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TechVibe Radio Talks to Mark Thomas of the PRA and Jim Rock of Seegrid

Interview by Audrey Russo and Jonathan Kersting


TechVibe Radio is back on air at ESPN 970 AM every Saturday at 8:00 a.m. from the Huntington Bank Studio.



Learn all about the new Pittsburgh Region: Next is Now marketing campaign.

Pittsburgh Regional Alliance President Mark Thomas will give us details on how this campaign is not like any other deployed to let the world know how Pittsburgh is an amazing place to live, work and play.

Seegrid CEO Jim Rock will tell us how this campaign is essential for fast-growing companies like his to attract talent globally and from right here in Pittsburgh.


So glad you are spending your Saturday morning you woke up early to hang out with us here on Techvibe Radio, I still have my pajamas on right now. It's all I'm saying. I've been wearing my pajamas for nine months.

I think we've all been wearing our pajamas. Oh my god, I want to talk about it. We got fun things to talk about today. We got people joining us today that I'm just so excited about honor because you know, there's a new brand for Pittsburgh, we kind of explore this on our business as usual it is Pittsburgh region next is now and we have Mark Thomas from the PRA hanging out with us to tell us all about the brand, what it means how we're moving forward as a region. And even better yet we have one of Pittsburgh tech veterans hanging out with us today, Jim Rock from Seegrid. I mean, Jim has been around Pittsburgh tech sector like I think nobody else and I'm excited to get his perspective on what a good brand for Pittsburgh means. And how that helps Seegrid do what they have to do, especially when it comes to attracting talent. So we're gonna have a ton of fun today here on tech vibe radio, that is for sure.

Great. So let's just jump in. And let's have these guys introduce themselves. And like, first we're going to Mark Thomas, how are you Mark? And tell us a little bit about yourself. And I know that we've all been sequestered during COVID. But you've still been busy. Yes. And tell them what gra stands for? Because not everyone knows those acronyms.

Yeah, sure. So, um, I'm Mark Thomas, I lead the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. We're an affiliate of the Allegheny Conference. We actually were birthed into the Conference a little over two decades ago. We lead the business attraction piece of the Conferences' work. I joined late last summer. So I've been here for almost a year and a half. Um, most of that has now been in quarantine. That's just so weird.

That was not the plan, Mark.

No. That said, I have seen all the great things and make Pittsburgh an awesome place to live. So a lot of time outdoors is still in the time I did have, I could visit the counties and really get out and about got the best understanding I think I could have received to really do my job effectively.

So that's great. So that's the mission. And then let's let's just have Jim Rock, introduce himself, because as Jonathan laid the show up, he said this is this is someone who's been around the tech scene for quite a while. So welcome, Jim, nice to hear your voice. And hope you're saying safe to tell everyone a little bit about your journey and then get us up to snuff on secret.

Alright, sounds good. I will think first of all, I want to thank you, Audrey and Jonathan for having me on this great show. I've been a fan for a long time. My name is Jim Rock. I'm the CEO of a wonderful company called Seegrid. Seegrid is a Pittsburgh born and bred company where a Carnegie Mellon University spin out, if you will, formed in 2003. I've been fortunate to be the CEO since 2014. So six years now, we have we are a diverse group of individuals, three over 300 employees now from all of the region's great institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University, but also University of Pittsburgh, and Robert Morris and many others. And of course, we're not just Pittsburgh based thanks to our friend the pandemic we've made. We've moved to a remote first approach and we have 100 new employees hired just this year alone. Wow, most of whom are not based, although we're very much in Pittsburgh centric Corporation. So and by the way, what do we do for a living we make self driving autonomous forklifts, autonomous forklifts. So our our mission in life is to transform the supply chain. We're working with the world's biggest companies. I won't know names, but you can imagine the world's biggest e commerce companies, world's biggest manufacturers, world's biggest logistics companies can name for example, the US Postal Service as a customer. So we're servicing the big kids in the supply chain space with self driving forklifts. And it's a, it's an honor and a privilege to run a company like secret. And I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it this morning.

I tell you what, Jim, I visited Seegrid, I think maybe back in 2004, or five, and it was just a few folks. And seeing what was going on there with some of the some demos that some of the some of the things rolling around autonomously driving and you thought to myself, Wow, what's gonna happen to this company and to hear you say, 300 employees, and working with major, major customers, that just makes me so pumped up, you guys have been through that journey, or at the space right now you guys are just kicking butt man. So cool.

I appreciate you recognizing that my team has been working so damn hard to put us in a position where we where we are today. And I will tell you that we are very healthy financially. Finally, we have doubled revenue every year since 2014. We're profitable, we have a ton of cash, we've got a lot of a lot of momentum behind us. So we're just we're just firing on all cylinders. And it's, it's it's you know, it's a group effort for sure. And you know, the saying it takes a village, I mean that the work that mark is doing at the PRA level is very meaningful to our success. I'm looking forward to him bragging about it here this morning. So I want to stop talking and give him a chance to.

It's great. It's great to have that perspective. So Mark, let's just jump in, let's talk about this campaign, the origins of it, the importance of it. And let's just explore a little bit about you know what that means in particularly during COVID? Post COVID? Yeah, run with it.

Yeah. So the actual process started before I was hired. Were when the conference was really looking at, okay, how do we do business attraction more effectively, it was very clear that the region needed a unified brand identity and Howard market itself. And so it was obvious that we didn't have one when I came. And so when I started to really look through, okay, how do we then position ourselves for tech companies, or a cybersecurity company or a growth company and FinTech? We didn't really have a, here's a comprehensive message. And so the brand really solves that problem, where it allows us to really understand, okay, how do we position ourselves as a region to our target audience? How do we arm people locally with the way that they market Pittsburgh to people externally, and we make sure local companies understand what they're selling themselves to future employees to investors, that the message around Pittsburgh has some consistency in how we promote it. Definitely. Oh, and launching the brand this year, we didn't want to leave so much on the history because we felt like enough people know, the steel history, that this is kind of a moment for us to really talk about all the exciting things that are happening now. And what I was exploring moving here, I was just like, astonished with what was happening that people didn't know. And so how do we then bring that into the brand. So it's not a surprise that people receive when they land. And so the bread is now launched, we're building capacity. It's really the first phase of what I think is a large rollout to customize our pitch to a lot of different types of people. But I'm excited about it.

Well, so how important let's, let's go to Jim now, Jim, you've been around the ecosystem for a long time. Now, and obviously the last six years, you've been immersed in yet another company? How important is it for you to have in your your arsenal, you know, tools to convey the capabilities about Pittsburgh, how is that important? In addition to just talking about secret?

Oh, it's, it's critical to our our success, our longevity, as a company is a collection of humans and similar. You know, we're we're benefiting greatly from this campaign that Mark's describing and really from all of the efforts that the PRA and more broadly the conference are doing to move the region forward. So when when we are for example, recruiting an individual and in many cases their family or partner to to consider secret as a company in Pittsburgh as a region whether or not they're actually moving to Pittsburgh or just want to be a part of a company that is as its locus in Pittsburgh. It's critical for the the unaware to learn about what is Pittsburgh what's the region, what's culture. And as Mark said, he was unaware living in New York what Pittsburgh was all about. I think that's my experience. Over over my career. Pittsburgh is a heck of a great place to, to live to visit to run a business to be a business. It's not well known outside the region. I myself in lifelong pittsburgher actually started my career in the steel industry, as Mark was alluding to. I've been high tech for 30 years.

I ran out. I ran out to Silicon Valley for a little while, and I realized how you know how the grass wasn't greener. And I came hightailing back to Pittsburgh. And I appreciate what Mark's doing, not just for secret for all of us. As residents of Western PA, it's not just Pittsburgh, it's Western PA's 10 county region. So to answer your question directly, Audrey, the the the campaign, the current campaign is incredibly valuable to our mission, to our success, so I appreciate and applaud it. And Jim, another point you bring up I think is really interesting is next is now campaign is actually bringing up things that Pittsburghers don't know about Pittsburgh, which I think is really effective as well, too.

Yeah, that's right. I mean, myself included. I'm an I'm an old man is you've made it clear here on your show. And I I love Pittsburgh, and I know a lot about it. But frankly, I actually have learned a great deal from the Next is Now campaign it, it highlights some really interesting things, of course, for me self serving around robotics. You know, that's interesting, but in general, it's for it's got a lot going for it. And I encourage everyone to check out the campaign.

You know, you said something that I want to dig into Jim, and I think you're saying that, you know, here you are in COVID, you hired, I don't know, almost a third of your workforce, new workforce that are perhaps many of them are remote. But they want to know about Pittsburgh to the to sort of an interesting piece. And I think it's really important for us to focus on, because I think very, you know, there's a new world about what destination and locale means. And so how does that play into this this work? How does that strengthen your attraction for talent? So even if Audrey and Jonathan are living in, you know, Columbus, Ohio, and they're not living in Pittsburgh, or wherever you're recruiting from, and you've got people, why does this Arsenal help that? Yeah,

I think it really, I think, I think it's basic human instinct to want to understand what they're joining and becoming a part of, when you join a company. Yes, it's just your professional career and not your life, per se. But it's a big part of your life. And you want to understand not just the company, but but its origins, the region. Clearly the culture of our initial group of employees is very much Pittsburgh centric. Well, I will tell you, it's not just us recruiting, we're recruiting in Europe. And we, you know, that I don't want to name names or countries, but there are people that are fascinated by what's happening in Pittsburgh, and they can see parallels between Pittsburgh and their region and where they grew up, and we're a working class town, we're an industrial town. And you can, in some cases, really seriously identify with our culture as a region. And I think it's important to be able to tell that story and to be able to communicate our brand. Absolutely. I tell you what, we got to take a quick break. We're gonna come back and completely geek out with both mark and Jim, more about the Pittsburgh brand with Nexus now, but also about Seegrid, and also about Pittsburgh in general, how we can make this a better place for companies like secret to grow and thrive and attract that talent. So I'm so happy to have you guys here. They don't go anywhere. We're coming right back. This is Jonathan Kersting. And this is odd though. We are from the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Learn more about us by going to PGH Follow us on Twitter at PGH tech, so many great ways to be like helping your technology company succeed. Simple as that. We'll be right back in a flash.

We are right back with you here on tech vibe radio. This is Jonathan Kersting. And this is Audrey Russo.

And Audrey we are so pumped because we are talking to Mark Thomas from the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance otherwise known as the PRA for short. And of course, we have Jim Rock tech veteran from Seegrid. Now you said that earlier, Jim. And he completely blew my mind.

I was like, Man, I'm so proud of these guys like to get to that point where that's like a true Pittsburgh anchor like, and it's all about some of the coolest, most cutting edge technology. And other before we went to break, you were really you started pulling a really good yarn with Jim, when it came to, you know, Pittsburgh being this place, that you know that when you're headquartered here, it's your culture, and if you really start bending things, but that's kind of in that up again, because I think that was just such a great point. I think Gracie agrees with us, too.

And that was Whitney, but yes, I totally agrees. And she's, she's barking because she's saying this is a great place to be exactly. I think what you know, Mark, this campaign couldn't have come in at a better time. When we're in the middle of COVID. We're, you know, who knows where when we're going to turn the corner. And we're really telling the world that nothing is stopping us. Nothing is stopping us. And we're here with Jim rock who serves as a CEO of Seegrid. And they've had tremendous growth, even during this period of COVID. So nothing really is stopping us. And particularly, when it comes to a lot of our core competencies, which is robotics, logistics, material science, we're seeing that, you know, we're fine, we're moving ahead, and we're fine. But it couldn't have come at a better time mark, that the launching of this, this sub campaign and this new branding, where do you think like when you look at 2021? What are you hoping for?

A definitely an economic recovery at the core, right? Um, I think what was good about using this time of COVID, is it allowed us to really get the brand to a place where we felt like, okay, it's ready for primetime. Okay. You'll notice actually start talking to people about what Pittsburgh will be in the next few years, the next decade. So I think we're building on so much momentum. And we can finally travel freely, and people can visit. And companies can make more decisions with some certainty around the commercial market. Like we'll be ready. And so I'm anxious about next year. And I kind of feel like this is my first full year because I didn't get that chance to do things that I want. Right. And so I can't wait. And I just look forward to like, what I think is a series of good news that people will see.

And so So, Jim, let's get back to C grid. You. You mentioned earlier talking to Jonathan, that you've hired almost 100 people over this last year. How How did that go? How is that going?

Yeah, it's a really, it's a bitter sight. reality. I mean, I have deep empathy for what's happening in the real world and in particularly in the western Pennsylvania region, that, you know, our friends and family and community and frontline health care and the restaurant business and on and on and on are suffering. So it's hard for me to highlight too aggressively secrets success without also pointing that out. But I will say that COVID has been a really strange thing for secret. It's, it's, we, we see it as the situation is highlighting the stress that's on the supply chain. So if you take the one customer I am willing to talk about the Postal Service. But you can imagine everyone else that's that's bringing goods through this pandemic, the pressure on supply chain, to continue performing its job day in day out, despite the pandemic so that we can all survive. We're a part of that where we're having a good year, thanks to the fact that robotics in particular, and and and secret in particular, but in general automation does play a role in getting us through this pandemic. There's a concept of surge or peak that you might have heard of with respect to the holidays and people ordering online over the last 10 years. And there's a peak season we're now on a permanent Date of peak and have been since March April timeframe. And this will continue through 2021 and 2022. And in my estimation, so this is putting a new reality on supply chain. And it's caused us to step up as a company and perform and and we've been deemed an essential business because we do keep the economy pumping. And and we, our team secret in particular did rise to that challenge. And as a result, we've been able to have a very successful year we'll double revenue again this year, we picked up many new customers, my team in particular is working their their butts off to satisfy demand. And the way I the way I process all of this mentally is not not every company's having the same run at it. It's synchronous, and we've had our ups and downs and likely will continue to. But the the big picture for me is that this, this this community focus that mark is working on from a from a pra standpoint is so important. Because we're all part of this community, we all care deeply about it. We we we have this culture within the western pa region that I think is very much reflected in the secret culture, you can see we've launched our own campaign called we Seegrid, you can you can check it out at our website. It's very much aligned with with Mark's campaign. They're they're kissing cousins, if you will. And I think they're all emblematic of the of the culture that we have here in this region. And in secret in particular, and and well, I'm super proud of it.

So how do you convey that when I come and work for you? How do you convey that when I'm living in Columbus, Ohio, or Salt Lake City or wherever, you know, in Yugoslavia?

Yugoslavia, you're pretty darn close to?

I have a big love for Eastern European. So I was making a guess when you said commonalities.

Yeah, well, I do as well, actually. So yeah, this is a it's an interesting question. Andre, we are learning. Let me let me start with saying that I ever threw a pandemic.

Oh, come on.

I'm a real I'm a relatively young guy. So I'm not that old. Right. We've learned a few things over the summer. And and and we've been able to survive this thing. And it's been hard for everybody, including us. So the the big question we have what one of the big questions on our minds is how do we actually preserve our culture, in this in this pandemic slash remote reality. And there's a couple a couple of data points for you. We secret had been recognized both locally and nationally as a top workplace, three years running. And we're aiming to keep it that way, not for the recognition, but for our own internal culture. And so we're very proud of the secret culture. It's, it's, it's something special and unique. As you mentioned, I've been in the Pittsburgh tech scene for a heck of a long time now. And I've worked for really good and really bad companies. And I have a strong sense of culture and what it means and how to how to lead it. And so I've really worked hard with my team to preserve something special, it's secret, this pandemic threw me for a loop. Personally, I love the fact that we're recruiting remotely, we've got a number of incredibly talented people that have joined us, far and wide from Pittsburgh. So it is it is a curious puzzle to make sure that our culture comes through. And I guess the best I can articulate, and I'm not I'm not that smart of a person, I have trouble articulating what I'm thinking. But the the way that we continue our culture in this, this remote pandemic, environment is to be authentic to you know, on our zoom meetings, we're very transparent. We, we go out of our way to loot people into discussions. We be ourselves in an authentic way. We're transparent, we're humble. We're we care about diversity, and many, many of the things that have driven our culture. For the six years that I've been here, and even prior to my arrival, I inherited a good culture and hopefully have made it a bit better. The way that we do it is to communicate and to over communicate, and to bring people into the process. So that's, that's the best answer I can give today.

Right? Yeah. I mean, I think it'll be fascinating and something for all of us to learn from, as you integrated people who are working remotely into your organizational culture, and leverage the messaging that mark Thomas and the PRA have amassed in terms of their outward projection. So that's always fascinating to me, both from economic development, business development, because it's tricky. It's tricky, but I think, you know, the use of technology will probably allow us to learn how to over communicate. So my hat's off to you that had to be pretty intense to onboard that many people from around the world doing During this period of time, so we're talking to Jim Rock, who's the president and CEO of Seegrid, and Mark Thomas, who leads the PRA, the Pittsburgh regional Alliance and talking about our marketing and branding. Really appreciate the conversation. So Mark, what are some? Are there any surprises? Are there any surprises for you, as you, as you know, you've been here for a year and a half. And you're, you're, you talked a little bit about, you know, Pittsburgh and making sure it's a cultural fit for you and your partner. But what about any surprises in terms of externally in any reception?

I would say the biggest thing has been how little people do know about Pittsburgh, right. So when you talk to people who are pretty well traveled with their VC, whether they're an investor or a site selection consultant, they definitely need an updated narrative around who we are. Um, and even when you just send pictures are like, wow, beautiful. And so there's something that tells you, we're sitting on a gem of a place that we need about a market, I would say for myself, what's been great, really, for me, and my partner is that, like, we love just like intellectual curiosity, a place, okay, that moving in that it's just like, overwhelming with people who are like, says verse, a lot of things. And so that's been fun. Um, and I think in the outer counties, you tend to have this divide, at least in house painted outside of our region, on a big part of our success. And so they will love to be part of everything that we're trying to build with the brand. And I see just excitement they feel when they can really incorporate the Nexus now into how we market Beaver, at Lawrence in Washington County and other places.

And you know, that's an excellent point, Mark. And I really my hat's off to you that the beginning of your tenure, you immediately went out to all the different regions, not focusing just on the urban core. So people need to remember that, that we are an amalgamation of all of those, you know, of America, actually, I think like the southwestern Pennsylvania is like a snapshot of America. And the disparities, and the diversity lack there of diversity, the poverty, the wealth, it sort of all exists in this in this region. And that result, I think we can be additive to the world, because we understand sort of the variety of the issues that the human condition faces. So my hats were I meant to always tell you that I really appreciated you going outside. So one minute left, Jonathan's giving me the singer, his four finger. So I think that, you know, it's been terrific to be able to talk to both, both about the campaign for marketing Pittsburgh to the world, letting people know and reminding them about Pittsburgh, and to hear from a company that has deep roots, their leader who has deep roots in a company that's been around for quite a while working on the future of you know, what's to come right, moving things around, making sure that people don't, aren't enough working in jobs that cause repetitive injuries and making sure that everything is, is smooth and seamless and getting products to people. Hats off to you. This is Audrey Russo. And thanks to Mark Thomason, Jim Rock.

Absolutely. And this is Jonathan Kersting. And run everyone learn more all about Pittsburgh region next is now by going to There's some great great content on there that even as a Pittsburgh are dyed in the wool, you're going to learn something new on there. I think we all have a lot to be proud of, and some great work that's going on. And once again, thanks, Jim for being here and building one of Pittsburgh's most awesome tech companies and Mark Always a pleasure to get your insight as a new pittsburgher as to what's going on. So hey, we're taking off from now we'll be back next Saturday right here on ESPN 970.