By Lee Davis
A phone call from the governor’s office was the last thing in the world Greg Canfield was expecting on Independence Day weekend of 2011.
After a successful career in business and on the Vestavia Hills City Council, Canfield had settled in at his position as the chairman of the Commerce and Small Business Committee in the Alabama House of Representatives. Changing positions wasn’t even on his radar when the call from Montgomery came.
“Someone from Governor (Robert) Bentley’s office was on the line and wanted to know if I was interested in taking a job in the administration,” Canfield recalled last week. “But he wouldn’t tell me what position it would be. I told them there was one job I would take, but I wouldn’t be more specific. He said he’d get back to me. About an hour later, he called back and offered me the job of director of the Department of Commerce. I told him that was the one job I would take, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Since then, Canfield has worked tirelessly to tell the success stories of Alabama to all parts of the nation and the world – and also to tell his fellow Alabamians what their state has to offer.
“We actually do a lot of third party promoting as we let the companies that have come here talk about the good things that have happened since they have chosen to locate in Alabama,” Canfield said. “They can best tell the Alabama story through their positive experiences in our state.”
Canfield said that Alabama’s best selling point is its people.
“All of the companies who have come are impressed with the type of workers they get,” he said. “They are high-quality people who are productive and have a strong work ethic.”
Alabama’s winning approach to attracting new industry involves three pillars, according to Canfield.
“First is the quality and work ethic of our citizens,” Canfield reiterated. “Second is the great business environment we have created with corporate tax rates that encourage growth and investment. Also is the fact that we are a right-to-work state, where workers can choose whether or not they want to join a union.”
Canfield said that many Alabamians do not realize the success that the state is having when it comes to bringing in more and better jobs.
“We tend to be our most severe critics,” he explained. “Most people I meet don’t realize that our state is the fifth-largest producer of vehicles in the nation. And we are the third-largest exporter of vehicles in the nation. Our growth is coming from far more than just manufacturing. We are growing in technology and science. We have more than 14,000 people employed in the bio-science field.”
The aerospace industry is thriving as well, and not only in traditional areas such as Huntsville, Canfield said. Airbus’s presence in Mobile gives a high technology presence in the southern part of the state.
“Boeing employs about 3,500 people in Alabama,” Canfield noted.
One of the biggest challenges for Alabama is the intensity of the competition to lure quality industries.
“We not only compete with our neighboring other states but also states from other regions and foreign countries – Mexico in particular. Even the more liberal states like New York have figured out that the best way to draw new industries is with lower taxes and a better business environment.”
Another of Canfield’s innovations is the creation of the Commerce Department’s Workforce Development Division, which works to connect Alabamians entering the job market to in-state opportunities in their chosen fields.
“We want to create an awareness among our citizens of what is available right here,” he said. “For example, someone with a degree in aerospace engineering might think he might have to go to Houston or California to get a good job. We want to get the word out about what’s available right here at home – and not only in Huntsville.”
The issue of trade policy has come into the spotlight in the 2016 presidential campaign. Canfield said Alabama’s exporters want international open markets for their products but understand that it must be a two-way street.
“We produce many fine products and we have a great opportunity to expand our presence in international trade,” he said. “There are good trade deals and bad trade deals. We want trade to be free – but also fair.”
Times and economic conditions will change, but Canfield is optimistic about Alabama’s future. “One thing that impresses me most is the spirit of cooperation between local governments, the state and business,” he said. “I learned an appreciation for that when I served on the Vestavia City Council. As long as that continues, I’m very excited about what lies ahead for us economically.”
Canfield isn’t quite as direct in discussing his political plans for the future.
“I’m not ready to talk about that now,” he said. “I just want to do all I can to help our state grow and prosper.”