By Katrina Elias, Reporter, The Spokane Journal of Business
Marcelo Morales is a founder, investor, and CEO in the health care and life sciences industries. He has been a board member of Greater Spokane Inc. for the past 10 years and is now the GSI chairman for 2022.
Morales moved to Spokane from Toronto in 2008 to become CEO of Jubilant HollisterStier. After several years there, he then started his own entrepreneurial activities and has been on several boards, including for-profit ventures like Arevo Health Inc. and nonprofit organizations such as the Spokane County United Way.
The Journal recently sat with Morales to talk about his career in life sciences, and what he hopes to accomplish as GSI’s chairman.
You’ve always had a career in the life sciences. What drew you to that industry?
Perhaps just general interest. I studied sciences as an undergrad. I went to management consulting, where I started my career. So I was fortunate to advise a lot of companies that were in the life sciences and biotech area. I managed a company with a large footprint that was related to pharmaceuticals. In my own entrepreneurial ventures, it has always been in that area. Again, just what I find personally interesting and impactful. If there’s something that I think can have some level of positive impact it’s that more than anything else.
Do you foresee the life sciences sector growing in the near future, and is that an industry that you would like to see GSI have more involvement now that you are chair?
There are two questions there. The first one is do I see the life sciences industry getting bigger, and yes, I do—particularly in our Spokane community.
Our community has a very robust and growing health care and life sciences community. Spokane is a central place for this massive geographic area in health care services. We are the central health care ecosystem from everything east of Seattle to everything south down to Utah and east to Minneapolis. That geography is huge—hundreds, if not thousands, of square miles. We have a massive health care infrastructure that’s far greater than what our population needs, but that’s because it serves this massive geographic area. It has created a real expertise in areas of health care delivery. Momentum is accelerating.
Will I push that in GSI? No, the role is really to work with our business community as best we can and sort of provide a few specific areas. We really want to focus on four items: Advocacy, talent acquisition and retention, economic development through attracting businesses to come here and keeping our businesses here, and taking care of our membership.
How does going from board member to the board chair change your position, your vision for what needs to happen in Spokane?
Firstly, the board of GSI has always been a collaborative group. I think the understanding that we want to retain and grow business as well as attract business has always been a common desired endpoint.
I think the need to drastically change strategy isn’t really there. The strategy has always been to help business grow whether that be through talent or advocacy or membership support. How do we attract new businesses here and work with county, city, and other organizations to support an environment for business attractiveness?
As it relates to my role as chair, the question becomes: How do we think more strategically again? Particularly as we’re coming out of COVID, which was a very reactionary period. The themes are similar but the ways you implement them are different. Talent is different now. Economic development is different. Business growth might be different. There are some industries that might do well, some will take longer to recover. How do we adjust the details of our ability to support our business by taking those changes into consideration?
When you’re looking for talent, how are you looking for it and attract people to come here? What type of talent are you bringing here? A company or leaders?
I think the dilemma around talent is, it’s complicated. That’s the short answer. One challenge inhibiting growth today is access to talent—hiring people who fit in a competitive environment but also keeping people happy in their work environment here.
The question of talent isn’t simply about posting jobs. It’s understanding what kind of workforce a particular company needs, financially preparing for that workforce, and, at the same time, running a profitable company.
One element we are thinking about is pipelining. Developing the pipeline of people who are going to be the workforce in the future. And that comes through focusing on K-12 and higher education.
How do employers think about attracting the talent that they want for the next five years?
With this new nuance of effective remote workers, how can businesses cast a wide net and possibly find workers anywhere? That changes the equation a bit.
When it comes to attracting companies, talent has always been a positive differentiator for us in Spokane. Similar to health care, we are also largely represented on the higher education space. We have five post-secondary colleges and universities here, and, in proportion to our population base, that’s a lot. So, we’ve always articulated to employers that want to come here that this is a great place to find talent, new talent, well-educated talent. It’s a fertile ground to hire folks.
I’ve found that Spokane is a pretty good environment for up-and-coming leaders. In fact, it can be a challenge. We’ll lose good people to other companies because perhaps growth opportunities aren’t as robust here as, say, Seattle. If you’re a particularly successful businessperson here in Spokane, where we are less geographically dense and more isolated, that success is driven by finding customers and growth outside our community.
What we have that probably other communities don’t have is … the appeal of people wanting to live in the lifestyle that Eastern Washington provides—a balanced life and opportunity to grow a family.
What are you finding when you talk to schools about what skills are needed?
It varies. STEM-related skills have been important for a while, and they’re becoming more important—whether that translates to computer engineering or programming, those seem to be foundational skills for this generation. I think whether it’s the universities or the community colleges, developing programs that provide these STEM-oriented tools for our workforce is important.
Another one that is perhaps more relevant to our community is manufacturing-centric skills. It could be engineering but doesn’t have to be. Manufacturing skills can be working in a biotech lab environment, or an aerospace environment, or industrial manufacturing environment. Individuals familiar with machine and hands-on activities—that is one element that is wanting here, we need that particular skill set.
The third goes back to health care. There’s a lot of health care need here in Spokane. That seems to be an area that is growing. You see it in the growth of nursing programs, and, of course, medicine, but also in ancillary things like physical therapy and physician assistant-related roles.
What specifically do you hope to accomplish in this one-year role?
We’ve been re-establishing some of the guiding activities around supporting our members, addressing plans to support the talent landscape, support economic development. As it happens, we decided last year it was a good time to implement a new economic development strategy. That will be done this year, and we’ll start implementing it. The time is good because the landscape of how economic development occurs now is very different than it was 10 years ago.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article and photo first appeared in the Spokane Journal of Business on February 24th, 2022.