2015 Powered by Women
With women-owned businesses in Michigan continuing to increase in number, we asked our readers to nominate female business leaders in the region who are driving profits, adding employees, and opening new opportunities.
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Director of Economic Development and Community Affairs
Oakland County, Pontiac
Employees: 83 | Budget: $8M
Irene Spanos says there’s a “secret sauce” to economic development, whether drawing new investment, adding to the workforce, or helping to enhance the business sector in Oakland County. “It’s all about building relationships with the executives and the decision-makers of a particular company or organization,” says Spanos, Oakland County’s director of economic development and community affairs.
Before Executive L. Brooks Patterson appointed her in 2011, Spanos spent seven years with the county as a senior business development representative, where she specialized in the biotechnology and medical devices sectors. She helped launch Medical Main Street, the county’s initiative to grow the life sciences and health care industries in the region.
She also sought out growth opportunities for the county by calling on companies headquartered in Europe. Recognizing that networking was a vital asset to making connections with key leaders, she became a member of the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce, the German American Chamber of Commerce, and the French Chamber of Commerce.
Thanks to Spanos and her team, last year the county reported its business expansion, attraction, and retention efforts resulted in an investment of $658 million. Overall, 112 deals were closed, which accounted for more than 11,000 new and retained jobs, direct foreign investment of $171 million, and nearly $43 million in loans closed.
“We also work with home-grown companies by providing connections to potential new business opportunities, because it benefits everyone if they grow and invest in their respective communities,” Spanos says. Her department also works with area educational institutions to develop curricula that meet future employment needs.
“Another major initiative we have is growing the IT sector,” Spanos says. “Right now, we have more than 2,000 IT companies, and Brooks wants us to be a national powerhouse in technology, connected cars, mobile apps, and connected car technology. When you merge those sectors with what’s happening in life sciences, aerospace, and health care, and as the automotive industry works to drive more technology inside vehicles, you’re going to revolutionize the next industrial boom.”
Recognizing that much of the success of economic development is the creation of new jobs, Spanos and her team work on two fronts. In addition to drawing new businesses and investment from outside the region, her department collaborates with local cities and villages to enhance downtown districts and retail corridors.
In Hazel Park, for example, the county is working with city officials to attract new businesses, including restaurants and retail operations. The county also applied for and received a federal grant to formulate an economic development strategy in Pontiac. The plan, expected to be ready shortly, will offer a blueprint for future development in one of the county’s most challenged communities.
Spanos also carves out time for a little fun. One recent milestone of the county’s success will require her to sport a chef’s hat and help prepare breakfast for members of her staff. “In April, our unemployment rate hit 5 percent, and it’s been a long time since we saw that number,” she says. “We work hard to improve the county every day, but you do have to take a little time to celebrate your successes.” — R.J. King