Ben Wu, the deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Commerce, has been named as the new CEO for the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation.
MCEDC is a public-private economic development nonprofit for the county.
The Montgomery County agency’s board of directors announced the appointment in a press release on Wednesday afternoon. Wu’s first day is Dec. 18.
A Montgomery County native, Wu brings years of experience at the local, state, and federal level. Before joining the state Department of Commerce in 2015 as deputy secretary and chief operating officer, he served as a U.S. deputy undersecretary of commerce and U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy under then-President George W. Bush.
Wu previously worked at the state Department of Commerce as assistant secretary of business and economic development and senior technology policy advisor before returning as deputy secretary in 2015.
At the U.S. Department of Commerce, he served as chief operating officer, overseeing more than 3,000 employees and a $500 million budget for a bureau that included the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg.
He’s also served as a non-voting member of MCEDC’s board of directors since the agency was organized in 2015, board Chairman Robby Brewer said.
MCEDC has always required nonvoting representatives from the County Council, county executive’s office, and state Department of Commerce. Most recently, Wu served with Council Member Andrew Friedson and Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Jerome Fletcher, who will remain ex officio members of the board.
“I think the context of this is that Ben is familiar with our county, familiar with our state and familiar with our region,” Brewer said. “Successful economic development organizations have to get all those stakeholders to work collaboratively. And Ben has a good understanding of all of them.”
Wu was not immediately available to comment on the appointment.
According to the board’s release, he’s internationally recognized as a technology policy expert. He worked on several strategic plans for Maryland’s economy, including its current focus on the life sciences and cybersecurity industries, according to a release announcing his 2015 appointment as deputy secretary of commerce.
That aligns neatly with the county’s current goal of recruiting and expanding “economic development sectors that are high in brainpower,” Brewer said, including biohealth, cybersecurity, and advanced manufacturing.
“We’re hoping Ben can take MCEDC, which is past its startup days, and continue on the path of attracting our target industries,” he added. “And leverage his extensive knowledge of players and people to move forward.”
MCEDC has also expanded its focus to financial services and hospitality, two emerging fields in Montgomery County.
Newly elected Council President Sidney Katz recently named economic development as the core issue of his term. It’s taken on renewed urgency for the council and County Executive Marc Elrich since a 2018 report found that Montgomery County’s economy had been underperforming for years.
One of MCEDC’s biggest goals is diversifying the county’s economy and decreasing its current dependence on federal agencies and contractors.
The organization recently hired former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman — who worked extensively with the University of Maryland to boost economic development in College Park — to market Montgomery County as a site for future research institutes and incubators.
The council recently passed a new economic development platform that required its committees to come up with work plans in four core areas: housing, transportation, business development and workforce development.
Friedson said he hoped Wu could continue to hone the county’s economic development strategy and assign clear roles to a wide variety of stakeholders.
“We’ve got this ongoing conversation over what role MCEDC should play, what role the county council should play, what role the executive should play, along with all the other entities in the county that have something to do with economic development,” he said. “So, I hope he can clarify what everyone’s jobs are, get everyone on the same sheet of music, and set specific metrics for determining what success looks like.”
Wu will be the agency’s second permanent CEO. He succeeds David Petr, who left the role in September.
Chief Operating Officer Bill Tompkins has served as the interim CEO for the last three months. He will resume his role as COO after Wu joins the agency, according to Brewer.
MCEDC has been searching for a new executive director since late May, when Petr announced he did not plan to renew his contract with the organization. Wu was selected from an initial pool of around 200 applicants, later narrowed to six semifinalists, Brewer said.
“I think he sees this as the opportunity to be ‘the guy’ for economic development,” Brewer added. “And those opportunities don’t come along very often right where you live.”