Bruce Wagner

Name: Bruce Wagner

Age: 68

Title: Chief executive officer

Organization: Finance Authority of Maine

About: FAME creates well paying jobs for Maine residents by working on workforce development.

Online: www.famemaine.com

 

What’s your biggest challenge right now? 

I think the biggest challenge is really encouraging people in Maine to value higher education at a greater level, and that’s because right now 38% of our high school graduates do not go on to any higher level of education. But we know in our efforts here, and our efforts … in writing the state’s economic development plan, that we really need to have more people with higher levels of education to meet the workforce needs of employers in the future. (That education includes four-year college, two-year college, technical and vocational training.)

In fact, I think one of the problems in the past was when FAME or perhaps other organizations talked about higher education, people were assuming it was a four-year degree. There could be many credentials of value as we described them and they cover the range. It’s going to be rare for someone to be able to come out with a high school degree and find employment that’s satisfying to them as employers invest in newer technologies in their businesses. I think that’s a big challenge for the state.

 

What is the most important lesson you have learned in the course of your career?

I tend to think in terms of the accountability, and that’s both personal and for the organization. I really try to run an organization that’s based on people keeping their commitments. I think that’s what drives excellence in performance and excellence in meeting your strategic plans and goals. I personally feel that I’m accountable for everything that happens in FAME. The people who work for me do also make commitments to do their part to achieve the goals that we’ve set.

As CEO, to boil it down, I have two big jobs. I have to see that we have a sound strategy to meet our challenges for the future, and then I’m the chief deployer. I have to make sure that strategy is well deployed. And in deployment at FAME — and any other organization I’ve ever run — I worked very hard to make sure that the people who are executing that plan know two things: the goal and their role. When they know their role, that involves making a precise commitment that’s unambiguous for what has to be achieved on their part of the plan.

This might’ve been my other answer, if I had another shot at the accountability (question). I’m a great believer that a good strategic plan. A well-deployed (plan) beats a great plan poorly deployed. I really work hard as a CEO to make sure that there’s a good crisp deployment and commitments made by the people who have to get it done.

 

What’s the value in being able to alter a long-term plan?

I do believe you have to be flexible. I think you want to set some goals that you stick to, and they don’t change a lot — but how you get there might. (In) discovery-driven planning, no one knows the future, so to do good strategic planning you’ve got to make a ton of assumptions. What we do here at FAME is we track our assumptions. We try our best to execute our plan based on the assumptions we made, but if they turn out to be wrong, we’re going to find that out fast. Because we track our plan and have metrics, we’re going to change how we go after things. I guess discovery-driven planning’s a fancy term for a learn as you go and adapt as needed.

One of the most important programs we thought that we would develop for the state of Maine was called an EB-5 program. An AB five program is a federal program that is designed to attract foreign investment into the state. It’s done for patient capital. You might have a foreign investor who’s willing to put in a half a million dollars of patient, low-return capital, and in exchange for that the U.S. Customs and Immigration Office will give them consideration on getting their green card.

FAME tried very hard to get an EB-5 program into the state. We actually had in our strategic plan to do that. We did earn EB-5 designation from the feds, and we tried for two years to make a go of it. What we found (was) that was different than what we thought when we went into it. It was too complex, and the cost of the money involved in EB-5 wasn’t that attractive to developers. I think sometimes in a strategic plan, knowing when to stop, when to give up on something is as important as when to stick with it. That’s an example where we gave it our best shot. We thought we had a great idea, but when we realized there was no market, we pulled the plug on it.

 

What’s your biggest concern?

I think  my biggest concern still has to do with workforce development for the state.

As a mission-driven organization where we measure our success by how many good paying jobs we create, we have to be successful in a push-pull strategy. Our push strategy is with helping people afford higher levels of education, and the pull strategy is with our economic development group, to try to make sure that jobs are there for people who have those those opportunities. Workforce development is a big one.

Then probably the biggest one behind that that I would highlight would be attracting new residents to Maine — part of that workforce mission. I think if you asked the average person in Maine whether the population was growing or contracting, a lot of people might take contracting. The good news is it’s grown in the last couple of years by a little bit, but we need to do a whole lot better. We need by 2030 to attract about 75,000 new residents. To me, it’s a very heavy lift, but I’ll tell you why we have to do it: 65,000 people will retire during the next 10 years. So we need to grow 75,000 just to get a little bit ahead.

That’s a huge challenge that’s not just FAME’s. We work in partnership with a lot of other agencies to try to pull that off. If Maine’s going to grow its economy, we have to have two things. We have to have the workforce be large enough, and they have to have the skills to meet employer requirements. (The state’s strategic plan) really focuses very intently on that issue. We’re creating internships, apprenticeships and other programs so that people can earlier on understand what employers want. Then employers can have an earlier look at people while they’re still in school to see if there’s a good match, and that’s also going to tie to some great efforts on the part of the community college and university system to create specialized training programs for people who come through those types of internships. We’re setting up systems right now for employers to meet with the public systems, community colleges and university systems, to make sure that what they’re teaching really does align. There’s been huge efforts there, but I think we need to do even better. I think the presidents of the system would agree with me. They’re very driven to do that.

 

Where will FAME be in five years?

We’re going to be on the same path, doing more of what we’ve been able to do.

I would very much like to see the Finance Authority be able to provide more help for business startups. Right now when we do economic development, a lot of the times we’re helping companies that are in distress and in need to turn around, which is my background, by the way. I did turnarounds most of my life, both in my career and then, at a company that I ran for many years here in Maine. A lot of times companies that are in distress or need help in a critical moment come to us, and we were there for them.

FAME should not exist unless we’re taking risks for public benefit, but we don’t do as much in the startup space. As our economy starts to grow and develop, I think in five years I want to see FAME playing a much more powerful role with the products and services to help more businesses start.


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