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A provision in this year’s state budget allowed N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker to create the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina Inc., a public-private partnership that will assume her department’s sales and marketing duties. In January, she named Richard Lindenmuth, 69, its interim executive director. The CEO of ITT Corp.’s business and consumer communications group in 1981-83, he spent most of the next 30 years leading companies in transition. The one constant in his career, he says, is change. He’s now charged with changing economic development in North Carolina.  The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.

 

 

How did you end up in the job?
Sharon Decker read an article I wrote about the rebirth of U.S. production — in which I said it’s no longer cheaper to manufacture in China — and said, “Would you be interested?” I’ve seen where public-private partnerships have been done poorly in other states, though each did things well. This is a chance to become the state that did it correctly.

What is North Carolina’s biggest challenge?
We’re not attracting the companies. It’s a very different world than it was back in the 1980s and 1990s. Whoever invented the service economy didn’t think about whom you serve. If nobody’s producing, you’re not serving anybody.

Will the partnership pitch or catch?
I think we play a leadership role, but part of that is to make things happen. In that sense we’re a catcher.

What’s your view of incentives?
It’s kind of like poker. You have to have something to ante to match other people. But they’re not the true difference.

What did you think of the battle to recruit Seattle-based Boeing Co.’s production?
Boeing was playing the best poker that I’ve seen in a while. It was really negotiating with its union and the state of Washington, and we all fell for it.

You’ve steered companies through crises. 
Is North Carolina a turnaround project?
This is organizational improvement. So often, companies lose their way because management does things the way it al-
ways has. A study found the difference between good and mediocre companies is that good ones push good ideas to the level where they can be acted on. That’s similar here. The good ideas are here.

As told to Ken Otterbourg