what we did in the whole 12 month period.
Those are two really bright spots, and so I think those who want to take the glass half full approach and maybe they’ve done a little bit more than half full after the GDP numbers. That’s why we’re seeing construction and residential areas, especially in our urban environment. That’s why we’re seeing a lot of investment from our manufacturing community. But there’s certainly some hurdles and there’s the perception of where we’ve came from cycles of deficits in the 2010 to 2018 period of time and so those who are maybe a little concerned just want some more convincing and want to see some good things come out of the session that the legislators are going through right now.
Hearing from Bryn
0:04:23 – Bryn Tindall, CEO and Owner of Rebel Interactive Group
So I would say it’s interesting watching. You know we built a product to capture applicants here at Rebel right?, and you know we just came through a last couple of years of just battling attrition and recruiting and also just a little bit of hoarding of talent, both ourselves and just overall marketplace right, because what ended up happening here is because corporations allowed people to work remotely, our competition became global and, you know, domestic right, it wasn’t just competing against Greater Hartford or Greater Connecticut. That all came to just a crashing halt somewhere in May of last year and you could feel it by attrition numbers internally, you could feel it by a spike in applicants and it obviously mirrors what’s happening in a broader sense with respect to some of the layoffs that you’ve read about and so forth. So those aren’t just happening nationally. They’ve happened, you know, locally and regionally. But also what’s happened is if you, when you look at sort of sales and opportunities and so forth, there has been a dramatic uptick in lead generation and just opportunities since somewhere about October or November of last year.
The Importance of Capital
Bryn Tindall, CEO and Owner of Rebel Interactive Group, continued:
You know, which is another thing that I used to measure what comes next, and it’s been interesting watching where these opportunities are coming from, because they’re not just local, they’re regional and national and so forth. But the size, scope, and scale of what people are investing in is interesting to keep an eye on too, because I think it’s a harbinger of what’s to come, and mid to small businesses has not stopped, is what I would say. The greater majority of the marketplace is still building, and not waiting and trying to time interest rates and inflation is what we’re seeing right as you move up the food chain and you’re dealing with the tip of the top. They are actually trying to time investment with, I believe, the price of capital, and so decisions that might have happened in fourth quarter got moved to first quarter. Decisions they thought were going to happen in first quarter got moved out, and they’re literally trying to time it because of what they perceive as the price of capital and opportunities.
Looking at the Glass Half Full
0:06:39 – Greg Shimer, Director of Business Development at Rebel Interactive Group
It’s interesting that you say that. So I hear it both in your voices — optimism.
You know the numbers, you know what’s going on and you see everyday positivity. The challenge I think everybody seems to sort of struggle with is sort of the perception that people have with the state, with the region. I mean, you yourself said it’s like my god, we’re in the top third now of GDP growth. That’s fantastic. There’s going to be more job growth happening here, there’s more small business growth in this area, and yet you hear this negativity on the other side of things, where people literally apologize for living here in Connecticut, saying, “Hey, it’s nice to meet you, where are you from? I’m from Connecticut…sorry to say it” and it’s just funny, right, Like why does it have this dual identity? Why do you think Connecticut has this dual identity?
0:07:25 – Chris DiPentima, President and CEO of CBIA
Well, we had a bit of a lost decade from 2010 to 2020, where again, we went through budget deficits and tax hikes. Some businesses left, a lot of residents left too, and so there’s that history. The other thing is, we used to talk about this in my former life with my employees. You have to give an employee about 10 “atta boys” for every bad one, and so Connecticut right now, we’re getting maybe one or two “atta boys” for every maybe one bad metric. I could talk about some negative job metrics: 100,000 job openings, and Bryn just talked about the inability to really find workers or population growth that hasn’t been that great the last year, with only 0.1%, but 3,000 people moved to this state.
So you need the 10 “atta boys” for the one negative sometimes, and until we get some more mixed balance of that, versus two or three to one, I think we continue to have a little bit of a burn on our hands from the stove of what happened from 2010 to 2020 going, “Ok, are we really a new state? Have we come out of this? Have we learned our lessons from the past, or are there some negative metrics that come out?” It’s just a reminder that we haven’t really grown that much. We haven’t developed at the state that much. We’re not a new state and that’s where you hear that mixed messaging and unfortunately, I think some of the folks who live in Connecticut have attended to the holder heads down even more so.
Recognizing the Good in Connecticut
Chris DiPentima, President and CEO of CBIA, continued:
Because we know how incredible our state is. We know education is one of the best in the country, our workforce is one of the most productive in the world, but we have great small, mid-sized businesses that you were just talking about in this state and a quality of life here with mountains and beaches. So we know how incredible our state is. It has an amazing foundation and we know how great it can be. But we haven’t gotten there yet and so we’re like we’re perfectious, we knock ourselves and that’s that mix that you get and we apologize for it a lot.
Yes, you’re absolutely right, which is frustrating. We’ve got to change that message and, because perception sometimes will become reality, we’ve got to remind folks that that perception is not reality today, that we’re a new state and we’re a new Connecticut.
0:09:35 – Greg Shimer, Director of Business Development at Rebel Interactive Group
So that’s one of the questions I wanted to pose to Bryn is that Bryn didn’t grow up here in Connecticut. Bryn grew up outside of Connecticut and decided to bring his business here, largely because of the vicinity of being near New York City in Boston. That was a huge advantage, right? So instead of living in Manhattan, he lives here in Greater Connecticut and now he’s able to operate and still have a family. So that kind of leads that question to you, Bryn, is where do you see other states doing right against Connecticut and what do you see Connecticut doing right against them?
The Hub for Business
0:10:08 – Bryn Tindall, CEO and Owner of Rebel Interactive Group
To summarize what you said. You know I specifically, you know, was down in Tampa, Florida, during the whole dot com bust, boom kind of thing, and I very vividly remember missing that there, right. In other words, it just didn’t happen and I looked around and saw it happening in all kinds of places, you know, New York and Boston, in the greater area here, and you know Priceline was a darling, if you remember them at that time, you know, and you could point to places where we just I missed it, right. And so I specifically started to seek out a place that I could get between Boston and New York, and then, you know, had a young family, as you said, and this looked like an ideal place to do it. I would say, from that point of view, this was the right decision, right. What was happening in the greater Tampa area is, as the business grew, is, every time a decision needed to be made, I’d have to get on a plane to come up here, you know, and so I just realized I got to go where the decision makers are and I loved the fact that. You know, Florida is a huge state those of you that have been there. You can’t get to anywhere fast, right, you know. And here you can get down to New York and get up to Boston a day and get back, and it was just an ideal geography. And then you look at where the decision makers live — They’re from Boston to New Jersey, basically the run much of the US and, much honestly, most of the world, and so that’s what put me here.
What I was amazed, though, as Chris, you and I have talked, is just how quickly the locals get to the newbies and start to taint their viewpoint on their decision to move here in the first place.
That’s what I’m thinking about trying to reverse. Why would I want to move here if everybody who lives here has a plan to leave here? Why would I want to move my company here if everybody I talk to says it’s this is in the place to be? I think there’s an opportunity to reverse that and start spinning positivity back out into the marketplace, the broader Connecticut community and beyond. So when you start to think about Connecticut, you hear about all the positive stuff that’s here, you start to consume that content and change the, change the narrative, if you will. There’s, there’s oceans, there’s mountains — there’s all the things that we we sort of take for granted that people don’t really think about the area, and and and change the narrative, which will then begin to change people’s viewpoint about whether to move here or not move here.
Changing Our messaging
0:12:26 – Greg Shimer, Director of Business Development at Rebel Interactive Group
I agree. I mean, I’m a lifelong resident of Connecticut, lived in different areas. One of the areas that I like is (sort of) the Quiet Corner. You know the Quiet Corner is a beautiful area, but people look at it and sort of downsize and you have to see it for yourself. You see all these little nooks and crannies and these beautiful areas and that goes to the mountains, that goes to the beaches and it’s fascinating. If you just look, if you just want to experience it. And I think, again, all of us see that positivity and the opportunity.
But going to you for just a moment, Chris, in respect to like, you see things like the CNBC growth, they say things like, “Oklahoma is an awesome place to do business” and it’s like, really? Why? What’s so great about Oklahoma? And they say they talk about ABCDE, but you see, you see different things, like in the state of Connecticut that you know that we are doing far better. How do we actually change that? Not just simply internally right, Internally is its own fight, but you look at the external, the image of Connecticut as a region in general, like why should I move my business in Connecticut? So you just talked about a semiconductor business moving here in Windsor bringing 2,500 jobs, and this is just isn’t minimum wage jobs. These are jobs, jobs. This is going to eclipse long term what happened to Lego. Talk about that. You know how can we as Connecticut work together to bring more people in, better companies in?
0:13:56 – Chris DiPentima, President and CEO of CBIA
Yeah, I agree with Bryn. A lot of it is the messaging and we’ve got to bring more people in because that’s how we’re going to fill the job openings and that lack of population growth is really the root cause of a lot of issues like why we can’t fill jobs.
If you get more people living here, you get more people paying tax revenues, so you don’t have to raise taxes. You actually lower taxes on the people, on the greater people’s body to live here and also on corporations. So it’s messaging. When I started at CBIA two and a half years ago, literally the first new position I created was a Social Media and PR position, because CBIA wasn’t very active in social media one, and it wasn’t about advertising social media, it was to support one of my four strategic pillars, which is what I call the “hearts of mind strategy”, and that’s really winning the hearts of mind of Connecticut residents as well as its policymakers, because they influence a lot on the importance of our business community — that we’re not just brick and mortar, we’re not just CEOs trying to line their pockets, that we’re not actually not just even job creators, which is tremendous. Most states would just love a job creator but how much our businesses do for the local communities. I mean, look at you guys here at Rebel. You just moved to Cheshire. I happened to be here with the open house when we were cutting the ribbon and the closeness and the family and the community really embracing and welcoming you guys.
And that’s one of the tremendous things about Connecticut that I think we separate ourselves from the state. We have here relationships that I call one degree of separation. You can pretty much get to anybody else in the state, whether the CEO of The Hartford or Travelers or some resident running a small business, through one person. In other states it’s like six degrees. It’s Kevin Bacon of separation and I think that’s some messaging that we have to put out there. And that’s what we really try to do in our social media is to personify the business community, talk about the great things they’re doing in this state, so our residents and policymakers are more educated and that perception is changed and they now understand reality. And to Bryn’s point, I’d say we take that to the next level and that’s really us as a community here in Connecticut doing that about Connecticut as a whole, all the great things Connecticut has, not just the business side but everything else that we create.
0:15:56 – Bryn Tindall, CEO and Owner of Rebel Interactive Group
I don’t think people think that when they have a conversation on a plane ride with somebody from Denver saying, “Yeah, I’m getting ready to leave” shrug their shoulders so that people notice. But you multiply that out times, hundreds and thousands of conversations, you can understand what the outside world thinks. It’s funny because when I lived in Tampa and I was considering Connecticut, you started doing some research around there and it has a completely different viewpoint about what Connecticut is and could be versus what Connecticut folks think about Connecticut. It was much more positive and I just found that really interesting. And so what I’m focused on, Chris, like you said, is we have to start internally, change the hearts and minds and what people are saying and try to focus on all the positive things here and then begin to spin that narrative out in the marketplace and see what happens. Because I think perception is reality for most folks. If we can change what they perceive it to be and the reality is here already that’s where the energy in my mind should be.
Yeah, it will go there.
0:17:05 – Chris DiPentima, President and CEO of CBIA
And then that’s why I’m so vocal and CBIA so vocal, and some in the business community, and I’m so vocal around some of the policies that are raised in Hartford, because even if they don’t become a bill, legislation, law, it eventually ends up on a Google page as someone who does research and it’s just make sure your message is consistent. We’re going to do everything we can to grow Connecticut, make it better for our residents, make it better for our businesses and make us the best state in the country, because we have the bones. It’s putting the meat in the bones — around it — and that’s why it’s so critical when we talk to our policymakers. Everything you do, every little bill you raise, is a message. Make sure it’s the right one. And everything we do in business is a message. Make sure we’re doing the right message and every resident make sure. And then I think we then get that culmination that Bryn is talking about, where all of a sudden now we’ve got a big message that we’re all talking about.
0:17:51 – Bryn Tindall, CEO and Owner of Rebel Interactive Group
Amplify it out in the marketplace.
The Future of Connecticut
0:17:54 – Greg Shimer, Director of Business Development at Rebel Interactive Group
Well, that’s sort of my last question…so we have the bones right?, and now we want to put the meat on, we want to build the muscle, we want to build the joints and all the other stuff. So in the future, right?.
So where people would have looked at Connecticut and seen us as the insurance capital of the world. But now there’s changes happening, like a semiconductor business coming, fiber materials are coming, things like that. That type of manufacturing is coming back. Gee whiz, electric boat is just booming right now. I mean, you know they’re going to be busy for the next decade plus that kind of thing. Where do you both see the future of Connecticut? Not necessarily as an image, but as business. So do you see more manufacturing? Do you see more support services? Do you see another casino and things like that? What is on your mind for, let’s say, the one, three, five in the future?
0:18:42 – Chris DiPentima, President and CEO of CBIA
Yeah, manufacturing, I think will always be, you know, at the core of Connecticut. We’ve been innovating products since the 1800s and continue to do so today Electric boat going like crazy. We’ve got aerospace and defense, medical device manufacturers, consumer manufacturers, automotive. We’ve got a mix of manufacturing as well, so as as any one subsector of manufacturing aerospace, for example, if they drop, we have other subsectors that are maybe doing okay and manufacturing seems to kind of work itself through.
Logistics, warehousing and transportation is growing Connecticut like crazy. Behind technology, It’s the second fastest growing sector and that’s because our property here is less expensive than New York or Boston but you have access to ports and airports and the things logistics, warehousing, and transportation want. So that’s a business that we can continue to capitalize here in Connecticut. The tech services industry is the fastest growing industry in Connecticut and that’s because everything we talk about needs that, whether it’s cybersecurity, fintech and the manufacturers needing technology now and really embracing productivity.
And you know, one of the things going back to the start of the conversation, ending the conversation is our GDP grew last year and was one of the better ones in the country, despite the fact that we didn’t fill as many jobs as we had, and that’s a credit to the businesses because they probably embrace productivity gains, efficiency gains, and a lot of that is technology based. And so I think we’re really going to rely on the tech sector even more and more in Connecticut to get productivity gains, to get more output from our businesses, and that’s certainly a growing sector and one that we’ve got to fill some of the jobs because it’s right now a lot of musical chairs going in that sector. But growing sector for Connecticut. Businesses want to be there, they’re customers and there’s a lot of technology needs here in Connecticut.
0:20:23 – Bryn Tindall, CEO and Owner of Rebel Interactive Group
I think something that’s not talked about here is the intellectual capital in the marketplace, with all the folks who used to work in New York and used to work in Boston that are back here and live here.
There’s a huge amount of consultancies here that are actually driving decisions all over the world that are located all over Connecticut. Some of the biggest consultancies in America are marketing consultancies based in South Connecticut, as you know. Many of those decisions that used to look like advertising and tech have relocated their businesses here because of COVID or the owner lives here and they have a hybrid workforce now and again, you don’t hear about this because they didn’t go put a building up. I’ve always felt that the intellectual capital here across America, is really strong here and the connections of these folks you talk about one degree of separation. Many of these people are supremely connected across America and plugging in to that mindset in those folks, I think is an area that Connecticut you don’t hear a lot of people talking about, but I do believe it’s one of its competitive advantages in the world.
0:21:33 – Greg Shimer, Director of Business Development at Rebel Interactive Group
Well, thank you both for your time to be able to talk about this.
Thank you for your opinions.
Thank you. Always great having the conversation.
0:21:39 – Bryn Tindall, CEO and Owner of Rebel Interactive Group
Thank you Greg.
Thank you guys.