As he sits in a conference room that overlooks the Delaware River and the Philadelphia skyline, WebiMax founder and CEO Ken Wisnefski is also enjoying his view of Camden.
A Newark native, Wisnefski says he’s proud of the fact his company was the first to commit to Camden under the landmark Economic Opportunity Act of 2013’s revised Grow New Jersey incentive program.
And on the two-year anniversary of being one of the first companies to gain state approval for a project under the new law, Wisnefski said he’s never been more confident in his belief that Camden is the right place for his business to grow.
“This is where we’ve really kind of staked our roots at this point,” he said. “This will always be kind of our main corporate hub. While our expansion probably leads us into other cities on a much smaller scale and other countries on a smaller scale, this will always be our corporate location.
“This will always be our headquarters. I think that that’s just kind of the basis of it. We’ve really been pleased with it.”
For the state, WebiMax’s move to Camden is a sign that the revised incentive programs, which took years to plan and finally sign into law, are actually working and may help to reverse the long-held notion that New Jersey-based businesses are lining up to flee the high-cost state.
It’s also a milestone for the state Economic Development Authority, which administers the programs: WebiMax was the first company to actually collect its tax credit under the revised Grow New Jersey program after meeting its commitments for new and retained jobs this year. The firm recently was issued a $603,500 credit, the first of 10 annual credits under its $6.035 million award.
But the process of getting here wasn’t easy — and illustrates the challenges the state has of keeping companies.
WebiMax, Wisnefski will tell you, nearly left for Delaware.
As a rapidly expanding company in Mount Laurel with around 100 employees, WebiMax caught the eye of Delaware officials, who were the first to approach the company with an attractive sales pitch.
Since landing in Camden, Ken Wisnefski said WebiMax has put a large emphasis on being a strong corporate partner for the surrounding community. He said companies coming into the city should be as willing to give back as they are to receive.
“We’ve gotten involved in a lot of different programs,” Wisnefski said. “Admittedly, you can always do more. But we’ve gotten involved in a lot of programs to try and actually help the people in Camden as well, beyond just kind of coming in, taking the state incentives, saying ‘thanks’ and kind of being somewhat exclusive of anything else that’s going on around us.”
Delaware, they said, was relatively close enough that WebiMax would be able to retain a large percentage of its workers and access the same regional talent pool, while at the same time, being provided the necessary space to grow.
That’s when he reached out to Trenton to begin a dialogue with the hopes of making it possible for his company to stay in New Jersey.
“I can see why New Jersey had the reputation for being hard on businesses and not a great place for businesses to work because, up until we really got involved in this program, we were one of the fastest- growing companies in the United States; … we won a bunch of awards and all these different things, it was great,” he said.
“Never once did we hear anything from anybody in New Jersey. It was nice that Delaware noticed, and that was kind of my initial (reason for) reaching out to New Jersey — like, ‘Hey, nobody’s even so much as gotten in touch with us.’ They said that’s something they’ve got to do better with. But I can see why that stigma is there.”
A stigma is a nice way to describe Camden. And something Wisnefski quickly got past.
Wisnefski said that right away, between being warmly welcomed by city Mayor Dana Redd and Camden County Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli — and getting the impression from the state that it intended to fulfill its promises to Camden with the new law — he could sense he was part of something larger.
“We kind of felt more of that community feel, like this is something that they’re really trying to work on and we feel more a part of it,” Wisnefski said.
WebiMax was awarded a 10-year, $12.7 million tax credit to come to Camden — one that was ultimately reduced to $6.035 million because of its scaled-down job projections — but the process wasn’t easy.
Being first, Wisnefski said, presents its own set of challenges. Wisnefski said working with the EDA was a “rigid process.”
He said the lack of latitude the agency was able to offer was frustrating, adding that “it didn’t seem like the business interests were aligned with their interests.”
Major Camden-based projects approved
under the Grow New Jersey program:
Approved award: 10-year, $260M
Date approved: July 2014
Jobs: 235 new, 160 retained
EMR Eastern LLC
Approved award: 10-year, $252.7M
Date approved: September 2015
Jobs: 285 new, 62 retained
American Water Works
Approved award: 10-year, $164M
Date approved: June 2015
Jobs: 100 new, 596 retained
Subaru of America
Approved award: 10-year, $117.8M
Date approved: December 2014
Jobs: 100 new, 500 retained
Approved award: 10-year, $82M
Date approved: June 2014
Jobs: 250 new
Cooper Health System
Approved award: 10-year, $39.9M
Date approved: December 2014
Jobs: 19 new, 353 retained
“There were absolutely challenges,” he said. “Most of the people in the EDA didn’t know the different bylaws, didn’t understand the different aspects of it. A lot of it wasn’t from lack of effort, just kind of lack of knowledge on it because it was so new.”
That’s where, he said, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno often came to the rescue, providing a much-needed lifeline to cut through the red tape.
“She’s done a great job for us,” he said.
While Wisnefski doesn’t regret the move, he does acknowledge that WebiMax may have been able to secure an even better deal if it hadn’t been one of the program’s proverbial guinea pigs.
“Admittedly, being one of the first ones in, while I would be hard-pressed to complain about how it’s worked out for us, we’re very pleased, but we also had no negotiating room because it was a new program,” Wisnefski said. “We couldn’t compare ourselves to somebody else.
“We’ve seen some other companies, admittedly larger companies, come in and get a lot of money for development of a location, while we had to use a lot of our money that we had gotten from the first year of the benefit to take this from kind of a shell that it was into the office it is now, and it gets expensive.
“Admittedly, we probably could’ve negotiated a little bit differently had we been in this program a little bit later.”
These words, he admits, will only rile opponents of the Grow New Jersey program, the ones who say it is just corporate welfare and unnecessary.
Wisnefski acknowledges that debate, but maintains that if it weren’t for the Grow New Jersey program, he believes his company would currently be expanding somewhere else.
“I feel in some ways ours is validated a little bit,” he said. “We genuinely were one of those companies that, had New Jersey just said, ‘Look, we don’t have anything for you,’ we would’ve been fools not to take the offer from Delaware because it was a good offer.
“Structured differently, more of just green on the scene. Show up, here you go, help you get in the building. It was a good deal, so we would’ve been foolish not to take it. So, the reality of it is, I kind of feel like we have some justification to saying, ‘Hey, we’re one of the reasons why these programs are effective.’ ”
And the other corporate happenings around town have offered a sense of validation as well for WebiMax’s moves. In September, Liberty Property Trust announced its plans to construct a $1 billion waterfront project that will include two large modern towers consisting of a hotel, residences, office space and more. The project represents the single-largest private investment in the city’s history.
Then there’s strictly the business side of it. Wisnefski said being in New Jersey helps him do business in Pennsylvania and New York.
“There’s this notion that being a company in New Jersey, we’re favorable with the companies in Philadelphia,” he said. “And even though were a stone’s throw from Philadelphia, the New York companies view us as a New Jersey company, not a Pennsylvania company. ‘New Jersey they’ll work with, Pennsylvania not so much.’ There is that Manhattan kind of arrogance, I guess. So, we can work around that.”
“We kind of feel we got the best of both worlds, being here.”
All while staying in his home state.
“I’m born and raised in New Jersey; we’ve been here,” Wisnefski said. “So I’ve got a little bit of pride about staying in New Jersey.”
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