Omaha Sen. Brett Lindstrom had a gut feeling about the potential of Dave Rippe to lead Nebraska's Department of Economic Development.
"He was my No. 1 pick even prior to the governor selecting him, just because I had seen him in different venues before, discussing his approach," Lindstrom said. "And what he did in Hastings, I think, will transition well into the state."
Rippe, 35, has spent his time since college — Nebraska Wesleyan for an accounting degree and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for a master's degree in business administration — building a resume with the Legislature's fiscal office, the state's Economic Development Department and then the Hastings Economic Development Corp.
He has experience in business and workforce attraction and development, housing, and site and infrastructure development.
He wants to use "innovative approaches," he told Lindstrom's Banking, Commerce and Insurance Committee at his confirmation hearing.
Rippe is a native Nebraskan who grew up in Malcolm, walking beans and milo fields and detasseling corn, "doing about anything a person could do on a farm."
His parents had land south of Branched Oak Lake, and he also worked for area farmers.
When he and his wife, Kristi, moved to Hastings from Lincoln in 2010, they fell in love with rural Nebraska, he said. They invested in buildings in downtown Hastings, remodeling them on their own and with partners. They have a passion for building communities from the inside out, he said.
Rippe took over on Dec. 18, the third economic development director to be appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and the fourth in seven years, not including two acting directors that bridged appointments.
The department was led by Richard Baier from 2003 to 2011, appointed by Gov. Mike Johanns and then continuing with Gov. Dave Heineman; Catherine Lang, 2011-14, with Heineman; Dacia Kruse (acting, seven months), 2014-15, Heineman; Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, 2015, Ricketts; Eric Zeece (acting, three months), 2015-16, Ricketts; Courtney Dentlinger, 2016-17, Ricketts.
During Dentlinger's time, the department hired SRI International to gather information on what is driving Nebraska's economy, to look at target industries and ask for input from people across the state involved in business, government, education and economic development.
It laid out a road map for Nebraska to build strong communities, work to attract and develop high paying jobs and diversify the state's economy, Rippe said.
Widening the economy could mean expansion of biosciences, agricultural technology, advanced manufacturing, health care, finance and information technology, he said.
Lincoln, with its own Chamber of Commerce and professional economic development team, is a key player in the state, he said.
"As the rest of the state looks to the growth that's occurred in Lincoln, especially over the last decade, I would say that coming from a more rural community like Hastings, Lincoln is a model for communities across the state," Rippe said.
They look at how Lincoln has invested in its community core, how it's worked to capitalize on the talent at NU, and how it's built its employers.
There's been a great return on the public dollars being invested in startup companies and entrepreneurial efforts like those coming out of the university, he said. For every dollar in public funds that goes in, there's nearly $7 in private investment and $7 in annual revenue. And over the life of the program statewide, they've seen more than 500 jobs created that pay more than the state's average wage.
When Ricketts announced Rippe's appointment, he said he wanted to encourage growth of Nebraska's brand nationally and internationally.
That brand is rooted in the state's communities, businesses and people, Rippe said.
"When we promote Nebraska, above all else we promote human capital," he said. "Beyond that, we promote location, we promote proximity to resources, and obviously to agriculture."
Ricketts' vision is to "grow" Nebraska, Rippe said.
"I'll tell you that he starts every meeting that we are in as a cabinet reminding the cabinet that our vision is to grow Nebraska," he said.
In sales and marketing, transportation, environmental quality, labor or agriculture — every department — that's the vision to achieve, he said.
The Department of Economic Development tracks the number of primary businesses in the state that have either announced plans to expand or completed expansions each year that have resulted in at least $1 million in new investments, or hired at least 20 employees, or developed 20,000 square feet of new space.
Between 2016 and 2017, the number of these businesses increased by 4.7 percent, Rippe said.
The number of employees working in Nebraska increased by approximately 10,400 in 2017. Total non-farm employment in December 2017 was 1,037,248, according to the Nebraska Department of Labor.
The value of foreign exports from Nebraska businesses grew 13.2 percent between 2016 and 2017.
Rippe can talk economic development with the best of them. But those people who are getting to know him also say he has a well-developed sense of humor.
He told Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus at his confirmation hearing he wasn't sure a proposed sovereign area in western Nebraska would solve all of the state's economic development issues, but he would be happy to be among the first to sign up for property in Schumachastan. The senator wants to tempt major enterprises that might be attracted by the prospect of no city or state taxes and no local or state regulations.
"He's very quick-witted, kind of a dry sense of humor," Lindstrom said of Rippe.
Born on the edge of the millennial generation, he thinks the new director will be helpful in retaining and attracting those younger residents and workers.
And he always takes questions head on.
"He doesn't dodge around. ... He gives his thoughts and approach on it. At the same time he might slip in a little humor here and there," Lindstrom said.