Tech firm stays put: Quality of life a factor in retaining companies

Keith Ehlers, an engineer and business manager for SimGenics and Samanhzi U.S., demonstrates one of the computer simulations the company has developed for the power industry. The firm recently decided to maintain its operations in Grand Junction rather than relocate to a larger city. The quality of life and recreational opportunities make the Grand Valley an attractive location for high-tech firms as well as the employees who work for them, Ehlers and others say. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

 Keith Ehlers enjoys the proximity of Grand Junction to just about everything he loves. He can drive to the mountains or slickrock canyons in less than an hour. Moreover, he prefers the small-town atmosphere and independent lifestyle.

So when the company for which Ehlers works entered into an alliance with another company and considered relocating operations to Denver or Salt Lake City, he didn’t want to move.

As it turns out, Ehlers won’t have to.

Working with a group of business organizations and government entities, Ehlers obtained the information needed to make a successful case for maintaining SimGenics in Grand Junction.

The effort illustrates not only the ability to rapidly marshall local resources to retain businesses, but also the desirability of the Grand Valley as a location for technology firms and the employees who work for them, Ehlers says. “This is where we want to be.”

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, couldn’t agree more. “That’s where the quality of life factor comes in.”

Kelly Flenniken, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, says quality of life remains an important attribute in retaining and attracting technology businesses at a time when the Internet enables them to operate nearly anywhere. “If you can do it anywhere, why wouldn’t you do it here?”

SimGenics offers computer simulations and training, primarily for operators and other employees at coal-, natural gas- and oil-fired power plants. Mark Gregg founded the company 25 years ago and has developed increasingly

sophisticated simulations based on his own experiences in the power plant industry. SimGenics has developed more than 35 full- and partial-scope simulators as well as the training materials that go with them.

Ehlers, an engineer and business manager at SimGenics, says the simulations offer a way to train power plant operators and other staff to not only run plants under normal conditions, but also deal with minor and major malfunctions. The simulations feature the same displays and controls found in power plant operating rooms. Other simulations create a three-dimensional virtual environment in which users inspect and repair plant systems and equipment.

“It’s really a powerful tool,” Ehlers says.

The simulations are especially important as a growing proportion of power plant operators reach retirement age and their younger successors might not have experience beyond normal conditions, he adds.

In addition, the simulations offer a way to train plant personnel to operate new components or test procedures to operate existing equipment more efficiently, he says.

SimGenics recently entered into a strategic partnership with Samahnzi, a company based in South Africa that’s developed innovative new computer software, Ehlers says. The software integrates three-dimensional environments into training simulators to enhance the experience.

Ehlers compared the new technology to the way computerized drafting software dramatically changed the architectural industry.

But in entering into the partnership with Samahnzi, consideration was given to relocating SimGenics operations from Grand Junction to a larger city, either Denver or Salt Lake City.

Ehlers says a number of factors were involved in the decision, among them the cost of leasing office space, travel expenses and the ability to recruit the highly educated and trained employees needed to meet increasing demand.

In making the case to stay in Grand Junction, Ehlers contacted the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and enlisted the assistance of a group called the Economic Development Partners to research the issue.

ED Partners includes more than 20 members — the chamber and Grand Junction Economic Partnership, but also the Business Incubator Center, Colorado Mesa University and Mesa County Workforce Center as well as the cities of Grand Junction and Fruita, the town of Palisade and Mesa County.

The coalition has been working since the beginning of 2011 on developing and implementing an economic development plan for Mesa County. Among other objectives, that plan places a high priority on supporting the growth of existing businesses.

ED Partners offers a range of resources to companies to address issues with building or zoning regulations, staffing and transportation. “Each case tends to be its own, unique situation,” Schwenke says.

Unfortunately, though, many business owners or managers don’t request assistance until a relocation decision is nearly made, she says. “I give Keith a lot of credit for picking up the phone and calling.”

Schwenke says local real estate professionals and officials at the Grand Junction Regional Airport and Mesa County Workforce Center were able to quickly provide numbers on office leasing rates, air fares and the labor market. “In 24 hours we had what he needed.”

In addition to the numbers, though, the effort demonstrated support for SimGenics, Schwenke says. “It showed we valued them as a company, that we’re really glad that you’re here as a company and we want you to stay.”

Ehlers says the numbers helped demonstrate Grand Junction offers a good location for operations. While Salt Lake City was more competitive than Denver, the differences with Grand Junction weren’t substantial enough to warrant a move, he adds.

Although some prospective employees always will be attracted by the higher salaries they can earn in larger cities, quality of life more than offsets lower earnings for others, Ehlers says.

Clients enjoy coming to Grand Junction for training, Ehlers says. “When they get here, they’re amazed.”

Ehlers suspects the same will hold true for employees. “If people like to come here for work, why wouldn’t they want to live here?”

In fact, the company is interviewing an engineer with a physics degree who puts more value on living in the Grand Valley than earning higher wages offered in other states, he adds.

Schwenke says the successful case for retaining SimGenics offers encouragement in efforts to retain and recruit other technology companies.

Flenniken agrees. While a variety of factors go into relocating a company, affordability and quality of life rank among the most important.

Even as SimGenics and Samahnzi gear up for what’s expected to be increasing demand for its products and services, Ehlers is relieved Grand Junction operations will remain in Grand Junction. “We’re very pleased.”