Jim Smith has a plan for Nebraska.
The former state legislator is not running for a higher office. He is building a coalition to put Nebraska on the path to sustained economic development through Blueprint Nebraska, an initiative of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to develop a strategic plan to guide the state toward prosperity over the next decade.
“Nebraska is a very diverse state—economically diverse, geographically diverse. Interests are very diverse,” said Smith, executive director of Blueprint Nebraska. “We would like very much for Blueprint to be the catalyst for change, for the DNA that we are proposing to get into the bloodstream of the entire state and that we see a lot of smaller initiatives across the state carrying through these broader ideas.”
Smith brings years of experience in business and public policy to his role through the state chamber. He also understands Nebraska’s need to attract talent through his own decision to relocate in the Cornhusker State after early career stops in Louisiana and Texas.
A Floridian by birth, Smith earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting in Florida before working in the private electrical and gas industries. He met and married his wife, Ruth (Kerr) Smith, and within a few years, the couple moved to Ruth’s home state of Nebraska.
Smith combined his education and work experiences into a career with Omaha Public Power District, where he worked as a manager prior to retiring in 2011. Off hours, Smith became active in the community. He joined Suburban Rotary Club. He was appointed to the Ralston Planning Commission and served on the Ralston Chamber of Commerce. His father-in-law also encouraged him to become involved with the Salvation Army of Omaha, where he was recently appointed to its advisory board.
“[Jim] brings business and political savvy—and immediate credibility—to our board,” said Jeff Beckman, executive director of development, The Salvation Army Western Division. “His work in the legislature, in his family’s business, and now with Blueprint Nebraska speaks for itself. We are pleased to have him on our board.”
Smith said engaging with the community at large, not simply cocooning inside your smaller community, is important. He said professionals need to make time to move into civic positions as well as mentor others so there’s a leadership pipeline ready to serve the community.
Failing to do so, he cautions, results in an unintentional standoff between older people, who no longer want to be part of civic leadership, and younger people, who feel excluded from leading. That results in talented people leaving and the community at large missing opportunities.
“It’s really important to be involved,” Smith said. “The way that you improve your luck is to cast your line out more often. You do that by just being involved.”
Smith’s connections helped him run for the Unicameral in 2010, where he served two terms, including as chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee and the Revenue Committee, which has responsibility for tax legislation.
His success in the Legislature came from understanding a variety of perspectives and knowing how to find compromise. He said his work in civic groups, local government, and nonprofit organizations didn’t allow for the luxury of a standoff between competing proposals.
“You had to learn in those roles to collaborate, to compromise and to move forward,” Smith said. “You have to understand personalities, you have to accept those personalities and you have to value relationships beyond outcomes.”
Legislators who focus on winning and losing usually find themselves to be ineffective, he said. The same is true in business, where relationships are the difference between making deals happen or being left out of opportunities for growth and development.
Smith’s perspective on business is also informed by his 14 years as a small business owner. He ran Norm’s Door in Ralston (his father-in-law’s business that Smith and his wife bought in 2006), which afforded him an income during his eight years serving in the Nebraska Legislature. He said he always wanted to own a small business, and they only recently sold Norm’s Door. His focus lately has been dedicated to Blueprint Nebraska.
“I see it as a continuation of my service,” Smith said.
Blueprint Nebraska builds off the input of a diverse, 21-member steering committee. The plan features 15 signature initiatives that seek to make the Nebraska economy—whether urban or rural, from the metro to the Panhandle—competitive with other states in the region.
The ambitious plan sets lofty goals, but Smith said that’s by design. Blueprint Nebraska seeks to provide a 30,000-foot view of the policies that Nebraska should pursue, and now the initiative is working on implementation by crafting specific legislative and public policy proposals over the next two years.
“We have to create the narrative,” Smith said. “We have to give people a plan to rally around, to be able to say yes, we can control the destiny of our economy. I think that’s the starting point, because if we’re all ready to pack it up and say we’re done, we can’t change, then there’s just no hope and there’s nothing for individuals or businesses to really target to improve, so the narrative is important.”
Currently, the state has a narrative that claims we can achieve prosperity through controlling government spending, reducing taxes, and focusing on growth in Omaha and Lincoln. But prosperity comes through investing in every community in Nebraska, reversing the trend of migration out of the state and bringing young, talented workers into the workforce.
In his first couple of years with Blueprint Nebraska, it appears Smith has started a great narrative.
“Jim Smith did a remarkable job of helping the state develop a game-changing, statewide economic blueprint for Nebraska for the next 10 to 20 years,” said Bryan Slone, president, Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry in a statement. “He differentiated and validated the process, not only through outside experts, but by engaging hundreds of business leaders and thousands of other Nebraskans in a grassroots effort. Whereas far too often our in-state policy discussions can become somewhat parochial in nature, Jim kept us all committed to an open process where everyone participated in a manner that put Nebraska first. Without Jim’s considerable personal and professional skillsets in leading this effort, this unity of purpose would not have been possible.”
By taking an incremental approach that builds on success while simultaneously looking at large, systemic changes needed to foster economic growth, Nebraska can create opportunity for everyone.
Tim Burke, president and CEO of OPPD, is confident that Smith will continue to prosper in this position.
“Jim Smith was always a leader that looked at continuous improvement,” said Burke via email. “He led OPPD’s customer experience process changes in his last leadership role at OPPD. It is no surprise that he now takes those same skillsets to a statewide level. He’s looking at how Nebraska can be more competitive in the future and create communities that will attract the best of talent throughout the world.”
“There is a thread that runs through it all, and it’s about relationships and setting aside parochial interests,” Smith said. “That is, quite frankly, how businesses operate every day. You cannot stay in business if you don’t take that approach.”
Learn more about Blueprint Nebraska, including an overview of its 15 strategic initiatives and its vision for 2030, at blueprint-nebraska.org.
This article was printed in the February/March 2020 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.