A.O. Smith chairman leads regional development efforts

Paul Jones has some free time, now that he has passed the torch at A.O. Smith Corp. in Milwaukee.

Ajita Rajendra took over as chief executive officer of the company on Jan. 1, and Jones transitioned to executive chairman of the firm.

Jones will continue to lead A.O. Smith’s board of directors while assisting with strategy, mergers and acquisitions, investor relations and leadership development.

However, he won’t be doing the day-to-day management of the company, so Jones has focused some of his time on regional workforce and infrastructure development.

Jones was recently named the Wisconsin chair for the Regional Alliance for Economic Development (RAED), a new effort by Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin to develop the regional workforce and infrastructure.

The organization aims to implement the economic recommendations of a study conducted by the Chicago-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“I want A.O. Smith to do well, but I want the community to do well, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody, but we need jobs,” Jones said.

RAED’s chairs have been discussing the possibility of regional cooperation on transportation, exports, education and training.

“Why don’t we have a tri-state port authority? We all share a lake,” Jones said. “We even have some wild ideas of new interstates, privately funded. What if we could create an interstate for semis that went 50 miles south of Chicago and bypassed it and so therefore alleviates some of the traffic jams in Chicago?”

Since A.O. Smith spends a lot of money shipping water heaters all over the world, Jones has a unique insight for RAED’s development proposals.

The plan is to focus on big picture, long-term development for the regional economy, he said.

“We’re looking at the big deals, we’re not looking at some little skirmishes as to whether company A puts 100 people in Waukegan or Kenosha,” Jones said. “We’re trying to do something that helps the whole region.”

Jones is no stranger to economic development initiatives. He co-founded the Milwaukee Water Council to develop the water industry cluster in Milwaukee.

“I’ve always been interested in giving back to the community I live in where I think I can contribute,” he said. “When the idea of the Water Council came up with (Badger Meter Inc. CEO) Rich Meeusen and I, it seemed like a terrific idea.”

Milwaukee could become a water industry hub, and Jones is working to involve A.O. Smith in that future.

A major initiative of the Water Council is building a collaborative research center for startup water technology businesses to cooperate with established water companies such as A.O. Smith.

“It’s going to be pretty exciting,” he said. “I’d be surprised if in the next five to eight years (A.O. Smith doesn’t) have investments in some of those companies.” n

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