Plucked from 50 metro areas, how Tampa Bay won key Bristol-Myers Squibb expansion

Published May 16 2014
Updated May 16 2014

There are business recruitments. And then there are game-changing business recruitments.

A big example of the latter is the January arrival in Tampa of pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb and its opening of its North America Capability Center promising 600 jobs in office space near Tampa International Airport.

The arrival here of such a prominent life science player, says Allen Brinkman, SunTrust bank chief and chairman of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., "can change the face of our economy."

The company, with dual headquarters in Manhattan and Princeton, N.J., is a global powerhouse in developing drugs. Its market value of $81 billion is larger than that of Tampa Bay's 10 largest headquartered companies combined. And while Bristol-Myers Squibb could have picked anywhere to launch this capability center — it began by looking at 50 metro areas — the company ultimately chose the Tampa Bay region.

Why here? Why us? Why now?

This past week, we got answers. Lee Evans, executive director of Bristol-Myers Squibb's 4-month-old capability center here explained how his company narrowed its selection to a building on Eisenhower Avenue in Tampa.

His tale is insightful. It sheds light on how big companies go about finding the right place to expand. It confirms that the economic development machinery of Tampa/Hillsborough (with good backup from Pinellas County) is doing its job well. And it offers at least the promise that whatever mix of factors lured Bristol-Myers Squibb to this area will be noticed by other leading life science corporations.

Big competitors closely watch one another to see what's new, where they are expanding and if it makes sense to follow a similar path.

"Big pharma begets big pharma," Evans says.

Evans' corporate journey to Tampa was carefully controlled, analytical and rapid — in the style of Bristol-Myers Squibb.

It started in April 2013, when Evans was put in charge of a search effort to find the best place for its new North America Capability Center. The center would house scientists, IT experts, business and accounting managers, and human resource people in an experimental mix to help the global corporation become more efficient and quicker in delivering quality drugs to the marketplace.

"This would not be another back office in Tampa," Evans insists. "This is a greenfield opportunity of new hires to mold into a new type of culture." He calls it "culture-plus."

But I'm jumping ahead. First, Evans had to get here.

The search team first gathered at Bristol-Myers Squibb's already sprawling facility in New Jersey. Office space there is pricey. So are salaries to attract and keep talent. It does not help that an area three-bedroom, two-bath ranch house can easily run $600,000 or more.

The search team chose to look only in the eastern and central time zones to remain reasonably close to its headquarters.

It first examined 50 metro areas for the kinds of business, cost and workforce factors it wanted. An analysis narrowed that list to 16 metros before they were ranked and due diligence was performed. Three finalists — all in the Southeast — involved personal visits (all without identifying the company) and detailed meetings with economic development officials and leading business and educational executives. Incentives offered by each of the three metro areas were also weighed.

"The people in the Tampa Bay region were extremely impressive," says Evans, who told his story Thursday at a gathering of the Tampa Hills­borough EDC. "We left with a very solid feeling." He declines to say what other two Southeastern metro areas made the cut, though it's already been reported that at least one of those cities is in North Carolina.

A few details help put Tampa over the top. Most important, Evans says, is the availability and low cost of the available workforce. That's thanks to the existing life science companies here and the lower pay scale compared to New Jersey. The presence of the University of South Florida and a community with military veterans was attractive. So was the area's existing cluster of "shared services" similar in job makeup to the planned capability center. A final plus: Florida's overall affordability.

Then Evans offers a deeper insight, beyond the usual cost-benefit stuff.

He calls it the "first move advantage." What he means is that Bristol-Myers Squibb sees the Tampa Bay market as a promising one for a big pharma business because so few competitors have arrived yet to grab up local talent or inflate industry wages.

"We saw this as an opportunity for us to gain experience in an area where we could be a life science employer of choice," Evans says.

Looking ahead, Evans urges Tampa Bay to do all it can to attract more life science businesses that are focused on the hottest growth areas. He cites personalized medicine (tailoring drugs and treatment to individual patients) and research that can expedite drugs to the marketplace. He encourages a workforce with computational and mathematical skill sets that will be critical in analyzing massive life science data. He praises more "multidisciplinary" university graduates trained to handle both life science and business challenges. And he gives a plug to STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) studies in public schools.

Evans seems easy going with a self-deprecating sense of humor that puts folks at ease. He cautions at the start of his remarks that he's not the most exciting orator, deadpanning that his first training as a speaker came from a speech writer for President Gerald Ford.

He warns that a lot of what he says is vetted by lawyers, in keeping with the heavily regulated drug research business. When his capability center threw a party last week to celebrate its four-month anniversary, each employee got one beer and one beer only — a reminder, he says, that attorneys are always watchful and that Bristol-Myers Squibb is, after all, a health care business.

And with a little luck, an economic transformer for this region.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at