Capitol Beat

Q&A with PA Chief Transformation and Opportunity Officer Ben Kirshner

The head of the state’s newest office speaks on efforts to bring businesses to the commonwealth

Ben Kirshner

Ben Kirshner Office of the Governor

Few people know what it’s like to step into a newly created position within an organization – and even fewer know what it’s like when that position is developed to facilitate and promote business operations across an entire state. 

In Pennsylvania, that responsibility falls on Ben Kirshner, the Chief Transformation and Opportunity Officer. Gov. Josh Shapiro created the Office of Transformation and Opportunity through executive order as one of his first moves in office, and opted to put Kirshner, a digital marketing expert and businessman, as the state’s business czar. 

Kirshner, who founded Elite SEM – now known as Tinuiti – spoke with City & State on his new role and how he’s tangibly impacting businesses both big and small in the commonwealth. 

The Office of Transformation and Opportunity has been called a ‘one-stop shop’ for Pennsylvania businesses. Can you elaborate on what you’re doing specifically to work between agencies and break down silos to aid in business support?

A one-stop shop is one of four areas of focus for our office. This was in light of Pennsylvania not having the most aggressive financial incentives for businesses compared to other states. One of the things I learned as an entrepreneur is that mindset behind the one-stop shop – to really kill them with kindness and bring deal excellence to the commonwealth. In light of us maybe not having the financial incentives, they get speed, predictability, and timely responses that can make all the difference in the world. The truth is, if you can help a company get shovels in the ground in two months versus 12 months, that usually eliminates any difference in incentives that another state might offer. 

If you can order a pizza at Domino’s and see the entire framework of the order – from the sauces being put on to the cheese and to it being put in a box and in the driver’s car – if you can do that for a $12 pizza, we should be able to provide that same transparency to someone who’s spending millions of dollars developing in the commonwealth. 

Being given such a broad array of responsibilities, as you just mentioned, how did you seek to narrow down ideas into specific, concrete concepts?

First, as an entrepreneur for the last 25 years, I’ve opened offices in more than 15 cities across the U.S. I have been a customer of economic development offices at both the city and state levels, so I’ve seen firsthand how other states operate, market and present themselves from a customer perspective. I also have lots of friends who are entrepreneurs and business owners throughout the country and world who share the same stories with me. I’ve heard from Pennsylvania businesses about some of the challenges working with the commonwealth. I joke that when I took this role and posted the update on LinkedIn, I turned into the commonwealth’s customer service department. Literally on my first day, I had an old colleague say they just set up their LLC with the commonwealth five weeks ago and still hadn’t gotten it. He said other states get it out in one to three days and our backlog was eight weeks. That helps us drive our shop toward permit reform because I think that’s among the biggest impacts we can have for all businesses and institutions. 

Given your breadth of experience in the digital marketing space, how have you brought those skills to the role and your unofficial title as the state’s customer service department?

I have some public board experience and some private equity experience. My customers were large, multinational private equity companies so the clients in my digital marketing world were very sophisticated. In my personal background, I used to do a lot of sales, conferences, trade shows and pitching of deliverables to clients. We built deal excellence into what we did at Tinuiti. 

We have 22 agencies and some companies need to navigate the system and they all have different needs … We would give clients a world-class experience because our competition was immense. 

How did I differentiate not being the biggest, most well-resourced company? I needed to kill them with service and processes and make a good reputation. 

On the topic of attracting businesses to the commonwealth, can you speak on the unique assets the state possesses and, given these assets, why the state is still experiencing workforce shortages and population decline?

Touching on the second focus of our office, we’re helping be a force multiplier for the Department of Community and Economic Development and working closely with Secretary Rick Siger to launch an offensive plan. The last time the commonwealth embarked on a strategic plan for development was more than 15 years ago. 

Part of this plan is learning from other states and talking with stakeholders. It’s talking to site selectors, companies that are in Pennsylvania and companies that didn’t choose Pennsylvania. It’s talking to different clusters of industries and finding out what they need to be successful. 

We have a lot of people who are raising their hand to help the administration … and a lot of people coming up to us saying they want to be part of the process. Gov. Shapiro planted a flag in his first week of office, signing three executive orders on economic development. He’s really saying to the world, “Hey, we are open for business.” He’s competitive as hell and he wants to win. 

In terms of specifics, what have those conversations with stakeholders been like and what do they say Pennsylvania needs to improve upon to bring more business to the state?

Pennsylvania just hasn’t been in the game … We’re not losing a lot of deals because we’re not in on a lot of deals. It just hasn’t been a focus of Pennsylvania to really double down on economic development like other states that have really put a very big effort into economic development investments. 

Some people might say our taxes are too high, some say we don’t have enough sites and some say our permitting process is the issue. Other people will say it’s workforce issues, which is no different than any other state. We just have to make a concerted effort to double down on all those things. 

We realize that one in four Pennsylvanians is near retirement age and soon it’s going to be one in three. We signed up to reverse these trends and give Pennsylvania a competitive edge going into the future. 

Speaking of those businesses taking part in the process, how are you going beyond those in the existing circle to ensure small businesses and underrepresented groups don’t fall through the cracks?

Part of it is to meet with all the local stakeholders. This isn’t a plan for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, this is a whole-Pennsylvania plan. Our plan is to engage the entire commonwealth –  every county, every local development office and every chamber of commerce. We’re also going to be setting up listening sessions for people like mom-and-pop shops and solo entrepreneurs and for the largest companies and largest sectors as well. 

Ultimately, it’s an investment in the commonwealth to get us on solid footing and to start attracting more people and businesses to live and work in Pennsylvania. 

Back to Special Report: Improving Workforce Development