In the world of economic development, Lee Grimes’ job is rarely a headline-grabber.
She’s been a vital part of the Savannah Economic Development Authority for nearly two decades, but she doesn’t do the flashy, attention-getting deals that bring new business to the area.
Instead, she is responsible for helping businesses that are already here grow and prosper.
As SEDA’s director of business retention, she spends the majority of her time out of the office, visiting companies to learn how they are doing, what they need and how she can help.
Over the years she has had a hand in developing an almost unprecedented network of resources, operational solutions and services designed to facilitate business and job growth. Today that network is known as the Business Retention Action Team, comprised of representatives from 10 community and state organizations committed to strengthening local business.
BRAT members include SEDA, as well as the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Georgia Department of Labor in Savannah, the Center of Innovation for Logistics, the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Quick Start, Savannah Technical College, Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute, the University of Georgia’s Small Business Development Center and Georgia Power.
Grimes is proud of BRAT and how it complements SEDA’s business retention initiatives.
“We are more focused on business retention than ever before, and I think we’ve come to realize it’s an important piece of the economic development puzzle,” she said.
Trip Tollison agreed.
“The reason why we have such a strong and recognized business retention program is because of Lee Grimes,” said Tollison, SEDA interim president and CEO. “Early on at SEDA, she began advocating for established industry to be a focus and slowly but surely that program has gained attention, appreciation and respect within this organization and the community.
“Today in economic development, the industry fully accepts that business retention is a key part of what we do, but 15 years ago that was not necessarily the case. We have Lee to thank for making SEDA a leader in the state in regards to business retention.”
As for Grimes, she’s convinced she and SEDA were “meant to be.”
Never one to underestimate the power of the press, the Buffalo, N.Y., native likes to tell the story of her Savannah job hunt.
“I was working in quality control for a manufacturer in upstate New York before I married my husband Jerry, who’s from Savannah, and moved here,” she said. “During my exit interview, our human resources manager told me finding a job in a new city would be difficult. She told me to expect to be out of work for at least six months and said I shouldn’t even bother looking in the newspaper, just concentrate on networking.
“I married on July 1, moved to Savannah July 2, answered an ad in the Morning News the next day and started at SEDA a few weeks later,” she said. “So much for dire predictions.”
It’s a story that epitomizes Grimes’ can-do philosophy, one she used to discover that her passion at SEDA was helping good businesses get even better.
“I like to call it secular evangelism,” she said with a grin.
Whatever you call it, it’s an approach that works, according to Peggy Jolley, regional manager of community and economic development for Georgia Power.
Jolley was Grimes’ first boss at SEDA and continues to work with her on the Business Retention Action Team.
“In my mind, Lee transformed the way business is conducted, grown and retained in Chatham County,” Jolley said. “She took a fledgling program to support existing businesses and grew it to be a model for many other communities around the state and country.
“It’s a model that provides the much needed ongoing dialogue between businesses and the team of resource representatives who help strengthen and grow our economy.
“She will be missed.”
The decision to retire was a tough one, Grimes said.
“This has been an incredibly busy, wonderful and fulfilling job,” she said. “But I’m looking forward to spending more time with Jerry. I’m even making plans for our granddaughter to visit from New York this summer.”
Letting go will be easier because she has such confidence in her successor, Grimes said.
Leigh Acevedo has been at SEDA for five years and now serves as manager of business retention.
“She’s young and bright and full of energy and enthusiasm,” Grimes said. “We’ve been working together since I decided to retire, and I will remain available to help her whenever she needs me. She will be better than I am at this job.
“My only hope is that, once she steps into my job, she is able to hire a replacement for her old position. This is definitely a two-person job.”
What will Grimes miss?
“I think the two things I’ll miss most are the sense of satisfaction I get in helping a company solve a problem and the incredible atmosphere of creativity in this office,” she said.
“And I will hate to miss what’s next for SEDA. With Trip’s leadership, the sky’s the limit. I think we are poised to see some amazing things for Savannah and the region.”