State of business: Bradley, key leader at U.S. Chamber, explains how N.J. stacks up against rest of country

The idea of a state business plan came up a lot last week during the ReNew Jersey Business Summit & Expo in Atlantic City. Simply put: Many feel the state needs to detail its vision — and post it for all to see.

Does it? Instead of asking the approximately 900 business and government leaders from within the state to talk about it, we went to an expert who lives and works outside the state: Neil Bradley, the chief policy officer and head of strategic advocacy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Bradley, who attended the event to do a keynote presentation with U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5th Dist.), is tasked with knowing how every state connects with business. And, when it comes to having a plan … Bradley said those who don’t, do not have a clear path forward.

“It’s a really big deal for a lot of reasons,” he told ROI-NJ. “A business plan lets everyone know where the state is going, and where it intends to go. It can help form a consensus. The idea is that having some plan that people buy into gives continuity across administrations, across legislatures.”

If you don’t …

“The most dangerous thing a state can do is to whipsaw policies back and forth all the time,” Bradley said. “If you’re doing that, businesses are going to say: ‘That state is too uncertain. I can’t plan my business because you can’t plan what you’re doing as a state.’

“That may be even worse than doing nothing at all.”

Bradley spoke with ROI-NJ after his appearance at the summit. Here’s a look at the conversation:

ROI-NJ: There’s always talk of what the state is doing wrong — or could do better. As someone who sees the way other states operate — and the challenges and opportunities they have — give us three things that New Jersey has going for it?

Neil Bradley: It’s well known that New Jersey has a highly educated workforce, but it also should be noted that you have institutions here who can help them continue in lifelong learning. That’s something that a lot of other places don’t have. Of course, the challenge is that you have to keep them here. And, interestingly, as much as there’s a focus on people leaving, if you look at the demographics, you’re not nearly as bad off as other states in terms of people of prime working age departing. 

The second thing I’ll say may surprise you: New Jersey has a lot of innovation going on. Last year, entrepreneurs started more than 154,000 small businesses, which was the 13th highest per capita. So, there’s clearly something going on there — a dynamic that people are feeling — that makes them want to start their own business. And something like 10,000 of those are estimated to become employer small businesses — so it’s not someone just hanging out their own shingle. These are future employers — some of them are going to grow and become really big. I don’t think people understand that that’s happening in New Jersey. The state has to figure out how to take advantage of that. 

The third thing is geographic access, whether it’s the finance hub in New York, or the ability to be able to easily ship throughout the mid-Atlantic. That is really valuable. It can’t be replicated. If you’re going to be doing business in the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, it’s a great geographic place to be.

ROI: Duly noted. Let’s counter: What challenges do you see the state having? Most people point to our high cost of doing business — is that as detrimental as people think?

NB: It is. And it’s not just the taxes. When I went to compare New Jersey’s regulatory burden to other states, it’s so opaque that it actually can’t be rated — it’s one of only six states that couldn’t be measured. That’s fundamentally a problem. 

As for taxes, New Jersey is known as a high-tax jurisdiction, but you don’t have to become the lowest tax jurisdiction — that’s the misnomer that people have. You just need to be competitive. And, at the moment, the cost of doing business and the tax side isn’t competitive. 

The good news is that all of these things can be controlled and easily changed in ways that your advantages can’t be. But, what businesses are looking for is a signal that the public officials in New Jersey get it and are starting to make some of those changes. 

ROI: When you say competitive, do you mean competitive within the Northeast or the country?

NB: It’s now both. It’s now a global environment. People can work from anywhere — so, more than ever, a lot of industries are now competing with states all over the country. But, amongst your neighbors, you never want to be the last of the pack. If you’re New Jersey, you never want to be behind New York, because a lot of decisions are still made by region.

ROI: Last question: New Jersey is as diverse an area as there is the country. How much of an advantage is that when it comes to global business?

NB: It’s a huge advantage. At the U.S. Chamber, we constantly remind people that 95% of the world’s consumers don’t live in the United States. And, now, you can sell not just goods, but services around the world. But, when you think about selling services, the key is to have some connection into that country — so, having a diverse population and a diverse workforce really does give an advantage in a global workplace, particularly one that’s becoming more service-dominant.