Charles Simpson has undergraduate degrees in political science and economics, had thoughts of going to law school, then worked at an ad agency in Birmingham and is about to finish his MBA degree at Terry College. But even with the array of credentials and experience he’s already compiled as a young professional, perhaps Simpson’s greatest gift is that of a storyteller.
In a project he became involved in with the Archway Partnership, UGA’s innovative public service initiative, Simpson had to call upon all of his storytelling abilities to help the movers and shakers in Dalton/Whitfield County's $14 billion flooring industry counteract a thorny problem facing the carpet business.
“The Archway Partnership and Terry College came to me with a project that involved rebranding the flooring industry to attract a highly qualified workforce, which is basically a fancy way of saying they’ve had a hard time attracting and retaining the talent they need to keep up with the way their equipment is automated,” Simpson says.
The Archway Partnership was founded in 2005 to bring UGA and Georgia communities together to address integral economic development challenges by expanding access to higher education resources and by putting UGA student-participants to work on real-world economic development projects.
“Our mission is to work with communities to articulate their highest priority needs, with the university bringing resources to help those communities meet those needs,” says Melissa Lu (ABJ ‘03), the Archway Professional in Dalton/Whitfield County.
The initial Archway “portal” was established in Moultrie/Colquitt County and since then seven more Georgia locales have become Archway Partners.
Simpson says Dalton has to overcome several challenges to recruit the kind of tech-savvy talent the local flooring industry desperately needs. First and foremost, the industry is “heavily tethered” to the construction sector, which remains in the doldrums. Add to that the perception that the flooring industry is declining and not enough manufacturing and engineering applicants were in the employment pipeline, and it’s clear the industry needed some fresh thinking.
“I was brought in to work with full-time Archway Partnership professionals to do research in order to find out what draws people into flooring, to develop strategies for changing perceptions of the industry, and to come up with tactics to execute those strategies,” says the Mobile, Ala., native and Emory University graduate.
Taking what he’d learned in his classes, Simpson devised market research initiatives designed to help change industry perceptions, with ambitious plans for website development, institutional videos and mobile apps.
“The flooring industry has always known it had a neat story to tell,” Simpson says. “They haven’t really had someone come from the outside to encourage them to tell their stories.”
“Charles has been a great partner for our community,” says Brian Cooksey, director of operations, training and development for flooring titan Shaw Industries Group. “He quickly learned about our industry, developed a plan, and went to work. It’s been great to have a resource from outside of our industry to bring new perspectives and ideas to help us solve our problems.”
Simpson – who spent the time between Emory and UGA working for a business-to-business advertising agency in Birmingham — said the Archway Partnership project was an ideal opportunity to take what he'd learned in the classroom and put it to practical use among many heavyweights in the flooring industry.
“This is a high-priority project, where I was presenting to an executive committee of industry officials, public school personnel, county government and community leaders,” he says. “The industry people were weighing in on my insights. I’m working with C-suite executives. If they’re going to be involved in something, it better be worth their time.
“I was really fortunate to have worked as a strategist at an ad agency because I learned a lot of things I was able to take to this project. Also, the in-class experiences I had at Terry gave me a lot of statistical analyses tools and a lot of marketing theories and principles I was able to apply to this. So it was the best experience I’ve had because I’ve been able to actually apply all the things I learned in the classroom.”
The story, as Simpson tells it, gets even better. He was invited back to do marketing work on a contract basis with the Dalton/Whitfield County Joint Development Authority.
“Charles and the work he did exemplifies what the Archway Partnership is really supposed to bring to communities,” says Lu. “Charles had a great opportunity here to get his feet on the ground and try some different things. But the value to the community – of having somebody who doesn’t have a history in the area, has no preconceived notions, does thorough and statistically backed research, and follows that up with idea generation and presentations to communicate those ideas – that value cannot be quantified.”