NOLABA’s new leader wants to ‘build more on-ramps’ to prosperity for New Orleanians
Quentin Messer Jr. was appointed President and CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance in June 2015. The New Orleans Advocate interviewed him about his new position.
Quentin Messer Jr. signs his emails with lowercase letters: qlm, jr. He will “never be the capital Q,” the recently appointed president and CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance said. That distinction is reserved for his father, a former school teacher whose impact on the younger Messer is apparent in an hour of conversation dotted with stories about, and lessons learned from, QLM Sr.
“There has to be someone who pours into you,” Messer said last week. “Most people achieve great things because they want to please someone else. And that’s typically someone who has invested in them.” That belief also is the guiding principle behind Messer’s plan for economic development in New Orleans.
The Jacksonville, Florida, native was recruited to New Orleans from a job with the state by local political and business leaders to lead the public-private partnership that is charged with growing business and jobs in the city. He is the Business Alliance’s second president, succeeding Rod Miller, who took a job in Detroit last year.
The Princeton and Columbia University graduate took a circuitous path to New Orleans. He wanted to be a writer, he said, citing “Giovanni’s Room,” a James Baldwin novel about an American living in Paris, as a favorite book. He quotes the writer with ease.
Through Baldwin’s writing, “you can literally see what he’s talking about,” Messer said. “I’m a frustrated writer. I should write more.” But after trying his hand at a little stand-up comedy and performance art and serving a short stint on the business side of a magazine, Messer went to work with the “venture accelerator” Foster Chamberlain in Philadelphia. The firm helped large companies launch new ventures, often referred to as “intrapreneurship.”
He followed that up with a stint in corporate transactional law and a corporate consulting job. None of it felt quite right.
“In the back of my mind, I had a goal: I was going to make a lot of money and then leave to coach high school basketball and teach English,” Messer said.
His disenchantment gave way to hope, however, when the self-described political junkie heard John Edwards, then one of the leading contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the 2004 presidential election, speak at the Iowa Democratic caucuses.
“And we, all of us to whom the torch has been passed, we carry an enormous responsibility. And that responsibility transcends politics and transcends elections,” Edwards said in his speech. “It’s our responsibility to ensure that we leave America better than we found it; that we give our children a better life than we’ve had.”
Edwards’ political career would end in scandal, but in his address, which Messer said was the “most incredible speech” he’d heard at the time, Messer found his calling. He decided to make his mark in education.
“This was around the time that there was a lot of discussion around the achievement gap,” Messer said. “I thought there was a performance gap, not an achievement gap.” In the end, the son of teachers and father of three said children need to be provided with experiences, from parents and other role models, that will equip them with the tools to become successful. Messer spent nearly a decade in education management and charter school administration working to prove that philosophy.
He said he sees his role at the New Orleans Business Alliance as a way to build on his earlier work, a sort of intersection between economic development and education aimed at improving the city’s many multigenerational challenges.
New Orleans has suffered from a lack of “consistent, sustained, robust economic growth,” Messer said. “The city has done well over the last six or seven years,” he said. “We need to make sure it’s institutionalized beyond the administration of a single dynamic mayor.”
In general terms, his goal is to “build more on-ramps” to prosperity for adults, such as jobs with good wages, so that they can then spend more time investing in children. Messer said he could not divulge a more refined plan for how he will go about achieving that until he has approval from the Business Alliance board, but he said the strategy will involve a heavy focus on building the city’s bioinnovation sector.
The Business Alliance, a partnership between the city and private investors, is responsible for business retention and expansion, negotiations with companies thinking of moving to New Orleans, entrepreneurship activities and strategic planning, among other things. It was created shortly after Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in 2010 as a response to the poor job the city has historically done of chasing business.
Last year, the alliance had operating revenue of $2.7 million, $1.5 million of which came from the city. The remainder was a mix of private money, federal grants and other sources. Messer, 46, will receive an annual salary of $200,000.
Unlike his predecessor, who was recruited to New Orleans to build the public-private partnership from scratch with just one employee and borrowed space in the offices of GNO Inc., Messer takes over an agency with about 15 employees, spacious quarters on the 20th floor of a Central Business District office building and a reputation as a body that can spur job growth.
Under Miller, the Business Alliance played a key role in efforts to recruit more major retailers to the city. It also was responsible for producing Prosperity NOLA, the city’s five-year plan to drive economic growth in five key industry sectors by 2018. Messer was picked for the job following a nationwide search that drew about 40 applicants. Business Alliance board Chairman Henry Coaxum said Messer was selected because of his educational background — he holds both business and law degrees — and the diversity of his work experience. He arrives at the Business Alliance after serving as assistant secretary at Louisiana Economic Development, in some ways the state’s counterpart to the local agency.
“I think he brings a unique perspective because we’re dealing with the challenge of taking the Business Alliance to the next level,” Coaxum said. He said the board was searching for a different set of skills this time than when Miller was hired. Instead of building the organization’s foundation, Messer will “be spending his time as a facilitator, as a broker,” Coaxum said. “He will create regional opportunities, regional jobs.”
As director of state economic competitiveness for Louisiana Economic Development and later as the department’s assistant secretary, Messer played a “critical role” in bringing together a variety of stakeholders, including heads of universities, corporations and government, to advance the department’s goals, LED Secretary Steven Grissom said. “He manages with a collaborative style,” Grissom said. “He’s good at building teams and alliances.”