Interview with Secretary of Commerce Woody Thrasher

Harrison County businessman Woody Thrasher was named Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Commerce by Gov. Jim Justice in December 2016. We spoke to him recently about the future of the West Virginia economy. Thrasher is the former president of The Thrasher Group, an engineering and architectural firm in Harrison County that he started with his father in 1983.

RCBI: What are your priorities as Secretary of Commerce?

Thrasher: To be very clear, it is to create jobs in West Virginia. It is a simple message, but how do you do it? When you look at West Virginia, certainly one size does not fit all. I have, for the sake of simplicity, put it into two categories, and they respond to different deficiencies that we have within the state:

The first category is something that is going to assist us to work our way out of this budget deficit. In order to do that we have to attract businesses that provide substantial employment, pay taxes, and do all the sorts of things that are going to help us come out of this financial nightmare that we are living today.

The second component has to do with the small communities that are scattered across West Virginia. They make up what in my estimation is the fabric of the state. For us to be the West Virginia that we know and love, these small communities have to be viable. In my whole career, I have visited nearly every community in West Virginia. I started my company 34 years ago, and our initial clients were small towns, counties and public service districts. I have done projects in literally all 55 counties, so I really know the state very well. I’m really sad to say that except for a very few exceptions, all those communities have been on a general decline since I began 34 years ago. I think it is imperative that we provide opportunity and hope to those smaller communities. Those two main things are how we are going to create jobs.

RCBI: What industries look the most promising to you?

Thrasher: I have been really impressed with what our Development Office has done with very limited resources. I think we need to build on the successes we have already achieved and exploit them even further. At the top of the list is the shale gas option that has the biggest opportunity for rate of return.   In and of itself, shale gas is a total game changer. There is a lot to be done, but we really want to focus on those value-added products: something other than simply burning that resource but utilizing it as a source of carbon in manufacturing. That is off in the distance a bit, but the promise that it provides, the opportunity, is unparalleled.

In addition to that, we want to build on those successes that the Development Office has had under my predecessors. The Procter & Gamble facility is a huge win for West Virginia. And we see lots of opportunities for off-shoots from that industry. In central West Virginia is the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex, located in Harrison County, where we have Bombardier and Pratt and Whitney. We feel that there are more opportunities there to service the aerospace industry, so I think that’s promising.

When you go to the Northern Panhandle, and you see Orrick and the sort of back office operations that have been done by that Wheeling Development Authority, I think those are opportunities. In Southern West Virginia, we do have vast pieces of property that are fairly flat that require infrastructure. It is also a place that calls for our assistance at a greater extent than anywhere else. We can look across the state and see a very mixed bag.

RCBI: How do you identify priorities when there are so many challenges?

Thrasher: I’m an engineer, so I fall back to a simple mathematical analysis. We’re going to look for those places where we are going to get the greatest rate of return possible. Now, shale gas is a gamble. It’s not a guaranteed rate of return, but the returns are so high that it warrants investing resources. It’s such a big win if you are able to do that.

In other areas, we are competing with our surrounding states. What we have to do is come in to parity with those states to be able to compete. My first priority is to get sufficient resources from our Legislature to enable the Development Office and also the Division of Tourism to be able to really to compete within our surrounding states. So again we have identified those areas that we think have potential and promise; we just want the resources to invest in those existing companies that want to grow or new companies that want to move in.

RCBI: It is going to be a challenging year with the budget. But you are going to push for funding for your department?

Thrasher: It is one of Gordon Gee’s favorite sayings, and I have always believed it, “Don’t waste a good crisis.” What I really mean by that is sometimes you just need to throw status quo out the window. I know of nowhere that makes more sense in than West Virginia. As our governor said, “We certainly learned how to be 50th.” And if we hope to be something other than 50th it’s going to take a dramatic shift to how we conduct ourselves, particularly relative in how we attract business. It is challenging, but I also think it is full of opportunity. I think there is a general consensus across the state that what happened in the past hasn’t worked, so now let’s try something different. I very, very much hope that there is a mindset that’s open to trying something different. Keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result, as Einstein said, defines being nuts.

RCBI: What segment of the economy worries you most or concerns you most?

Thrasher: The easy answer would be coal mining, but I would alter that. I would say the lack of diversification is what scares me most because natural resources have historically been the component of our economy that saved the day, year after year after year, and we actually became dependent upon it. It was a fallback position, and I think we lost our edge along the way -- that edge of good competitiveness, entrepreneurism, creativity -- because we always had those steady revenues coming in. OK, that’s over. I think the biggest concern is maintaining and dramatically strengthening our diversity.

RCBI: The governor mentioned manufacturing in the state of the state address. What do you think about manufacturing in West Virginia and what can be done to support it?

Thrasher: Our automotive industry is a continually growing base of economic development and clearly an example of diversification in our economy. What Toyota has done is just phenomenal. When you look at Hino and their expansion that they are contemplating over in the Parkersburg area, it’s enormous. Those are manufacturing and assembly-type facilities. Looking at Procter & Gamble, there will be great manufacturing opportunities over there as support services to that. I think that manufacturing will be one of the primary, key players in diversifying our economy. It’s at the top of the list.

RCBI: What can the state do to promote growth among existing companies?

Thrasher: First, compete with surrounding states. When companies decide they are going to expand, they typically pick a region. Then they look at those states in that region, and they see what incentives there are. We have not begun to have the resources anywhere close to our neighboring states. If we want to compete, we need to correct that. I think of it as not an expense but an investment, and if we don’t invest in our future, we are not going to have one. My mother had a favorite saying, “If you aim at nothing you are bound to hit it,” and I think it is very apropos for this situation. If West Virginia is really going to climb out of these doldrums, then we are going to have to come prepared to play the game and win it. That means resources. It’s tough to get resources in this economic climate, but I would argue to not do it is absolutely foolhardy. You absolutely guarantee your failure if you don’t.

RCBI: What kind of incentives are you describing?

Thrasher: More often than not, it’s preparing our sites so they are ready for industry. We are challenged in a variety of ways, but it may be bringing utilities to a site. We are not in the development business, we are in the site-enhancement business. I think it has to do with making sites ready and available. Sometimes it’s great workforce training, and sometimes it is incentives in terms of forgivable loans if they reach certain employment levels. So there is a combination of things we do that I think could yield results. But, if we don’t have the resources, if we’re not given the tools in our toolbox, we will not be successful. I have had a pretty successful business career, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize if you want to make a little money you need to have a little money. And for us to be successful, without the fundamental financial resources we need, is foolish.  

RCBI: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?  

Thrasher: This is a new West Virginia. We have new leadership, we have new thinking, we’re business-friendly, and we will provide opportunities to succeed in West Virginia. To our citizens, my statement is this: Recognize that in order to be successful we’re going to have to dramatically change the way we have done business. If somebody has a better alternative than us, I encourage them to come forward and articulate it. If not, then we need to solidly get behind the plan we have to try to bring prosperity to West Virginia.

RCBI: Are we talking about the plan the governor laid out in the state of the state address – a combination of cuts and tax increases?

Thrasher: Yes. Let me clarify something: I don’t think anyone wants to raise taxes. This administration is not for raising taxes. We look at West Virginia, and it’s analogous to a patient on life support. The revenue enhancements that we have are to keep that patient alive so we are able to fight another day. We have to recognize that we are under very dire circumstances right now. So the tax increases are not really tax increases; they are just the things that we need to do to keep West Virginia viable at a time when it is teetering on not being viable. Then we really get to the business of making it a place that attracts businesses that are going to provide those jobs. At the end of the day, prosperity begins with a job. It’s that simple.