DES MOINES, Iowa — Nearly 1,000 business owners, state economic development officials and corporate executives descended on Iowa earlier this week for a lavish, enthusiastic celebration of America's fastest-growing companies.
"Field of Dreams," borrowed from the popular baseball fantasy film shot in Iowa, was the theme of Inc. magazine's 10th anniversary celebration of the companies making the "Inc. 500" list of fastest-growing firms.
Each year, Inc. ranks businesses based on sales growth and invites the winners to participate in seminars and parties to celebrate their accomplishments.
One California business owner among the winners said Iowa's pro-business attitude was a refreshing contrast to California's anti-business bent.
"Back home we can't get anyone in Sacramento to listen to us," said Larry Read, founder and chief executive of Oil Changers Inc., which ranked 20th on the list. Sales at the 5-year-old Pleasanton, Calif., company grew by more than 70-fold between 1986 and 1990, with revenue now about $15 million.
Back home, Read has been hassling with skyrocketing workers' compensation insurance premiums and strict new hazardous waste disposal regulations.
Read recently attended a hearing on California's embattled $11-billion workers' compensation insurance program to express his opposition to a proposed 23% increase in premiums. If passed, the increase will cost him an additional $300,000 a year to cover his 500 employees.
"We employ mostly entry-level, minority workers and you would think California would hate to lose a company like ours," Read said.
Although Read said he's not ready to pack up and move to Iowa, he was impressed with what he saw and heard and would consider expanding his operations into the state.
America's biggest corporations, including AT&T, Xerox and American Express, joined Iowa furniture manufacturer Hon Industries, the Principal Financial Group and Century Insurance in spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to woo potential business.
There were ice sculptures, sumptuous seafood buffets and unlimited food and drink. Miss Iowa, complete with her crown, played the piano at the Civic Center. Pro-business Gov. Terry Branstad was everywhere, playing softball with the Inc. winners, posing for pictures and personally encouraging business owners to take advantage of Iowa's highly educated and stable work force.
An impassioned speech by management guru Tom Peters was a highlight of the conference. Peters urged the successful business owners to continue thinking the way they did when they were young and hungry.
"You are here because you were disrespectful and discontented" working for others, Peters said.
He said every small business, no matter what it does, should operate like a professional service company and put their customer's needs first.
Peters, who charges corporate clients tens of thousands of dollars an hour for his consulting time, ripped apart corporate America, saying the Fortune 500 is in "tatters."
"IBM is close to a joke and GM is below a joke," he said. "When you stack 101 stories of smart people on top of each other, not a damn thing happens where it counts."