It’s no secret that biotech is booming right now, and for our company, as a high-tech engineering firm that runs a robust medical business, all the pieces were in place to expand with a new location. Normally, we’d be jet-setting around the country, our itineraries packed from dawn to dusk with hard-hat tours and working lunches. Beyond the standard meetings with local officials, we’d want to get a true feel for each city on the list of contenders, take the temperature of things on the ground, and ask ourselves if we could see this being the next outpost of Sandvik Materials Technology’s medical business.
Evidently, the standard site selection process hinges on an impossible task amid COVID-19: the ability to physically visit a location. So, we realized that if we wanted to proceed with our plans for growth, we’d have to rewrite the rulebook: We took the whole process online.
After countless hours of Zoom negotiations and enough virtual tours to make us question our depth perception in real life, we announced the opening of our new location in Tucson, Arizona, in September 2020, with plans to be fully operational by Q1 2021. The craziest part? I myself—and the vast majority of the Stockholm-based executive team at Sandvik Materials Technology—had never set foot in Tucson.
From a distance, however, we were already excited about operating there. We knew that the city is emerging as a thriving biotech hub, with a world-class technical workforce coming out of the University of Arizona, Pima Community College, and Arizona State University. We were also impressed to learn about Southern Arizona’s record of economic growth and stability, a key factor in any major corporate decision in these uncertain times. (Tucson was even named one of the top 10 American cities best positioned to recover from COVID-19 by Moody’s Analytics.) And although it involved a bit more screen time than we’re used to, we’re no less confident in our decision to open a location in Tucson.
In fact, we’re planning to replicate the all-virtual site selection process for expansions moving forward, global pandemic or not. Here are 5 things we learned from this first go-round:
Choose Your Team Strategically
We put together a small and carefully selected team of people from our existing medical business location in Palm Coast, Florida, to conduct the site selection process for this new location. We made sure to handpick each member based on their background, experience, and knowledge of the project needs, and only enlisted the help of other company departments (legal, risk management, etc.) as needed throughout the process in order to keep everything streamlined.
Narrow Your Options Up Front
We started the site selection process with the most basic of parameters that any company should consider—for instance, proximity to customer base (one of our key customer bases is the Southwest U.S.), available labor pool (we needed a region with talent to support our production needs), and a business-friendly economic environment that would make the expansion feasible. Identifying these basic needs allowed us to home in on specific cities in three states: Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.
CRE via URL
We needed to find available building space for lease, but COVID-19 limited our ability to travel and tour the spaces in person as we typically would during a site selection process. As an alternative, we used the web-based tool CREXi to accomplish this process virtually, and we worked with local commercial real estate agents to tour the sites that fit our size and configuration requirements via Zoom and other video platforms.
Lean on Local Partners
After identifying a dozen sites that met our needs, we started probing the local economic development groups in each of the target areas to gain a better understanding of how the region would match up with our criteria: location, logistics, talent pool, cost of doing business. Working closely with these organizations made it feel like we were there on the ground. The economic development group in Tucson, Sun Corridor, acted as a resource to us throughout all phases of the project, even after we settled on Tucson as our final decision. Finding partners that can connect with you virtually while advocating for you physically is invaluable in the new operating environment for growing businesses.
Zoom or Bust
We logged approximately 50 virtual meeting hours in order to make the final selection, but the time was well spent. In fact, if commercial real estate agents and economic development groups weren’t able to hold discussions and tours virtually, the potential target was disqualified. Ultimately, the time and money invested in the process were considerably less than if we had approached this in a conventional manner, and we’re thinking this will be the de facto way we make our expansion decisions moving forward.
Gary Davies is head of the medical business within Sandvik Materials Technology, part of the Stockholm-based high-tech engineering group Sandvik, which develops precision wires and wire-based components for various fields of medical technology such as vascular therapy, sensing, and neurostimulation.