Just about two years ago, I wrote a column about Maine taking pride in calling itself a small-business state. I noted that in Maine, 97 percent of all private businesses employ 49 or fewer people and that for the U.S. as a whole the ratio stands at 96 percent, hardly a significant difference. At the other end of the scale, businesses that employ 500 people or more account for about one-tenth of 1 percent of all businesses in both Maine and in the U.S. as a whole.

But in Maine, these large businesses account for only 12 percent of all jobs and 19 percent of all wages, while in the U.S. as a whole, they account for 17 percent of all jobs and 26 percent of all wages. In short, rather than simply call Maine a small-business state, it is more accurate to call Maine a state underrepresented in the mid- and large-size business categories.

Several days after that column came out, I received a call from Andrea Maker, an attorney with Pierce Atwood whom I had encountered through her work with Project Login, a collaborative effort by several businesses and educational institutions to increase the number of Maine workers capable of filling the large and growing number of information technology jobs now unfilled in Maine.

She asked if I’d be willing to meet with her and Mike Dubyak, then CEO of WEX and a partner in Project Login. They wanted to discuss an idea they were pursuing to address the state’s apparent problems in growing and attracting mid- and large-sized businesses – a problem that seemed to grow more acute every week, with each announcement of a paper mill or other large manufacturing plant closing.

At our meeting, we discussed the absence of any coherent, long-term economic development strategy for the state, the multiplicity of reports highlighting this problem and suggesting ways to address it, and the large number of unconnected groups, each in its own way trying to stimulate development in Maine.

Andrea and Mike then shared with me their idea to use the success of Project Login as a model for a similar approach to addressing the seeds of what was to become FocusMaine. They outlined an initiative infused with three essential characteristics:

It would be collaborative in approach and led by a group of prominent Maine business leaders; in effect, a private-sector-led effort not entirely dependent on government funding.

 It would be long-term – a 10-year effort, an initiative that the project’s leadership team would commit to pursuing however possible. It would not be “just another study.”

 It would not be comprehensive; it would not try to solve all of Maine’s economic problems or to be all things to all people and regions. Instead, it would focus on three, maybe four, areas of significant opportunity that had the potential to produce several mid- to large-sized companies whose purpose was to sell goods and services to the world and create jobs and wealth in Maine as well as a dense network of supplier companies.

While they recruited a team of business leaders to direct the project and a group of collaborators in government and the nonprofit sector, they asked if I would put together a small group of people to coordinate the background research upon which the initiative would be based.

I agreed and assembled a research team: Steve Adams, state economist under Gov. John McKernan; Tim Agnew, former CEO of the Finance Authority of Maine and longtime Maine venture capitalist; Betsy Biemann, former president of the Maine Technology Institute; Charles Colgan, former state economist and professor at the Muskie School; and John Dorrer, former director of the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information.

This group reviewed volumes of studies of the Maine economy and assessments of its strengths and weaknesses. We prepared a request for proposals seeking guidance in linking Maine’s assets to global growth opportunities. We reviewed responses, interviewed four firms and selected McKinsey & Co. to help us and the project leadership team pursue our research goals.

Throughout 2015, the McKinsey team – assisted by its Global Institute staff – pored over scores of studies, interviewed hundreds of Maine business, education, nonprofit and government officials, and tested hypothetical “target” industry groups with the project’s research and leadership teams.

This detailed research effort led to the selection of food, biopharmaceutical development and manufacturing, and knowledge workers as the subjects to which FocusMaine would devote its efforts. Those efforts are now devoted to developing 10-year implementation plans for each of the target areas.

The intensive, inward effort of identifying opportunities on which to focus is now giving way to the expansive, outward effort of collaboration. FocusMaine’s work is now the long-term job of bringing the potential future our research has illuminated into the reality of a greater prosperity for all Maine people.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]