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5 Tips for Building a Business Retention and Expansion Program

March 3, 2023 Tori McNiff

How to build a business retention programBusiness retention and expansion (BRE) programs must be an economic development priority in every community because up to 80% of new jobs and capital investment comes from existing businesses. Programs vary in size and scope based on a community’s size, organizational capacity, and resources available to break down communication silos.

The benefits of a BRE program are tangible. A growing, diverse tax base enables local economic developers to create additional programs focused on workforce development, business incubators, business marketing and attraction campaigns, etc.

Supporting entrepreneurs, building local relationships with plant managers, and creating a collaborative business environment takes annual, intentional strategic planning. Here are five quick tips to jumpstart your BRE planning.

1. Identify all businesses in your community — not just your major employers

With limited time and resources, it is easy for economic developers to focus only on major employers for industry visits, invitations to community events, and newsletter highlights, but be intentional about learning more about businesses of all sizes. This makes local economic development efforts more equitable and gives communities the opportunity to support small business growth.

A benefit of identifying and supporting small businesses is that a once-small business may grow into the largest employer in the community. Be the economic developer that screams “The sky is the limit!” and show each business that your community supports them and wants them there. This is the first step in building trust.

2. Use a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system

Using a CRM to build a current business database with updated contact information, industry visit information, new capital investments, or domestic supply chain connections may seem like an obvious BRE tool; however, many communities have never used one.

You do not need to pay for a large “enterprise package” in all cases, but your CRM should be robust enough to be flexible and make tracking data easier (not more time-consuming).

A CRM is important for a few reasons:

  • It simplifies communication with businesses by allowing users to send emails and digital surveys to identified contacts.
  • It can track organization support and services provided to businesses that follow an industry visit or event.
  • It allows users to track trends over time to identify new and emerging trends in the local economy that lead to new projects or priorities for resource allocation.
  • CRM data makes reporting on your BRE program easier and can be used to support community planning initiatives, like updating infrastructure or prioritizing funding for a rise in housing and childcare needs.
  • Tracking industries and understanding what each business does provides an opportunity to connect businesses to each other to grow the domestic supply chain.
  • Organization turnover is inevitable and continuing public-private partnerships is imperative for long term growth.

3. Conduct industry visits

After identifying businesses in your community, start reaching out to owners and plant managers to introduce yourself and your organization. Be clear that you are interested in learning more about the business, would like a tour (if possible), and that you are a resource for them.

Before visiting a business, be prepared with industry research, an understanding of what the business does, and a list of check-in questions to start conversations. Being prepared is the next step in building trust and building your credibility within the business community. For example, there are workforce shortages across the US, so when asking a business owner or plant manager about staffing needs, be prepared with follow-up questions and resources if they are having trouble hiring. Can you connect them to a local workforce board, a community college, or a university depending on the skills needed? How can you think outside the box to support business growth?

Other examples include providing information on grants, revolving loan funds, available land, or connections to other businesses to address supply chain issues, etc. Introduce the business to the resources but also support them through the process of accessing the means or contacts that are needed.

My biggest tip for industry visits (after being prepared) is listening and asking open-ended questions because I have seen business owners go from starting a meeting tight-lipped and concerned about why a city staff member is visiting them to ending a meeting with smiles and future plans to connect again. It is worth making the time to visit a business in person and leaving your contact information to continue the partnership.

4. Connect with businesses more than once a year

An annual visit is not enough to engage a business in the community. Sustaining strong public-private partnerships helps build industry networks that create clusters and organic collaboration. As an economic developer, create space for businesses to connect to each other, provide industry-specific quarterly or bi-annual newsletters, and engage business leaders in roundtables and monthly City Manager/Mayor breakfasts.

Providing opportunities for businesses to connect to each other and local/state government builds a sense of community amongst industries and provides accessibility that continues building trust.

5. Follow up

Following up sounds like the easiest tip out of all five, however it is often the most neglected tip due to staff capacity. People are busy and have a lot on their plate BUT following up on requested information or thanking a business owner for their time is the last critical step in building trust and consistency.

Following up can include a phone call, an email, or a handwritten note that reminds the business owner or plant manager that you are available to talk. This is especially helpful if a business is looking to move to another community or the business wants to expand in your community and needs additional support in doing so.

For example, during an industry visit I arranged at a previous job, a plant manager shared with me that the business wanted to expand but was unsure about the location, so I followed up with available land options and they started their search. The business ended up expanding on publicly owned industrial property and it was a really good fit for both the business and the community.

After following up, don’t forget to input details of the visit, the follow-up action, and the outcome into your CRM system so your organization can learn what is working and what is not.


Building trust and being a consistent and open communicator are the foundation of creating good industry relationships. As economic developers, we may not have the answers to all the questions from every industry, but we have the capability to find the answer and build connections. Business owners and plant managers appreciate and need community connectors and if, after reading this article, you find you need additional support in building a BRE program, please reach out to me. I am passionate about business retention programming and would love to hear about what you are doing in your community.