Arkansas Inc. Podcast - Amazon's Jessica Breaux

 December 17, 2020

In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. podcast, our host is joined by Jessica Breaux from Amazon to discuss the company's recent announcements in Arkansas. 

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Transcript

Introduction:

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, where we discuss the latest topics and trends in economic development with subject matter experts and influencers from across the nation and around the world.

Clint O’Neal:                

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. My name is Clint O’Neal, I serve as Executive Vice-President of Global Business for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. We're recording this podcast in October of 2020, in a time of economic uncertainty, which makes the topic of job creation in Arkansas all the more significant and worth celebrating. We started this year with a record number of Arkansans working, there were 107,000 more Arkansans working in January than there were in January of 2015, at the beginning of the Hutchison administration. In addition to the record number of Arkansans working, we had a record low unemployment rate of three and a half percent. In addition, our income growth over the past 10 years had outpaced all of our neighboring States. Those are economic development numbers that we were very proud of and ones that we're eager to get back to. Arkansans are working hard to navigate through the challenges of 2020 to get back to these record numbers in our economy. One company that is helping with this by announcing a significant expansion, which will create over a thousand job opportunities for Arkansans is Amazon.

Our guest on today's podcast is a friend and former colleague Jessica Breaux. Jessica serves as Manager of Economic Development for Amazon. In this role, Jessica leads Amazon investment projects throughout the Southeastern United States. Before I hit the highlights of Jessica's bio, I'll give a brief overview of Amazon's recent growth in Arkansas. Earlier this year, Amazon announced plans for the company's first fulfillment center that is now under construction at the Port of Little Rock. This facility will be an 826,000 square foot building on an 80 acre site that will employ more than a thousand Arkansans. And by the time this podcast is released, a second fulfillment center will have been announced in North Little Rock. That facility will employ an additional 500 Arkansans. These two are in addition to last mile delivery centers in North Little Rock, Mall Mill, and in Southwest Little Rock. Our team at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission works hard to cultivate relationships with companies and executives that make location decisions.

Fortunately, for us, Jessica is a friend of Arkansas and a friend to many at AEDC, with more than 15 years of economic development experience, Jessica has worked in the local State and utility sectors supporting the creation and retention of job opportunities. Most recently, Jessica led a 14 person regional economic development team for the Tennessee Valley authority. She spent several years focused on economic development efforts specific to the Nashville Tennessee region while at TVA. Prior to joining TVA in 2013, Jessica gained economic development experience as a project manager for the State of Arkansas as a part of the team at AEDC. Jessica earned a master's degree in public administration with an emphasis on community and economic development from the University of Arkansas, and has a degree in journalism and public relations from Northwestern State University. Jessica is a Louisiana native and currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband, Chris. She loves traveling, live music events and is a fiercely loyal fan of the New Orleans Saints, Jessica, welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast.

Jessica Breaux:             

Hi Clint, thanks for having me. Certainly excited to join you for a chat this morning.

Clint O’Neal:                

Excellent. Hey, before we dive into the questions, let me say congratulations. I assume I'm one of the first to read your bio that includes being married to your husband, Chris.

Jessica Breaux:

Absolutely. You are in fact, the first person. That's brand new news and hot off the press. Thanks for the congrats.

Clint O’Neal:                

Nice. Oh, very good. Well, hey Jessica, I know your career has taken you on an economic development journey that has included multiple States. You've worked in the public and private sectors. In fact, you spent part of your career with us at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. I think it'd be interesting for our listeners to hear about the path you've taken to get to your current role at Amazon. And a little bit about how your time at AEDC and TVA has helped prepare you for your current position.

Jessica Breaux:

Yeah, absolutely. So I would be remissed if I started with anything other than just how exciting it is for my career to really have come full circle, so to speak. So my very first economic development experience was in Arkansas. You mentioned in my bio, my master's degree is from the University of Arkansas. That's how I ended up as an Arkansan and certainly just have nothing but fond memories of my time in Arkansas. And my time working at AEDC you and I were project managers together, and both of us have traveled and made our ways back to Arkansas, so to speak, so that's pretty cool. I have worked not only at the local and State level, but also as you mentioned in the utility space. And that was where I was most recently before joining Amazon. So I joined Amazon in January of this year, quite an interesting time to start a new job. I know I'm not alone in that space. A lot of folks have been navigating new careers in 2020, and just the craziness that this year has brought us.

But prior to joining Amazon, really feel like this opportunity and this current role that I'm in, has given really a chance for full circle and breadth of economic development experience. And without the time I spent at the local level, I worked for the Rogers-Lowell chamber. That was my very first economic development job out of grad school, specifically supported economic development in Lowell, as part of that team, and then spent about seven years at AEDC. So I came to AEDC to work in the community development space, which honestly, I credit a lot of that time working on local community development initiatives with really a lot of the success I've had as a project manager and a site consultant role, for lack of a better term with Amazon, because you really learn a lot about just what makes a community tick and what are the things that are important to a community as they are marketing themselves and selling themselves to others.

But then also just how you maintain and manage that identity that keeps you unique, which is something that really, I think is important for all communities know, and understand about themselves. But after doing that community development work, I got the opportunity at AEDC to move into project management. So I worked, my very first economic development projects at AEDC to use a sports' analogy, you mentioned I'm a huge football fan. Now, that's really where I learned the fundamentals and had a great team around me in my time at AEDC and truly had international project management experience, worked across the State. In Arkansas I think one of its greatest selling points is the uniqueness and diversity of the State and how different parts of the States excel and do different things really well. And so it gave me a lot of just different opportunities to work different types of projects.

I did corporate office projects, I did manufacturing and industrial projects, distribution and logistic projects. And so all of that really contributed to just experience, which I think any economic development professional would say that the best way to learn how to be a good economic developer is to just start doing it and Arkansas really gave me the opportunity to do that. And so about eight years ago, I made the decision to leave AEDC and join the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is the largest public power company in the United States. And my time at TVA, I learned a lot more about electricity than I ever wanted to know. For those of you out there that are listening, your power, you think, you just flip the light switch and there it is, I can promise you that there's a heck of a lot more that goes into it than that. And so that really gave me another unique perspective in the economic development and how the utility sector can be such a valuable partner in the site selection process.

I focused specifically on economic development in the Nashville market during most of my time at TVA, so I had the opportunity to work with just some really cool companies throughout that process, Google Alliance Bernstein, which is a gigantic New York financial firm that made a move to Nashville during my time in that role, Amazon was a company that I had a lot of opportunity to work with during my time at TVA. And so really just some cool exposure to companies that are doing really cool and innovative things. And then that leads me to where I am now. So again, joined Amazon in January, I'm based in Nashville, believe projects for our team throughout the Southeast. So I'm working on anything from our large scale first mile fulfillment centers, which is very similar to the projects we've announced both in Little Rock and North Little Rock, and then also all the way through our delivery station projects, which are last mile components of our delivery network that are really critical to our ability to exceed customer expectations around shipping speeds.

So super excited about this new opportunity. It's been fun. And again, thanks for the opportunity to talk today.

Clint O’Neal:

Sure. Well, before we dive in to questions about Amazon, the Arkansas projects, the Amazon strategy across the country. Would you care to make a prediction on the Arkansas Razorbacks LSU game later this fall?

Jessica Breaux:

Oh, well I'll say this, I am not a die hard LSU fan as I am a Saints fan. I went to college, a smaller State school in Louisiana, in Northwest Louisiana. Although I did like to see the tigers on the national championship last year, my prediction, I think the Hogs will get them this year to be honest. LSU's struggling a little bit, they lost a lot of seniors. Score predictions, let's go with a 30 for the Hogs and a 24 for the Tigers, tight game.

Clint O’Neal:                

Nice. All right.

Jessica Breaux:             

We'll see.

Clint O’Neal:

We shall see. Well, can you give us any insight into Amazon's growth strategy as it pertains to new fulfillment centers? And is there anything that economic development organizations could or should be doing to get on Amazon's radar screen to better position themselves to recruit an Amazon facility?

Jessica Breaux:

Absolutely. So, I mean, we're always evaluating sites. We do that on a continual basis. I'm sorry our team is continually looking at available property, evaluating it for its ability to support and improve on our delivery network. Some of the things that are important to us are certainly labor and workforce. We do offer industry leading pay and excellent benefits. Personally, I feel like it's a really cool and fun place to work, but really understanding your labor story is important. I think that's important for every economic development project. It's certainly important to us at Amazon. Site specific things, so good access, it's a transportation and logistics projects are a lot of the things that I work on for Amazon. And so the ability to get in and out of a site is always very important, we'll look for properties with the least amount of hurdles. We spend a lot of time and effort on the front end of projects on due diligence. And we do that for every site that we consider.

And so I think that's something that I've been impressed by in my time with Amazon, from the site selection standpoint, is just the amount of time and investment our company makes in really evaluating properties. And so we will look for good partners when we're doing that site due diligence piece. Speed to market as well is something that I would say is huge for us. We are always trying to work as quickly as possible to get our facilities up and running in the local jurisdictions. We recognize certainly the projects will have hurdles. We expect them. I think it'd be foolish if we didn't, but really where I think communities can set themselves apart is how do we handle those obstacles? How do you help us as Amazon solve them? Strong partnerships are really important to us, both at the State and local level. We recognize we are creating and building a facility, but that's not where our relationship with the community ends. It certainly is a lot more than that.

And so we want always to have those strong partnerships that help us not only get a facility up and operational, but then keep it running as effectively and efficiently as it can throughout the life of that facility.

Clint O’Neal:

Great. If we could, let's talk a little bit more specifically about Amazon's projects in Arkansas. Amazon's rapidly building out a strong presence specifically in Central Arkansas. Can you tell us a little bit more about what the company will be doing here and why it has made sense for Amazon to expand into Arkansas?

Jessica Breaux:             

Yeah, absolutely. So first off we are really all very excited about our recent expansions in Arkansas. I continue to hear from our internal teams working on this project at various levels, just how great of a support system we've received in Arkansas, whether that's with our delivery station projects or on the larger fulfillment centers that we've announced on Little Rock and North Little Rock. So we are really excited about that, it always helps when Arkansans want to see Amazon be successful and that's really what we've experienced so far. So appreciate all of that partnership and support. From the perspective of what we'll be doing. So the facility, both at the port of Little Rock, as well as in the city of North Little Rock, those are first mile fulfillment centers for us. So when a customer places, an order on Amazon.com, that order will originate in one of those facilities. They are certainly supporting our customers and Arkansas, but they are also will be supporting customers throughout the Southeast region. And even the entirety of the US network to some degree.

So the Port of Little Rock will be utilizing Amazon robotics. So that's pretty cool. Those, if you can think of them, they're like large Rumbas, for lack of a better term, that help our associates. They support the work of our associates and they help to move product in and around the facility. So they help those associates that are working there, be more efficient. They help them be safer. And that certainly, something that's very important to us. The facility at the port will house thousands of skews of items, household, and consumer goods that our customers are ordering from Amazon.com. Same really for the facility in North Little Rock, the big difference is the facility in North Little Rock will be housing items that are just larger in nature. So things that would likely be shipping on their own, where the items coming from the facility at the port are items that could be packed and shipped with other items in the same box, for lack of a better.

Clint O’Neal:

Excellent, well, Amazon certainly growing fast this year. There's a lot of people that are relying on the delivery of goods directly to their doorstep. Can you give us any insight into how the company has kept up with this unanticipated demand on the company supply chain?

Jessica Breaux:

Sure. I mean, I think 2020 surprised us all, right? No one really anticipated exactly what we are all living and experiencing right now. And so while it was certainly unexpected, I had no doubt, when the pandemic first began in early 2020, March of this year, that our Amazon associates would step up and support our communities. Everything that we do starts with the customer in mind for us at Amazon. And so in the early days of the pandemic you saw a shift, the types of products we were keeping in our fulfillment centers, we prioritized essential goods and did that in an effort to help the people in our communities and help our customers get the items that they needed, where they didn't have the ability to maybe leave their homes and shop as they normally would. So that certainly was a way for us to help and support the communities that we operate in.

And then also just, safety is always important towards associate safety, we have since the start of the pandemic, implemented more than 150 process changes within our facilities, within our fulfillment centers and delivery stations that really support not only keeping our associates safe, but also keeping our customers safe and we'll continue to do that. So I have been continually impressed with just the people that I work with at Amazon, they are some of the smartest, most hardworking people I've had an opportunity to, our team have had an opportunity to be a part of, and they're completely committed to our customers and providing that exceptional experience. And so all of our team is just really proud at how we've supported our customers. And will, I have no doubt, continue to think of new ways to be able to do that as we all figure out what becomes the new normal in a post COVID or continued COVID environment.

Clint O’Neal:                

Sure. Well, given that you've been on both sides of economic development projects, you've been the recruiter, you've been the one being recruited. What is one piece of advice that you would give to economic development organizations about how they can most effectively represent their State or community and how they can best add value to the company's site selection process?

Jessica Breaux:             

Definitely. I think one of my, and this is Jessica's opinion as an economic development professional, having seen and been a part of a lot of site visits and a lot of communities prior to even my time at Amazon, just a lot of communities across the Tennessee Valley and the State of Arkansas, as well as other places. I think it's really important for economic development professionals to take the time to really cater their pitch to what the company is looking for. So do your homework. If you know the entity, I understand a lot of times we operate in this code name environment, where you may not know a lot of the details about the company you're working with, but when you learn something about your prospect, make sure that you pay attention to that and really cater the conversation, the dialogue, the presentation specific to that company. You can certainly reuse data that tells your story, but make sure the data is relevant to the company that you're talking to.

I've seen that just so many times where it's a presentation that is geared towards a corporate office client, and you're talking to a manufacturing company and those conversations are different. There are certainly some similarities between them, but the conversation shouldn't be exactly the same. And so I think that that's probably my biggest takeaway from my years as an economic development professional. And I spent a lot more time on the side of your listeners than I have on the side that I'm in now. And that's always been something that I have shared is just make sure that you're giving a sales pitch that is specific and relevant to your audience.

Clint O’Neal:                

So you mentioned code names a lot of times when we're working economic development projects, for the sake of confidentiality, for the Amazon projects in the early stages, we call them project diamond, project runner. Can you give us any insights as to how you go about naming projects or what does that look like behind the scenes?

Jessica Breaux:             

Oh, definitely. So I'll tell you, I hate it. It's the worst part of my job, because it's, I try to think of something that's clever or at least connects to the location in some way, but certainly couldn't be something that two people could put together. So I do a lot of like, and I do take time to do this, I'll do a Google search on the location and try to think of either top attractions or things that the State or the local municipality might be known for and try to make some connections in that way. So it's certainly not an exact science and I don't get it right all the time, but do try to put some level of cleverness into the naming of projects.

Clint O’Neal:                

Very good. Good to hear. From your vantage point, what are some strengths of Arkansas that some Arkansans may overlook or take for granted?

Jessica Breaux:             

Gosh, that's a hard one for me. I have some just crazy fond memories of Arkansas and truly love all of the people that I had encountered and worked with during my time there. If I were picking one, I would say probably the people, just there are good and genuine people in Arkansas, and I think at the end of the day, regardless of what your role is or your profession, you always want to feel good about the people that you're working with. Earning trust is a leadership principle for Amazon, if you're familiar with Amazon at all, you know that we really guide ourselves by leadership principles, we pay a lot of attention to them. They're part of our daily work and we think about them often. And so earning trust is one of those leadership principles for us here at Amazon. And it's something that really drives how we approach our business.

And I think that that is one thing Arkansans do really well, is earn the trust of the people that they work with because there's a genuine care, there's a genuine commitment to achieving a common goal and being part of a solution versus asking a lot of questions about why, or putting up a lot of roadblocks. I think people that we have worked with and encountered, have really just wanted to see the project be successful. And ultimately, I think with that kind of spirit and approach to working on an economic development project or any big political or just community challenge, think you can accomplish a lot when you approach it from that standpoint.

Clint O’Neal:                

Sure. Well, with this next question, I know there's plenty of material to work from, but if you had to pick one, what's your favorite memory of working for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission?

Jessica Breaux:             

Oh, Clint, you're going to make me get emotional here. I have just really, I know I've said this a lot, but truly great memories of my time at Arkansas AEDC. To give everyone hopefully a laugh, Tim Allen's hair, I don't think it's changed. I've seen recent pictures of him, it's still looks like it did eight years ago and it was always perfectly coiffed. So good job, Tim, for keeping up with your salon appointments, I'll pick on him. But in all seriousness, it'd be hard for me to talk to you guys this morning about AEDC without mentioning Maria. So Maria Haley, I had the pleasure of working under Maria for most of my time at AEDC and she truly was a mentor for me. Economic development has changed a lot in the last 10 to 15 years, and Maria was a pioneering woman in this space. And for a young professional, getting started in economic development to have her as a mentor, someone who had accomplished so much, really was inspiring.

And she gave me a lot of confidence to pursue my career and step out of my comfort zone and really do things in the economic development space that I might've been hesitant to do without her guidance. As all of us who were project managers, I know you and I did this and a lot of our cohorts did as well, but you had a lot of opportunities to drive Maria around the State of Arkansas. And I'll be honest, it's great FaceTime with your boss, but I was also a young and eager project manager. And at the time probably would have been preferred or would have preferred to be out chasing deals or meeting with a site selection consultant. But looking back on that time with Maria driving around the State of Arkansas, I learned so much from her just in those hours in the car and about projects that I've worked on, that I continue to use to this day.

So I think those are some of my, there are tons of memories to pick from, I have great friends still in Arkansas that I keep in touch with on a very regular basis. But those are probably some of my favorite times are just things that have been really impactful to me is a lot of the hours I spent with Maria and just learning from her.

Clint O’Neal:                

Very good. Well, if you could point out one hidden gem about Arkansas, let's say the next time you're traveling to Arkansas, one thing that you really want to stop and visit, whether it be a restaurant, a State park, something that people really need to check out about our State. From your time and experience here, what would you point to?

Jessica Breaux:             

So I served on the board at Fort Chaffee for several years while I worked at AEDC. And I would have to say that probably the Elvis Barbershop Museum is really cool. And I think it's just unique. It's something that you would not get an opportunity to see really anywhere else. And I am a music lover, certainly loved Elvis and that sort of thing. So I have certainly that slant to my experience, but I think it's just a really cool piece of history and something that I would definitely encourage you to check out if you haven't.

Clint O’Neal:                

Excellent. Well, as we wrap up today's podcast, I want to thank our guest Jessica Breaux, Manager of Economic Development for Amazon. We've covered Amazon's rapid expansion, which will result in over a thousand job opportunities for Arkansans in Arkansas. We've talked about Amazon's wonderful culture of their employees, how they've served people over this pandemic. We've talked about Tim Allen's hair, we've talked about honoring Maria Haley, really enjoyed this time together, Jessica, you do a wonderful job representing Amazon and I thank you for being on today's podcast.

Jessica Breaux:

Well, thank you guys so much for having me. It was a pleasure talking with you Clint, and just appreciate it. Hopefully get an opportunity to come back and visit Arkansas soon.

Clint O’Neal:                

Sounds good. Well, you've been listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. This is Clint O’Neal, Executive Vice President of Global Business with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. For more information about AEDC visit Arkansasedc.com. Thanks for tuning in today.