By Christi Milligan Bernice Whaley’s corner window in her office at the Carvel State Office Building captures an expansive city view that stretches from west of French Street toward the Delaware River. That panorama could ...
[caption id="attachment_14397" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Bernice Whaley became director of the Delaware Economic Development Office in June, succeeding Alan Levin. Her track record as deputy director includes business development and attraction projects, working with site advisers and focusing on the state's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.[/caption]
Bernice Whaley's corner window in her office at the Carvel State Office Building captures an expansive city view that stretches from west of French Street toward the Delaware River.
That panorama could be a metaphor for Whaley, who transitioned this summer from the detail-driven role of deputy director at the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO), to director, charged with looking at the state's "big picture" for all things business.
"It's seamless from the perspective of knowledge of DEDO and how it works," said Whaley, of the June transition into her new role. "I've been responsible for the internal operations, so I have that. I felt pretty empowered by having that knowledge, being the one who led the reorganization of the agency in 2009."
Whaley assumes the role at a time when Delaware's unemployment rate is at 4.6 percent - a dip from a recession high of 8.7 percent - and when a number of large-scale manufacturing projects are shoring up an economic landscape hit by worrisome exits, from Chrysler in New Castle County to DuPont's Seaford manufacturing plant in Sussex.
But she faces challenges as well - namely the financial wherewithal to attract manufacturing industries to the First State now that the Delaware Strategic Fund has been cut by more than half - $10 million for FY 2016 compared to $22.2 million in 2015.
The strategic fund is the state's main funding source for low-interest loans and grants to businesses for job creation, relocation, expansion and brownfield redevelopment.
It's also what drew German-based Uzin Utz Manufacturing to move its operations to Dover, while Zacros America relocated its Baltimore-based Hedwin Division to Newark. Recently, Ireland-based AB Group Packaging Inc. received two strategic fund loans to bring manufacturing operations to Delaware and create 87 new jobs.
While funds may be squeezed, officials who have worked with Whaley say she'll be creative, tenacious and fair in courting and gauging future business for Delaware, pointing to her decades of work in the private sector - namely a vice president at the Happy Harry's drugstore chains.
Whaley's tenure as the right hand of outgoing director Alan Levin was a fitting prelude to her present role, shaped early on by hardship, opportunities and a strategic gusto for hard work and adaptability to change.
"She has always been capable of leading anything," said Levin. "The governor was wise to select her."
Her longstanding work with Levin spans decades, first at Happy Harry's and later at DEDO, and Levin may be most qualified to expound her strengths.
"She is a very good listener in the sense that she will take in all sides of an issue before she formulates a position on something - that's her strong suit," said Levin, who now works for restaurant group SoDel Concepts.
At DEDO, reorganization of the agency called for a revamp of function and public perception, and Whaley was up for both. Whaley said the agency placed business development leaders in each county, charged with knowing their county, conducting outreach, and identifying what wasn't working.
"We talked to every single personal internally," said Whaley. "Most of our resources go to facilitating get the right people around the table to achieve their goals."
The result was a cohesive team lead by Levin's panache, vision and connections, and Whaley's knack for pulling the pieces together.Some have lauded them as champions for Delaware business, able to draw both international and neighboring businesses to give Delaware a try.
"Bernice quietly exhibits great care and concern for her colleagues, as well as a strong willingness to empower them in their areas of expertise," said Diane Laird, state coordinator of Downtown Delaware. "This makes for a strong team, with each member being acknowledged for their unique contributions."
"One of the things I like about her the best is that her analysis of situations is fact-based," said state Sen. Brian Bushweller (D-Dover). "She understands that when DEDO is making judgments and decisions about which companies best serve Delaware's needs that a fact-based approach is really helpful."
A self-made woman
Much has been written about Whaley's own backstory and road to success. Her corner office is a long way from Happy Lane in Newark, headquarters of the Happy Harry's organization where she got her first job out of college building an inventory and warehousing system for the growing drugstore chain.
It's further still from the Philadelphia room she and her older sister stayed in when she was 16, hoping to sidestep the Pennsylvania foster care system after their mother died of cancer.
Once her sister Judy turned 18, she became Whaley's legal guardian.
"Judy and I did whatever I could do to stick together," Whaley said. "When something like that happens, it's easy to go down the wrong path.What it did is it made me a survivor. I don't know if this is by nature but I'm very much an optimist."
A high school counselor encouraged Whaley to enroll in college. She graduated from the University of Delaware with a marketing degree and began a 25-year career with Happy Harry's, ultimately becoming vice president of inventory management and distribution.
"Back then, warehousing was an art form," said Whaley."With the advent of computers, my job was to take the art form and the people who were afraid of technology and develop an inventory system.I really was able to develop it from scratch early on and continue to grow this warehouse into two distribution centers, bringing in technology to track inventory.
It also marked the beginning of decades of work with Levin, who took over the reigns of the company after the passing of his father. New leadership meant change, and Whaley said while some longtime employees balked, she found Levin's vision for growth exciting.
She credits Levin's vision for growth during the Happy Harry years. Under his leadership, the company grew from 13 to 76 stores. He trumpets her motivation.
"When I think of Bernice I think of a young woman that worked in our office handling purchase orders and progressing up a ladder and becoming the first woman in the company to handle distribution for a major drug chain, shipping hundreds of millions of dollars in inventory," said Levin.
"I worked my way from entry level," said Whaley, who is now pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration degree from Wilmington University. "There's a personal reward in that accomplishment."
As DEDO's new director, Whaley said she will continue to focus on initiatives laid out in the agency's 2014 Delaware Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy that include a focus on retention and expansion of Delaware businesses and attraction of new business to Delaware.
Key to that will be telling the "Delaware story," highlighted by business-friendly advantages like infrastructure, access to big cities, and the state's unique ability to get the right people together.The agency also launched a new website.
She said she was surprised to learn several years ago that Delaware was an unknown entity to site selectors on the hunt for fertile manufacturing possibilities. In response, the agency began to aggressively reach out to site selectors across the nation. The result is national, even international interest like Uzin Utz and others.
"Now we get more requests for information than we've ever had before," she said. "We do our best work when we get to play in the game."
Entering the game also took the agency to Philadelphia in June for the BIO International Convention, the largest global event for biotechnology.Taking advantage of its neighboring location, DEDO sponsored the Delaware pavilion on the networking floor and hosted the first headshot lounge.In the process, Whaley said the agency made more than 4,000 business contacts.
"My role has changed to big picture," she said. "It's about speaking for the agency, being the face of the agency. But it's not about revolution, it's about evolution."
Whaley said she's committed to helping Delaware small business - stimulating growth and providing critical education to show business owners the basics of developing a business plan and accessing capital.
"We're thinking creatively," she said.
Something she won't have in her new role? A Bernice, she joked.
"Alan's been so lucky but I don't have a "˜Bernice,' " laughed Whaley. "He had a much better situation."