How to bring more businesses to Contra Costa County

I recently joined the Business Advisory Board in Diablo Valley College’s Business Administration department. I thought it sounded like not only a great way to volunteer, give back, and meet similarly-minded people in my community, but also I was simply impressed that DVC had this.

What better way to prepare business students for the real world than to have businesses from the real world come into DVC and talk about what’s going on in the real world. At these meetings we have DVC professors, staff, and representatives from both the public and private sectors. The business side is represented by some execs from Google and Amazon, real estate agents and insurance brokers, and me. We come from all around the county too, which is important.

At one meeting a while ago, perhaps the first meeting I attended, I lamented that even though the early-to-mid-career talent is moving out here in droves to the suburbs, the jobs are being left behind. They move from San Francisco to Walnut Creek and then end up commuting back to the city every day for their job.

Why? Why aren’t these employees able to persuade their employers to set up an office closer to where they live? There should be a critical mass now to make that ask, and maybe it’s already happening. If so, however, what can we do from a policy standpoint to make it happen faster?

This is why we’ve created The Diablo Valley Tech Initiative, an offshoot of the DVC Business Advisory Board. When we hear about big companies relocating from SF to Utah, we need to ask ourselves, why Utah and not San Ramon or Concord? We need to find the answer.

Figure out what works

Just like when I investigate a business problem, I like to investigate what’s working now. What businesses do we have in this county, and where are they located?

I used data from Crunchbase Pro to answer the question and the results are not all that surprising.

Top 3 Contra Costa cities with the most businesses:

  1. San Ramon (236)
  2. Walnut Creek (229)
  3. Concord (79)

To give a sense of scale, Palo Alto has nearly 10X (2,300) and San Francisco has 60X (14,000) the number of businesses in our county. So we’re barely on the map but we already knew this.

As far as the types of businesses here, we’re a product of the Bay Area:

  1. IT & Software (224)
  2. Consulting (59)
  3. Healthcare (58)

This result is a bit surprising. The names you see on the sides of buildings when driving around this area are mainly finance and real estate companies. There’s a little bit of industrial and a lot of hospitals and elderly care. I wouldn’t have guessed that IT & Software would be so dominant, but given our geography and how most people around here make enough money to afford a house, it makes sense.

Our largest companies are a bit surprising, though. Each of these are making between $500M-1B a year:

  1. USS-POSCO (A mining tech company in Pittsburg)
  2. Keller Williams (A real estate company in Walnut Creek)
  3. Pac-12 Conference (A collegiate athletic conference in Walnut Creek)
  4. Bay Alarm (A building security company in Concord)
  5. Old Republic (A home warranty company in San Ramon)

There’s not a typical Bay Area software tech company in our top 10. Coming in at 11 is Seal Software, an AI-based enterprise software company headquartered in Walnut Creek. The top 10, though, are mostly finance-related companies.

Then make it better

So that’s what’s working. About 700 respectably large companies operating in the Diablo Valley serving both local and distant customers. Getting more of them out here will require a combination of better branding, incentives, and some social proof. Here are a few suggestions about how we might do this.

A big conference center and hotel

We have some small Marriott’s boutique hotels that are great for business meetings and weddings, but we don’t have a world-class facility to host an industry conference. Salesforce or Oracle couldn’t do their annual shows here even if they wanted to. We need a great hotel, Fairmont-like, built to handle conferences with 10,000 attendees. If we can get more executives to come here on work trips, we’ll eventually get more execs to move here and open offices.

A business club

We have country clubs for retirees. We need the equivalent for the up-and-coming mid-career executives. This would be a place to meet people, attend events, drink and dine. The closest comparison is The Battery in San Francisco. This area needs some resources to facilitate collisions between business partners, customers, and investors. A hub of sorts would go a long way toward making it happen. And resources like this will attract more ambitious business people into the area.

Arts districts

Our cities are doing a pretty good job of supporting the arts. The Lesher Center in Walnut Creek is a great example, but all across this county there are art and wine festivals and small concerts in the summer. We have the Concord Pavilion which hosts some of the greatest performers in the world. These are all tremendous assets, and part of this equation must be to support a diversity of artistic communities.

A branded commercial corridor

Finally, and perhaps most critically, we need to be known for a particular industry. We don’t need to become the next favorite place to launch a startup. It would help, though, if we could be known for housing some of the world’s greatest companies in a particular industry, like real estate, finance, or green tech. Businesses tend to cluster around each other, even when in direct competition, and cities can use this to snowball ever more businesses in a particular industry.

Economic development is hard. If this were easy, it’d already be done. I like these problems, though. They’re fun to think about and I’m glad to have met a few other people with similar interests. We’ll keep working on it.

Leave a Reply