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Roundtable discussion

San Diego executives share economic perspective

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The economy remains on unsteady footing, but its effects on individual sectors have been varied, executives from five different industries agreed at a Thursday roundtable at the Daily Transcript offices.

Although the five participants -- all finalists or semi-finalists for Ernst & Young’s San Diego Entrepreneur of the Year award -- said their companies have continued to grow despite the downturn, they also agreed they were ready for better economic times.

"Even though our industry is fairly recession-proof … the capital to do development has shriveled to a standstill," said Fred Pierce, who builds and manages student-housing complexes across the country -- and thus benefits from a sector that draws unemployed people looking to boost their skills.

The Pierce Education Properties president and chief executive added that his company might have been in some trouble had he not chosen to diversify and manage properties as well as build them.

Lumedyne Technologies CEO Brad Chisum offered a slightly different perspective. The downturn meant the cash-strong SPAWAR spinoff and sensor developer was able to attract top talent, secure less expensive materials, and enjoy a high priority position with its suppliers.

Now, as both the economy and the microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) industry gains traction, Lumedyne is seeing fewer top-notch job applications and now has to worry that its competitors might ramp up research and development as its first product hits the market.

"I'm not rooting for a bad economy, but for us, it would be nice if the bad economy would stick around for a year or two," Chisum said. "It certainly makes life a lot easier for us."

The executives' main concerns sounded familiar: Consumer confidence and jobs need to return so wallets will open once again for businesses. Banks need to let go of their excess reserves, and credit needs to start flowing again to consumers as well as businesses.

Public policy that is more business and education friendly would also be helpful, Pierce said. He suggested that state lawmakers could focus more on creating jobs and making it less costly for businesses to stay and expand in California.

Also, raising public university fees and tuition costs instead of cutting enrollment would serve to keep teachers and staff employed and keep more students moving toward a college degree, Pierce said. Some of the state money spent on subsidizing public education could instead be put toward financial aid to help low-income families afford the higher expenses, he added.

The executives' economic outlook was mostly negative. Tim Penick, president of general contractor T.B. Penick & Sons Inc., said he saw the cycle as being in "the bottom of the seventh" inning, but noted much would depend on policy decisions going forward.

Others said another economic dip was quite possible, given the amount of government spending and the debt problems in Europe.

The roundtable also included Dave Hartman, president and CEO of synthetic turf company Easy Turf and Marcus Hompesch, president and CEO of Chula Vista-based Profil Institute for Clinical Research.


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