Peter Connolly addressed the issue before it could be asked.
“I’m not John,” he said. “I’m not going to pretend to be John. No one can be John.”
But, by this time next month, Connolly officially will have the job that John Kennedy — a unique force of nature — made one of the most impactful in the state: CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program.
There was a transition of sorts Thursday morning at the War Memorial building in Trenton, during the annual State of the State of Manufacturing. It’s an event that Kennedy has helped build up to what it is today — a must-attend event for manufacturers and legislators.
Connolly, who has served various roles with MEP for the past decade (both on the board and as chief operating officer) and has three decades of various experiences at manufacturing companies, was more front and center this year.
And, like any good executive, he didn’t insist on having the spotlight.
The event, like MEP itself, is fine-tuned after years of Kennedy’s leadership.
“John has laid out a path to success,” he said. “There’s a playbook — and I’m going to follow it. My job is to not mess things up.”
So far, so good.
Thursday’s event went off as well as it ever has.
The crowd, approximately 600, may have been a record — as was the number of legislators, more than two dozen. There were a number of keynotes, including one from U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.), and two lengthy panels that essentially were long-form question-and-answer sessions between legislators (on one side) and manufacturers and business leaders on the other.
Connolly wasn’t surprised.
“We have a great team here,” he said.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the success of a manufacturing event comes down to logistics. At MEP, Constantina Meis, the community relations manager, and Michael Womack, the senior marketing manager, are the supply-chain experts.
Veterans of MEP events, they never settle for what was done in the past. On Thursday, so many of this year’s tweaks proved effective.
Meis and Womack gathered questions from manufacturers earlier in the process and worked to get that information to the staff of the appropriate legislators. It led to a much more vibrant — and much more substantiative — on-stage discussion.
“We wanted the legislators to have a better understanding of the issues the manufacturers had,” Meis said.
They also wanted the legislators to know, specifically, which manufacturers in their districts were coming. There were some attempts to do meet-and-greets before the event — and plans to set up some after. As it turned out, much of that happened organically.
“We had a lot of legislators stay afterward so they could spend more time with the manufacturers from their area,” Meis said.
It was part of a new playbook that Meis and Womack — and the huge staff of MEP account executives — helped implement.
“I think they stayed longer and got more out of it because we not only introduced them to their manufacturers ahead of time, we did briefings, provided industry reports and asked them questions, such as: ‘Are there any bills pending that would help with this?’ I felt that made them want to do their homework more.
“All of this created more of a town-hall discussion.”
The sense of community and partnership that was evident Thursday can be tied directly to Kennedy’s nearly 11-year run as CEO.
Connolly, who actually predates Kennedy as a board member, saw it all firsthand.
“John was all about creating partnerships,” he said, rattling off the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, the community colleges, the vocational-technical schools and the Department of Labor & Workforce Development.
“Before John got here, MEP didn’t play well in the sandbox,” he said. “Now, we do — and you can see at events like this.”
You can see it in the bottom line.
MEP, a nonprofit, measures its success in different ways. The biggest? The amount of matching federal funding it gets in return for the output it makes in consultative services, training programs and other services.
MEP, which was roughly a $3 million company at Kennedy’s arrival, has increased two-fold since. Even more, MEP now gets $2.5 million annually from the state.
MEP clearly is in a good place. So, what’s left for Connolly to do?
While he’s quick to say nothing will change, he does have some ideas in mind. Internships programs could change. As could MEP’s relationship with other statewide opens.
Everything will be looked at, Connolly said.
And then, there’s this: “I think you may see us put more of a focus on South Jersey,” he said. “If you’ve seen our State of the State or industry report, most of the company’s manufacturers are in North Jersey and Central Jersey. South Jersey is a market we need to cater to more.”
MEP opened an office in Bellmawr in the summer of 2021 that currently has about a half-dozen employees working out of it. Connolly said he could see that number quickly doubling.
Among other potential areas, there are immediate opportunities in the food and offshore wind industries.
There might be an opportunity to increase the partnership with Rowan University. Connolly, a grad, even hinted that maybe the South Jersey office would be better served at the South Jersey Technology Park on Rowan’s campus.
At this point, nothing is certain. Except this.
“I’m not going to try to be like John,” he said. “And I don’t have to. He has put MEP in an unbelievable position. My job — and the job of the incredible team we have here — is to stay true to his vision.”