Jay ByersFounding Cultivation Corridor board member and Greater Des Moines Partnership CEO, Jay Byers, sat down with Aaron Putze from the Iowa Soybean Association to discuss rural and urban life in Iowa, Cultivation Corridor efforts and music. Read the original interview at iowafoodandfamily.com.

Food For Thought: A conversation with Jay Byers, Chief Executive Officer, Greater Des Moines Partnership

August 27, 2015 02:08pm

A Meriden native and a graduate of Manson High School, Byers attended Simpson College and obtained a law degree from the University of Iowa. He practiced in Indianapolis, Ind., returning to Iowa in 1997 be become District Director for Congressman Leonard Boswell. In 2005, Jay joined the Greater Des Moines Partnership as Senior Vice-President of Government Relations and Public Policy and was named CEO in 2012. He and his wife Katie have two daughters, Sophie and Charlotte. We sat down to talk about rural and urban synergies, the importance of teamwork, farming’s relevance to Iowans and music.

What’s your fondest memory growing up in Cherokee County? Attending a small school where I had the opportunity to do everything. You could participate in every sport, be in the band, and perform in the play. You were able to experience a lot of different things. And friends and family were always close by. It was safe and a lot of fun.

Did you pitch in and help with chores? I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm growing up, but I was pretty young when they stopped farming. However, I detasseled for Pioneer, Garst, and DeKalb, rogued corn for Pioneer and did some bean walking and riding and hay bailing for neighboring farmers.

How did these experiences shape your perspective as a business leader? A lot of people might think I’m a big city guy, but they probably don’t know that I grew up in a town small enough to have an entrance and exit sign on the same pole. There was no such thing as rural and urban. It was one community, one school. I look at Iowa the same way. We may come from rural and urban places, but we’re a team and we do things together, whether attending state sports tournaments, going to the Iowa State Fair or meeting at the Statehouse to advance policy.

Greatest misperceptions of our state? That farmers aren’t highly educated. Many of the farm kids I went to school with who now farm have four-year degrees. They manage complex businesses that take a great deal of analysis and an understanding of technology and process. Many farmers have Master’s Degrees.

Why an interest in law? My parents were teachers. As a student, I enjoyed the social sciences, such as American government, history and geography. While attending Simpson College, I decided early on to go to law school. I didn’t necessarily want to be an attorney, but loved public policy. Law school opens a lot of doors even if you don’t practice law. After getting a job in Indianapolis as a corporate attorney, a good friend from law school recruited me to be part of the (Leonard) Boswell team. He knew I had an interest in moving back to Iowa. It was a matter of the right opportunity at the right time in the right place.

What was the reaction to coming home? Some people thought I was crazy, but it was an easy decision. Returning to Iowa was something I always had on my radar. I just couldn’t see myself being a corporate lawyer for my entire career. I had a chance to move back to my home state to make a difference and I jumped at the chance.

What’s the Greater Des Moines Partnership? It’s the economic and community development organization serving central Iowa. We help lead economic development efforts in Polk, Dallas, Warren, Madison, Jasper, Marion, and Marshall Counties. We also serve as the regional chamber of commerce comprised of 21 Affiliate Chambers and more than 5,300 regional members — from Ankeny to Indianola and from Waukee to Grinnell.

What do you do as CEO? I work with a talented team to recruit companies to locate here, help Central Iowa companies expand and build up our entrepreneurial ecosystem. We also focus on recruiting and retaining talent and ‘skilling up’ our workforce. In addition, we engage in community development efforts to improve Central Iowa’s quality of life by coordinating events like the Des Moines Arts Festival and Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market.

What puts Iowa on the map? Those things that make us best in class, including agriculture and the biosciences. That’s why the Partnership helped launch the Cultivation Corridor, a signature initiative of Capital Crossroads, our strategic plan.

What’s the purpose of the Cultivation Corridor? To maximize Iowa’s powerhouse – production agriculture. We’re a leader in soybeans, corn, pork, eggs and renewable fuels production and we combine that productivity with the tremendous research and development capacity of Iowa State University and U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities. Add to that our numerous ag and bioscience companies such as DuPont Pioneer, John Deere, Kemin, Vermeer, Monsanto, and Bridgestone-Firestone, and other key assets such as the World Food Prize and you have something truly special.

How do you put these assets to work? The Cultivation Corridor is focused on leveraging all of these resources to implement a marketing strategy to increase brand awareness, expand research and development capacity and identify new economic development projects and opportunities.

Why is that important? The global population is estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050. Our goal is to make the Cultivation Corridor the global ag-bioscience epicenter to support this growth. We want to work with all of the stakeholders to implement a unified economic development strategy – one that says if you are in this space and you don’t have a presence in Iowa, you’re missing the boat.

Let’s do word association. Iowa? Home. Des Moines? Vibrant. Greater Des Moines Partnership? Leader. Des Moines Farmers Market? Best in class. Farmers? Family. Cultivation Corridor? Global. Favorite food? Pizza. Leisure activity? Playing music.

If you could do one thing other than manage the Greater Des Moines Partnership, what would it be? I’d play in a band full time if I had the talent. I play rhythm guitar and harmonica and sing in a band. When we play, which is not very often, we cover a wide range of rock, country, and folk, from Cash and the Stones to Tom Petty and Neil Young. I really enjoy it.

Favorite songs to cover? Ring of Fire and Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash and Forever Young by Bob Dylan.

How would those closest to you use to describe you? All-in, maximizer, motivator, visionary.

What do you want people to know about Des Moines? It’s everyone’s capital city regardless of where you live in the state. We want it to be a shining star that Iowans can be proud of. And it takes all of us – rural and urban – to make that happen.

Putze serves as director of communications for the Iowa Soybean Association and coordinator of the Iowa Food & Family Project (www.iowafoodandfamily.com). The Iowa FFP celebrates the bounty that comes from Iowa’s farms and the farm families who grow it. Putze can be reached at 515-334-1099 or aputze@iasoybeans.com.