April 18, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:02 am

New DECD boss plans aggressive pursuit of jobs | Former ING executive, listening, learning in first economic development role

Steve Laschever
Steve Laschever
New Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith discusses job growth strategies in her Hartford office.

Catherine Smith may have one of the hardest jobs in state government.

The newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development will spearhead efforts to try to reverse Connecticut's dismal job creation record of the past few decades.

That means the 58-year-old former CEO of ING U.S. Retirement Services will have to convince companies that Connecticut isn't hostile to business, a perception that has haunted the state for years.

And she's coming into the job with a true outsider's perspective, having spent no previous time in state government or in economic development.

"I'm not an academic economic development person," Smith said in a recent interview with the Hartford Business Journal. "I come at this job truly from an experiential position."

Smith said her No. 1 goal is to make Connecticut the premier state for the industries that belong here, which she said include insurance and financial services, high tech manufacturing, bio-medical, film/digital media and tourism. She also wants to encourage the growth of new startup companies, especially those based on research from the state's universities and colleges.

The best way to reverse the perception of Connecticut's business climate, Smith says, is to take uncertainty off the table and reduce energy and other costs that make it hard for businesses to compete.

DECD also needs to be much more aggressive in interacting with the private sector and better sell the state to both businesses that may want to move here and tourists, she said. That includes marketing efforts that highlight the state's strengths — its well-educated workforce, good quality of life, and proximity to New York and Boston.

Smith also wants to do a better job in promoting Connecticut as a vacation destination, and she's already contemplating a multimedia marketing campaign for the summer.

Just days into her new job, Smith has been on a listening tour, getting to know businesses around the state. That's included stops at Electric Boat in Groton and Pfizer, which announced earlier this year that it was cutting 1,100 research and development jobs in the state.

Smith said she supports Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget plan, saying it will have an overall "neutral," impact on the business community. She also gave high praise to Malloy's "First Five" initiative, which seeks to attract in-state and out-of-state companies willing to create 200 jobs in Connecticut over the next two to five years.

In exchange, Malloy will approve every business incentive the state has to offer without restriction. If the plan is approved by the legislature, the initiative will also give Smith the power to remove the statutory requirements on tax credits and other incentives; eliminate caps on direct state financial assistance; and override the limits on tax credit programs.

"I think this would show the rest of the country and a lot of businesses we are serious about job creation," said Smith, who noted that some companies have already expressed interest in the program.

Smith said she is supportive of tax credit and incentive programs and plans to closely review all of the ones Connecticut has on its books. She said she is not sure if she will suggest changes to anything, but her fist impression is that the state has "a lot of good tools," to attract and retain businesses.

In terms of what attracted her to state government, where she is taking a significant cut in pay, Smith says she always planned to spend some time in public service. Smith will be making $170,000 in her new role. She began her career at Aetna in 1983 and held various management positions, including chief financial officer for Aetna Financial Services. During that time Smith also worked with Malloy's chief of staff, Timothy Bannon.

Later, at ING, she served in numerous leadership positions including chief operating officer for ING U.S. Financial Services, president of health, education and government distribution, and CEO of the U.S. insurance businesses.

In 2008, Smith was named CEO of ING U.S. Retirement Services, one of the largest defined contribution plan managers in the country.

Smith said she wants to leverage her private sector experience to make her agency more lean and efficient and to create better lines of communication with other agencies that impact economic development.

If lawmakers approve, Smith will also oversee a reorganization of DECD, which will take on the Commission on Culture and Tourism and the Office of Workforce Competiveness. Smith said that plan makes sense. But making sure she and her agency are aggressive in what they do will be a chief concern early on.

"I know it can be difficult to get some things done in state government," Smith said. "But we shouldn't take 'no' for an answer."

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