Westchester companies that want to succeed in whatever economy the year 2020 has in store need to be ready to, among other things: embrace change, not oppose it; adapt developing technologies such as artificial intelligence to their marketing and promotion; offer products and services that interest millennials; and become more aware of incentives and aid which government offers.
Those were among the takeaways from the Nov. 20 forum “2020: A Pivotal Year,” presented by Bank of America and the Westchester County Business Journal at the C.V. Rich Mansion in White Plains.
Jonathan Kozy, senior vice president and senior macro strategy analyst for Bank of America, delivered a keynote address about national and international economic issues.
Also included was a panel discussion featuring Bridget Gibbons, director of economic development for Westchester County; Mark Edfort, managing partner of Evolution Health Group; and Mike Mosner, president of Mosner Family Brands.
Gibbons said she hoped to see a lot of activity in the biosciences in Westchester during 2020. She had gone to Brooklyn earlier in the day to attend a business expo and spread the word about the county’s business incubator programs.
“One of the initiatives we launched earlier in the year is Element 46,” she said. “It consists of business startups going through a program where we provide free mentors, free access to lawyers and accountants and other service providers, free working space and free training.”
Gibbons said there were 68 applicants for the program, with 12 startups selected to participate in the first round, which ended in October.
“We’re preparing for the next cohort, which is going to launch in March,” she said, “and so we thought it was a good opportunity to go to Brooklyn, to the business expo, to really promote the incubator program.”
The county also is starting a separate biosciences accelerator program at the North 60 biosciences center being developed on country-owned land in Valhalla. That program begins in January.
“There’s a large and growing biosciences sector here in Westchester County,” Gibbons said, “and we felt we needed an accelerator program to really jump start it and bring all of the different components of the biosciences sector out of the woodwork.”
Edfort said that Evolution Health Group, which provides advertising, promotion and educational services for major pharmaceutical companies, sees additional growth in 2020 for both the pharma industry and itself.
“Most of the growth in the pharmaceutical business is going to come from rare-disease drugs, which are going to be launched or have been launched,” he said. “In our business this year, we’re looking at 3% growth, so we’re doing well.
“But we’re not a manufacturer, we’re a service provider,” he continued. “So, them spending more money in the marketing field is an indicator that they’re looking to grow more in the next year.”
Edfort explained that in the past “people used to go to the doctor to get information. Now people are researching on their own. They have their own health in mind much more than they used to and they’re far more knowledgeable on drugs than they have been in the past.”
He said that technology such as intelligent speakers in the home can be used to help people find out more about medical products and also be put to use for chores such as reminding patients when it’s time to take their medicine.
Mosner said that his company — whose services include meat processing and distribution for restaurant groups, retailers, institutions and food service companies — has been able to grow over the years by not only embracing change but actually looking for it.
He recounted one incident, which occurred at home when his wife informed him they were having fish for dinner. He didn’t like fish. She instructed him not to complain because if the children heard him, they wouldn’t want to eat it.
“I said, ‘Why would you stand on line for half an hour and spend $17 a pound for something you know none of us like in the first place?’ ” he recalled. “What did she tell me? ‘Your health. It’s good for you.’ So, the light bulb went on. I realized then that people will go out of their way and be inconvenienced and spend a lot of money for things they want.”
Mosner said that he realized that he could change food from being largely a commodity to being a special product by selling things with attributes that people found desirable. “Antibiotic-free, organic, group-raised — those are the things that people will spend money on,” he said.
Mosner added that the challenge will continue to be finding things that people want and coming out of the commodity mode to be relevant.
Westchester Growth Steady
Gibbons said that overall economic growth in Westchester has been fairly steady at about 3%.
“Not really stellar,” she offered. “I believe we’ve been constrained by the lack of housing and also the lack of affordable housing. Our economy’s not really going to grow unless we can bring people here to fill the open positions to help our businesses grow.”
She said that the county’s recently-released Housing Needs Assessment helps identify where affordable and other housing is needed so “we can roll up our sleeves and get to work in terms of building those units.”
Gibbons was asked if she thought Westchester’s economy could withstand a national recession in 2020, with some economists placing the chances of one developing as being around 30%. She said she was “encouraged by the keynote speaker and his optimism for next year.
“Our largest sector in Westchester is the health care sector,” ehs noted. “That’s been growing and is very strong. I don’t see that as being impacted by a recession because of the connections our health care sector has to New York City. I think traditional retail is kind of the trouble spot and kind of slowing down currently.”
Gibbons added that many retail players in the county have adapted to competition from the internet by shifting toward “experiential retail,” where a visit to the store becomes an event, not just an opportunity to browse through racks of merchandise.
Mosner agreed that retailing will continue to face challenges next year. “The new shoppers, the millennials, don’t shop the way we did and our parents did,” he said.
“There are probably more changes in the past five years than maybe in the past 30 years,” he added. “I remember my mom going through the Sunday papers, cutting out the coupons. Everything the kids today get is in their phone. They don’t carry cash. They swipe. They’re being influenced through bloggers, which is something that we never heard of.”