Frequent Flyer: Brian Hilson

Written by Joe O’Donnell
Photo by Beau Gustafson

Brian Hilson is president and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA), which is responsible for programs designed to grow and diversify the Birmingham regional economy and enhance the quality of life for all citizens, including economic development, public policy, workforce development, and image enhancement.

These days being at the helm of the BBA definitely feels like there is a tailwind behind you. As Hilson travels on the national scene, he can feel the momentum building behind the region. “We know that a relatively high percentage of companies located in the metro area are either stable or have plans for expansion,” Hilson says. “Attached to that, we have had, in the last five years, 382 economic development projects underway, and counting. Collectively those have represented over 15,000 jobs and about $3.1 billion in capital investment. Those are record number for the Birmingham region.

“The numbers are trending better and better. We have statistical evidence in many ways of Birmingham’s improved performance relative to our past and relative to our competition. If you look at the whole of that, you can express it in terms of improved image, self perception, and momentum.”

A lot of people are noticing the momentum. “When we started tracking our accolades, we had only four in the year 2011,” Hilson says. “Since then, we have had more than 130 over the last five years including 35 this year alone, a record number by far. All of those are welcome and useful from an image building standpoint.

“A lot of people are slow to admit and accept that the community has definitely turned a corner, is competing more aggressively, and is being perceived more favorably. So they might not fully accept the pattern that we are into right now until they read it in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. Then it comes back home and reinforces it.”

Hilson spends a lot of time on extrernal marketing to location consultants, asking them often about what they know and think about Birmingham. Its a practice he started on his second day with the BBA in 2011. “I have seen a distinct improvement in awareness and positive perception, and not just in a general ways, but in specifics,” he says. “They are aware of increased research activity at UAB, for example, and what that consists of, and that Birmingham is stepping on to a better playing field. It all goes back to momentum.”

Hilson began his career in economic development in Alabama in 1980. Prior to his joining the BBA in 2011, he was president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County. He joined the chamber in 1992 as senior vice president of economic development and was named its president in 1997. Previously, he was a vice president of the Birmingham Metropolitan Development Board and has held economic development positions with the Birmingham and Mobile Chambers of Commerce. Over the years he has worked with a wide variety of national and international companies’ economic development projects, such as Toyota, LG Electronics, Sterilite Corp., UPS, Delta Air Lines, Verizon, and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

A native of Huntsville, Hilson is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of Oklahoma’s Economic Development Institute. He is a graduate of Leadership Alabama, Leadership Birmingham, and Leadership Huntsville/Madison County, and is active in state and national economic development organizations. He is past president of the Economic Development Association of Alabama, the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama, and the Japan-America Society of Alabama. He is a recipient of the Rainer Bauer Award from the Alabama Germany Partnership and the Samuel Ullman Award from the Japan-America Society of Alabama.

He currently serves on boards of directors or advisory boards of several additional state and local organizations, including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Business Council of Alabama. Having spent his entire career in the economic development profession, Hilson is a strong believer that employment opportunities are the best way to make communities better.