Bill Sisson - Mobile's State of the Economy 2018

Bill Sisson - Mobile's State of the Economy 2018

On this week's podcast, Marcus sits down with Bill Sisson. Bill is the President and CEO of The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce. Listen to this week's podcast to hear them talk about the State of Economy and the great vision and expansion Mobile is experiencing as we move into the new year!!


Bill: I'm Bill Sisson, president and CEO of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.

Marcus: Yay! I'm really excited to have you on the podcast again.

Bill: It's good to be here.

Marcus: Yeah. I think it's about probably two years since you came on last and I was very excited about some of the things that I heard in your State of the City. No, it was State of the Economy.

Bill: State of the Economy, yeah.

Marcus: Sorry. Mayor does the State of City, right?

Bill: That's right. We have the State of the City and the State of the County and we do that once a year.

Marcus: Yeah. And so I was very excited about some of the things that you were talking about that and I also just wanted to give you kind of a platform to talk about some of the initiatives that I know the Chamber was going to be taking on in 2019.

Bill: I appreciate that.

Marcus: Yeah because I have ... and he didn't ask me to do this but we have benefited greatly from being members of the Chamber and I cannot tell you just how important an asset they are to our area with the economic development that they do and all the platforms they give to small business owners all the ... just the wonderful programs like Emerging Leaders and stuff like that that they do for the business owners here. So if you are not a member of the Chamber, then please consider. We're members. I'm member of the Board of Advisors. I'm now, I guess-

Bill: Coming on the Board of Directors.

Marcus: Yeah, I'm going to be on the Board of Directors-

Bill: Yeah. We appreciate that.

Marcus: Here soon.

Bill: Yeah.

Marcus: And I'm really excited about what I'm seeing you all do and so I wanted to get you back on and have that conversation.

Bill: Well, I appreciate that plug. You didn't have to do that but you're an ideal member too because you're entrepreneurial. You've also put your membership to work which I always tell people it's like anything else. You get out of it what you put in it and you've always been very, very involved and we appreciate that and so we're excited about your business in it, the type of business that you have growing here in this community.

Marcus: Yeah.

Bill: It's really important to us.

Marcus: I think you and I had a discussion and I want to say it was like four or five years ago and just about Bluefish and the type of business that it was and I ... it was ... it made me, honestly, the conversation that I had with you made me change the focus of my business because at the time, I think, it was a distributed company. We had employees in West Virginia and some in Missouri and a couple of other folks that we used either in Canada or out in California.

Bill: Yeah, I do remember.

Marcus: And I just ... I made the realization that if I wanted to be a part of this community that I needed to look at it also from a job generating standpoint and so we changed. We started ... I moved one guy down from West Virginia that's Tad and we started hiring here locally and it's benefit us. So I appreciate it.

Bill: Yeah, I remember you doing that and I was proud that you did that. I think that we need more and more businesses thinking that way, particularly as we develop the talent base here, attracting people and growing it here, I think, and we have a lot to sell. I mean, the quality of life and the cost of doing business here, the cost of living here. I think all of that kind of sells itself if you can get people down.

Marcus: And as things are improving, it's making it easier and easier to justify in making those changes.

Bill: Right.

Marcus: But why do you ... I mean, we usually have a list of questions and I'm not going to necessarily go by the script because I think there are more interesting things to talk about but why don't you give some of the highlights of what you discussed in the State of the Economy.

Bill: State of the Economy. It's one of my favorite events. Started that when I came back to the Chamber over five years ago and I like it because it give the community a snapshot of what local business, what they're feeling, thinking, how their business has been the previous year, and what they're thinking is on the horizon and I thought this year in particular, the survey results were interesting because they showed that the local business community is much more bullish about the economy than they are about the national economy, which I thought was interesting. I think it was 73% of the respondents felt that the economy would be in 2019 than it was in 2018.

Marcus: And folks, he doesn't have his notes in front of him so he's off by a percentage, give him some grace.

Bill: Yeah. Yeah, give me ... yeah, cut me some slack and I think it was, I want to say it was 57% felt that nationally things would be better. Both of those are good statistics but I think that three out of four here locally feeling that this year is going to be even a better year I thought was pretty telling.

Marcus: So I have always felt that what a city needs is a cheerleader and a group people that are providing and casting vision and leading, not necessarily doing. It's not an execution thing. Although, there are some things like ... so when you look the mayor and to yourself, it's not necessarily that you're responsible for doing all the things but what you do have to do is you have to provide a positive attitude and a vision for what the city could be and I think as I look to what has happened with the city, with the leadership, over the last say four years or so and with what you've brought, I just ... I see that. I see that there's a cohesive vision, that there's a plan for moving forward instead of just saying, “Oh, everything's going to be better!” And I think that's why business owners feel like it's going to get better.

Bill: Well, we have many sectors that are growing. I think that's something that is very, very positive in this economy here locally. A lot of communities would be thrilled to have one or two. One that was growing and we have quite a number and I think that people also realize that we've only really begun to see some of the benefits of the larger scale projects like an AirBus. We haven't really seen the effects of that yet and so I think that's what's exciting is knowing that that's going to continue to grow and expand and what's going on with our port and the container terminal and the logistics sector. That's one we all need to watch carefully because we've ... Walmart and Amazon have happened. Well, we're working a number of projects in our portfolio related to distribution and you only have to look at cities like Savannah that had an expanded container terminal and now they have, I think, it's over 30 distribution centers that have followed that expansion.

Marcus: Because they don't mind being in the same place.

Bill: Right. Exactly.

Marcus: Yeah.

Bill: Exactly.

Marcus: I mean, if somebody else like a Walmart or an Amazon says, “No, we think it's good enough.” Well, guess what?

Bill: Yeah and it's-

Marcus: It's going to answer a lot of questions for all the other guys.

Bill: It's like the clustering effect. I mean, it's like car dealerships. They all sort of cluster together, right? And they see their synergies and I think distribution centers see that as well. Plus, the fact that we do have such excellent logistics. We're an easy sell. Talk about shouting it from the rooftops. That's what we ... that's really our job at the Chamber and Economic Development is to make sure that these companies understand what our logistical advantages are and our other business assets here.

Marcus: So I thought it was very interesting about AirBus with the Bombardier deal and I don't know if you remember any of the numbers based off of that of like what they're planning on doing there and when.

Bill: Well, they'll have 400 additional jobs associated with the 220 and essentially what we see with this is the facility that we have currently for the 320 essentially will get another one for the 220. So we've doubled it and I think that these jobs numbers are probably pretty conservative.

Marcus: They're ... 'cause they're already talking about doubling for the 320.

Bill: Right, right.

Marcus: So, yeah.

Bill: And I think that ... I mean, it makes sense to manage people's expectations and we have always tried to do that related to this project because I think a lot of people felt like it would be like the Mercedes project in Tuscaloosa and then suddenly all of these suppliers came but it's different with aircraft because these are large pieces of equipment and they're building up their rate, five currently, I believe, and they'll continue to expand to 12 eventually and then now, with the 220, you have 12 additional aircraft per month ultimately and so then you start really thinking about how that spawns additional suppliers and service providers even though we've gotten many. We have 20 ... I think it's 21's the last count, that have come. They're small at this point. They'll grow with the AirBus facility but when you get to those sort of numbers, that critical mass is really important and so I think that this just accelerates everything.

Marcus: What else would you like ... I mean, what else can we bring out from the State of Economy that was a highlight for you?

Bill: It's not a surprise but the number one business concern of the business community was basically talent development, workforce development, keeping ... well, attracting and retaining workers. I mean, this rose to the top this year. Last year, it was sales issues. I think the people were concerned about the economy, where it was headed, and they also mentioned the last year that they were concerned about overburdensome regulations. Well, all of that went away and this year at the top, you had these workforce development issues and we know that. We know that with the unemployment rate being as low as it is and communities really competing to attract talent, that has to be a big focus of ours.

Marcus: Well, I mean, it will serve to drive up salaries.

Bill: It certainly will.

Marcus: But I don't know. Like we've-

Bill: But I've never apologized for that. I really don't. I mean, it's one of those things that our existing members, they are obviously concerned about that but if they think about it, that's the only way to really raise your standard of living and everybody's going to be doing better off.

Marcus: Well and it needs to go up honestly.

Bill: And that's, again, the only way to really affect the economy is to get those higher salaries and that's been the Chamber's focus has been really directing our efforts to recruit higher salary positions. Now, in some cases, these are trades positions or advanced manufacturing positions, blue collar versus white collar. A lot of white collar follows blue collar but the blue collar that we have really seen the job growth in in this community and in very high paying positions and so that's helped to raise the average salary in this region.

Marcus: Yeah, I use the example of ... was it Austal was looking for a welders at one point in time and they may not be offering those now but at one point, they were offering almost a six figure salary and we're talking to, well, we're working with Bishop State and they have a truck driving school where after eight weeks, they don't guarantee it but almost everybody that's graduating out of that program is making $40,000.00 and within a couple of years, you can do six figures making ... if you're got a clean driving record, stay drug free, and don't do anything stupid, you can make a six figure salary there too. And those are all going to feed off of this distribution center and taking all the parts up northern Alabama to the plants that are up there and all the other things that are going on with transportation in this area. So yeah.

Bill: And the other thing that people need to remember is that a lot of these advanced manufacturing positions, they're very high tech in nature. These are not ... well, I think Hallie McNair at the State of the Economy event, he's the manager at AMNS facility but he said it great when he said, “You know, I don't need people now who can lift things. I need people that, for example, are retired pilot. I need people that have technical skills” and that's people sometimes forget is that with advanced manufacturing, there's a real high tech nature to that work.

Marcus: Yeah. You have to have at least a certain understanding of that. So one of the other things that I thought was extremely interesting from that talk that you did was you highlighted the ... and you may have used a different term but the microbusinesses, was that the term that you used?

Bill: Yes. Microbusinesses. That came out of the feasibility study for Innovation Portal.

Marcus: Ridiculous number!

Bill: Yeah! Yeah. 29,000. 29,000 micro businesses.

Marcus: When I saw that slide, I just ...

Bill: [crosstalk 00:13:10] And this was a very extensive feasibility study that we had done by a consultant who does this work across the country for people that are applying for federal economic development administration grants. You basically get to prove your feasibility of what you're asking for, for what you're saying you're going to do and we did that with Innovation Portal but even he was blown away by the number of micro businesses that we have here in this market. I think he told us that typically, you would see 13 or 14,000 in market [crosstalk 00:13:43] this size. Right. And we had 29,000. What that says to me is that we have a lot of pent up entrepreneurial spirit in this community and so I think a lot of the things that are going on now, certainly businesses like yours that are rising to the occasion. I think that this entrepreneurial ecosystem's changing and I think it's a good thing.

Marcus: No, I mean, we're seeing it too. And so one of the main reasons we started this podcast which you may be aware of but listeners may not is we wanted to give a platform to those smaller businesses and help shed a light on the awesome things that business owners are doing in Mobile. We wanted to join the championing ... in championing ... I don't know if that's a real word but we wanted to be cheerleaders for Mobile and all the cool things that people are doing. And so what we found is that as we start to get to the end of our network, like we'll ask some people and then lo and behold, there's this whole other group of people that we didn't even know existed that are business owners and blah, blah, blah, and then we talk to them and it's like it just keeps going and going and going. We're not in any danger of running out of people to talk to or things to talk about. But we also notice it with any of the networking events that we have like there's a lot of people that come out and I think one of the things that I've and I think I've talked to Todd about this on his episode just recently was for over a decade, a buddy of mine who now works with start-ups in Huntsville. For over a decade, we had been talking about the freelancer or solopreneur economy and that people were slowly making decision to either leave their cubicle job and go and start their own or they were ... they liked to bake cakes and so they were going to start baking wedding cakes or they were going to do whatever like earlier today, we talked to some folks and they've made a whole business out of basically Mardi Gras. And so, I mean, there's just ... whatever it is, it doesn't matter what it is. If there's an interest, then you can make a business surrounding it and it's never been easier now to have the assets that you need whether it's the software or the process workflow software or the financial software or whatever. It's never been cheaper or easier to get that stuff and so it's made it really easy for people to start these businesses-

Bill: And that can certainly explain part of the kind of numbers that we've seen in this area related to those microbusinesses. That could very well be part of it is that it's easier now to be able to do those things out of our garage, out of your back bedroom.

Marcus: Yeah, it's exciting to think about what that's going to look like in a couple of years with 29,000, not all of them make it, right?

Bill: Of course not. Of course not but even if a fraction of them-

Marcus: 10% of them-

Bill: Right. I mean, that's exciting!

Marcus: 2900 businesses. I mean, that's a huge number of businesses more mature than what we currently have. I mean, that's a huge-

Bill: Well, I, like you, have been pleasantly surprised with the number of people that have sort of come out of the woodwork in this entrepreneurial space because like I said, just a mere three years ago, we had that feasibility study done. There are a lot of people working on this at the University at Bishop State, other entities, city county, everyone really wanting to foster entrepreneurship but I've been surprised and I know this market pretty well but I've been surprised at the people I meet that have these side businesses or have the desire or have an idea.

Marcus: Or are moving back.

Bill: Or are moving back and that is another key component to that talent development that needs to occur.

Marcus: Now, I rudely interrupted your presentation at the smaller State of the Economy that you did for the executive round table and said one of the concerns that I have is that we have a lot of high school students that are going away to college and then they never come back because they don't see Mobile as a place where they can work on the exciting job that pays them well, that has all of the ... it's like, when you think about silly things like, “I'm a young 24 year old. I've got a good job. I want to get paid well and then I want to be able to use that money to have fun, go shopping, do all these things” and it's like some of that's starting to happen. I love the changes the company that bought Bel-Air Mall is making. I've been spending more time there in the last two months.

Bill: Yeah, they've made it quite-

Marcus: Then I did in the previous two years and it's much nicer. So I mean, it's going to be interesting to see how the landscape changes and whether we'll be able to do something to bring those people back 'cause I mean, I'd love to see some of that energy come back too 'cause those are the people that go into Innovation Portal with their ideas and start businesses that really kind of blow up in this area.

Bill: Well, I think your point's well-taken. I mean, I think I mentioned this at the round table but my son who is a senior in college was mentioning to me, he was home for Christmas, and he said, “Gosh. I can't believe how much this has changed since I've been gone.” And I think those of us that are living here, it sort of has slowly happened and so we don't really quite notice how profound some of these changes downtown and as you mentioned, Bel-Air, and some of the new retail that's arrived, the restaurant scene. So much of that has changed in the last ... just a few years and so it was good for me to hear that from my son because, again, he only comes in periodically and so for him to notice that, I think, it tells us something.

Marcus: Yeah. So what's the Chamber working on in 2019? I know you guys are never sitting on your hands so what other initiatives do you have for 2019 that you want to talk about?

Bill: Well, two which I'm very excited about. We're having extensive research done in two areas: foreign direct invest to develop our trade strategy in a more focused approach, meaning that we've been doing trade missions at our Chamber for years and years and we typically help business build business abroad or business to business contact on those trade missions and we do this in partnership with the state of Alabama Department of Commerce but what we haven't done is done an overlay in those countries that we're visiting on those missions to make sure that there's not a targeted approach to economic development related to that particular country. As you know, a lot of our focus is typically on the air show side or the trade show side, developing relationships with site selection firms, getting to know suppliers and so forth for the sectors that are growing here but there's a real opportunity for entrepreneurial, smaller businesses that are in some of these foreign countries to introduce them to this market and so this foreign direct investment strategy, this research that we've had done and then will develop a strategy will be help us be much more razor focused on that international economic development. I don't know if you're aware but we're always in the top five for our size city metropolitan areas for foreign direct investment. We do a really good job of attracting foreign direct investment and that has been, I think, the key to seeing this economy do as well as has done but we want to continue doing that and want to take advantage the foreign direct investment that we've seen over the last few years.

Marcus: For those that may not be aware and I know this may put you on the spot but for those that may not be aware, how does that manifest itself in this area? What's an example of that?

Bill: Well, an example ... well, I guess the best way to put it is that's new money that's coming into your economy. If a business is doing business with somebody locally, money is basically shifting around. When you get foreign direct investment such as an AirBus investment in this community or an Austal out of Australia investment in this community, that is new capital-

Marcus: AMNS is from-

Bill: AMNS is [inaudible 00:22:18] and the [inaudible 00:22:19] to Japanese, European conglomerate. But yeah, that's new capital that's coming to the market and that's the way that you can grow your economy. There was an interesting New York Times article recently on how important foreign direct investment is and they were comparing cities in the US and they were highlighting Nashville as having done a really good job of foreign direct investment and that has led to a lot of their economic prosperity and then they were comparing Nashville to cities that size that had not done it and you could clearly see that that was the better economic path.

Marcus: I was talking to Jared Boyd this past weekend and he has ... he's moved back to Memphis but he is a Memphis native and I said, “What the deal with Memphis and Nashville?” And one of the things that I found were very interesting 'cause I didn't know this was that Memphis and Nashville ... Memphis was actually a bigger city that Nashville was-

Bill: I think not far.

Marcus: Not too long ago.

Bill: Yeah, not that long ago. Yeah.

Marcus: And it was this foreign national investment that kind of changed things and also I think the city got its act together as far as how it marketed itself, not just to foreign nationals but also just to the geographic area around it but you've got now where I mean, they're talking about 70,000 people per year moving to Nashville from outside of that area and-

Bill: Yeah, it's an insane amount.

Marcus: Yeah. I mean, it's just become a massive metropolitan area and dwarfs Memphis by far.

Bill: Extraordinarily so.

Marcus: But so yeah, I can see that being a huge boom for Mobile.

Bill: And I think that Nashville, they do have a cool factor which I think we have as well. We just haven't marketed it as well as they have and so that's something that we really need to all collectively work on. I mean, not just the Chamber but individuals speaking to people that are living in these other places and tell them what's going here and the history here and the location and the architecture and-

Marcus: The food.

Bill: The food.

Marcus: Yeah, the cultural side of things between Mardi Gras and being close to the water and all the things you can do there, you know?

Bill: And you know, it's ... of course I drank the kool-aid years ago but it's so true.

Marcus: For those that don't know, he's not from here.

Bill: Right, exactly. But my younger son who's a freshmen in college, one of the things he mentioned was, “You know, Dad I never realized how unique Mobile is” because he's now in school with people that are from the Midwest and no offense to the Midwest but more typical American cities and Mobile's not a typical American city, not by any means and so I think there's a real marketability to that. I mean, people are looking for those kind of cool, unique locations.

Marcus: But I love that you say that's not just some ... it's not ... the city's responsibility. It's not your responsibility. It's not ... Visit Mobile's responsibility. It's all of our responsibility. I mean, like we've even taken up and we're not being paid for this. The website that this podcast resides on has things to do. It has a business directory of all the businesses that are going on. It has an events calendar of all the things that are happening and so we have seen-

Bill: Yes, you have.

Marcus: We've seen that we have to kind of take some ownership of helping the city become its best self and so we're investing in that. But you know-

Bill: Well, you've done a good job of that and you, too, are not from here and you've adopted it, right? And you know what it's like once you've adopted something and I think-

Marcus: I want to see it succeed.

Bill: Absolutely! And I think even people that are natives, they need to start telling the story because one thing people do here is travel a lot. I have noticed that and so when they're out and about, they should be talking about what's going on here economically, culturally, and I think that that's going to help us to be able to attract the talent that we need.

Marcus: You had and you may not ... I'm going to say something but I'm not going to require that you know this fact. So at one point in time in the Business View magazine, you had all of the current larger projects of renovation that were happening inside of downtown. I added it up. It was $185,000,000.00. And I can't believe that all that money is coming from here as well. I mean, is that ... are those ... do you know offhand? Is that some level of foreign investment too or is that still stateside and US investors?

Bill: A lot of those investors are from out town, not necessarily foreign. Not necessarily foreign but that's a good thing too.

Marcus: Yeah, no. Not at all. Not at all. I wasn't saying it was a bad thing. So I just found it very interesting that there's such a huge amount of money that's flowing into downtown for renovation and I know at some point in time, there will be, I mean, I have to wonder $185,000,000.00 that's a lot of renovation happening downtown, are people really going to live downtown? But I also have to say, like I'm living in Broadstreet Lofts and I was using the ... we have a little grill out in the community area that we can use and one of the other couples that lives in the apartment there came out and she was an older woman, very nice, and she said that she and her husband were from Nashville and that they had retired and that they had looked at all the cities along the coast and they decided that they still wanted to live in a city and that Mobile the place for them. And I just can't help but wonder 'cause we went to Nashville a couple of years ago and on the way back, traffic started at Franklin and didn't stop until Montgomery.

Bill: Yeah, yeah.

Marcus: Northbound so everybody was coming back from spring break and so I just can't help but think that all those people that are spending all their spring breaks and all their summer vacations and stuff like that coming down here. At some point in time, they're going to want to retire and that's going to start happening very quickly and they're going to be looking for a city life.

Bill: I think you're exactly right. I think that what Mobile offers, really unique to this central Gulf Coast region, is a urban core which you really don't find that along the Mississippi coast. Certainly Pensacola has it as well but-

Marcus: [crosstalk 00:28:53] To a certain extent but our downtown's bigger than Pensacola.

Bill: To a certain but not as urban feeling as our urban core because we've been-

Marcus: I mean, certainly New Orleans does but a lot of people don't want to put up with all the mess of New Orleans. You don't have to say a word 'cause I'm not going to get you in trouble but I'll say-

Bill: No, I never downplay competitor cities because, I mean, that's just what they are. They're competitor cities. They're great cities and I'll add this very Chamber-esque comment, we need a strong New Orleans [crosstalk 00:29:25] on the Gulf Coast.

Marcus: I love going over there and having a good meal or doing ... seeing some shows or something like that.

Bill: But it's important to have that strong city there. No question about it.

Marcus: So what else? What else have we not talked about that you kind of want to let people know is going on?

Bill: Well, in the area of this talent development, we do, at the Chamber, take this very seriously. I think that that is going to be the key to capitalizing on the economic development that we've seen over the last few years and so the ... I mentioned the foreign direct investment study and then the other big research that we're having done right now is on our talent. We want to know where we are currently, what that workforce looks like with that labor shed, they call it, looks like here, where the gaps are, and then we will be developing a strategy in the first quarter of this year to go out through universities and through other networks to capture back some of that talent, that as you mentioned earlier, has settled in other cities such as Charlotte, Nashville, Atlanta, cities where maybe they've had some very formative career years but they're ready to come back and I think that-

Marcus: Maybe they're tired of the traffic or the expense or-

Bill: The expense or maybe they're about to have children and they want to be close to family.

Marcus: And they don't want to raise them in [crosstalk 00:30:57] ... yeah.

Bill: And so I think that if we can really target those people and tell them that the story has changed as we were talking about it earlier, I think that we can be quite successful in getting them to come back.

Marcus: Yeah. It's really good. All right, so I'm going to go back to the script. Any books, podcast people, or organizations that have been helpful in ... helpful to you in the last, say, six months?

Bill: That's a good question. I think the most interesting thing that I'm reading right now is “The Start-up Nation” and I'm just impressed with what they've been able to do in Israel. I'm actually fortunate to be on the Committee of 100 for the US Chamber and they are taking a group of us to Tel Aviv this year to see that first hand and subsidized by the Israeli government but I think that we here, in Mobile, can learn a lot from what they have done. It's a country of what, six million people? And they have per capita the most start-ups of any country and so there's something cultural going on there and I think we can learn from that and I look forward to it, to learning more about that but the book, of course, has helped me prepare for that.

Marcus: Yeah. Well, that's very good. And what do you like to do to unwind?

Bill: Well, besides read?

Marcus: Yeah.

Bill: I actually am I pianist and I-

Marcus: I did not know that.

Bill: Yes I am and I've been really bad about not playing the piano just in these ... the last years of my boys being at the house, just one thing after ... their sports and so I've been trying to get back on it and trying to get my fingers moving again. So but I have to say, though, of most of the things that I do to unwind, that one probably helps me unwind the most. Whenever I go back to it, I realize, “Gosh, I was missing that.”

Marcus: Right. Yeah, that's something that really kind of soothes your soul.

Bill: Yeah, yeah.

Marcus: So that's awesome. Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?

Bill: Well, just I would end with saying, I think 2019's going to be a great year. I think I'm like those three out of four surveyed people that said that they felt like 2019 was going to be a good a year. I think it is. I think that there a lot of reasons for that and I look forward to seeing it and look forward to working with business leaders like you.

Marcus: Yeah. No, I appreciate it. So Bill, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share some of the things that are going on here in Mobile. It's been great talking with you.

Bill: Thank you! I appreciate.

Marcus: Yeah.

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