In the mid-2000s, Melissa Balbach, an Orchard Park native, and her husband, John Bace, who is from Texas, were working in suburban Chicago, where they owned LS&S, a distributor of devices for the hearing and visually impaired.
The company needed new warehouse and office space, and Balbach had just given birth to identical twin girls.
The couple didn't have family ties to Chicago, had grown weary of the high cost of doing business and the competition for employees there, and could have moved their business anywhere in the country – and they chose to move to Buffalo.
"Our quality of life is fabulous. Our building is fabulous," Balbach said. "We're really pleased with it, we're pleased with our employees."
The Buffalo Niagara region has seen thousands of natives leave the area for opportunities in the Carolinas, Florida, Nevada and elsewhere. Many are perfectly content where they are, but some – like Balbach – would consider coming back home if they could find a good job.
Companies in Western New York say these expatriates are fertile recruiting territory because they retain ties to this area and they can see past the clichés of blizzards and Rust Belt decay to accurately assess this region's strengths and challenges.
"Companies are foolish if they don't find the skill sets they need in the expatriate community," said Marti Gorman, founder of the annual Citybration event, which began in 2006 as Buffalo Old Home Week. "These people want to come to Buffalo — you're not having to convince them."
The ex-Buffalonians are a valuable resource, too, because they can put the experience gleaned from their years of living outside the area to good effect when they return home.
So the key question for the region and its businesses, presented at a time when expats return for the holidays, is how to connect the expatriates who want to return with the local job opportunities.
"There's no equivalent to Match.com for Buffalo expats and Buffalo employers," said Stephanie Argentine, Rich Product's director of talent management and organizational development.
>Plenty out there
Between 2004 and 2010 alone, Internal Revenue Service data show 120,324 people left Erie County, and 71,116 of them left New York altogether, with Florida, North Carolina and California the most popular out-of-state destinations. Many may already have returned, but there still is a sizable pool of expats out of state.
This out-migration has slowed in recent years, likely due to the effects of the recession, but statistics show that those who move most often tend to be more highly educated, said Wende Mix, an associate professor of geography and planning at Buffalo State College.
"Those probably are the kinds of people you want to attract back," said Mix, one of four sisters who grew up in North Buffalo and left the area, and the only one of the four who later returned home.
The expats who want to return home typically fit into one of two main molds, Citybration's Gorman said.
The first is 20- or 30-somethings who aren't established in a career and, if they have children, their kids aren't in school.
"They're not settled in a geographic location," Gorman said. "They want to be around family," and this region's cheap housing, large yards and recreational assets are a draw, she said.
The second group includes empty nester baby boomers who have aging parents back in Buffalo, don't need to worry about where their children go to school and may already be retired. And they no longer want to deal with the hassles of life in a big city, Gorman said.
For Balbach, her return to Buffalo came after she moved away for college, at Yale, the start of 25 years living out of town. She and her Texan husband moved from Austin, which they loved, to suburban Chicago after buying LS&S in 2001.
Soon after having their twins, the couple began looking where to move their distribution business, which had outgrown leased space that Balbach compared to a "rabbit warren."
They built a new building in Buffalo's Black Rock neighborhood in an Empire Zone in the Buffalo Free Trade Complex, and moved in 2008. LS&S has grown from 15 to 20 employees, including Balbach, Bace and two workers who moved with their families from Chicago to Buffalo. "We brought people with us," Balbach said.
For some expats who want to return, finances and career opportunities are a crucial factor.
Rachel Moog, a creative director at an advertising agency in Manhattan, has worked for Madison Avenue ad agencies for 20 years but recently has considered moving back home with her husband, David Lagé, and daughter, Lola, who is 2.
She thinks highly of this region's schools and lifestyle and would like to be closer to family.
Their expenses would be lower here, but she would take a deep pay cut to work for an agency in the Buffalo area. So her preference is to open her own agency, or an outpost of a major agency, allowing her to perform the same kind of work she's doing now for national and international clients.
"I think we would make the move and try it out," said Moog, 41, who is involved in the Buffalo Expat Network and whose grandfather, William Sr., founded the East Aurora aerospace firm that bears his name.
>Recruiting is easier
Rich Products is among the major employers in Buffalo that recruit extensively across the country to fill positions here.
"One of the challenges we have is recruiting talent to Buffalo that may not have familiarity with Buffalo," said Argentine.
Expats, however, have an affinity for their hometown, she said, and the 20 or so expats recruited to work at Rich's headquarters in Buffalo include Dwight Gram, the vice president for corporate communications. He returned in 2007 after living for eight years in Chicago and Cleveland. "When I left Buffalo, I thought I never would return," the Depew native said.
Phillips Lytle has hired a number of lawyers in recent years who were working out of town but wanted to return home, said David J. McNamara, the firm's managing partner.
"In some instances they find us," McNamara said. "Sometimes they're referred to us by more senior lawyers in the firm they work for."
One expat recent hire at Phillips Lytle is Kim Barnashuk, an Orchard Park native who left for college at George Washington University, and law school at New York University, before taking a position as an associate at a large Manhattan law firm after graduating in 2011.
But Barnashuk wasn't getting to practice the type of law she wanted, wasn't able to properly balance work and life and missed her hometown and her family more than she had expected. She began applying to firms in Buffalo this year, and found an opening in environmental law at Phillips Lytle.
She did take a pay cut, but it wasn't as much as she had feared. "I would say the lifestyle change is also worth it," Barnashuk said.
Gwen Applebaum, the director of the Career Resource Center at the University at Buffalo's School of Management, said school alumni who have moved out of town will contact her office asking about job leads in Buffalo, and some employers also contact her office asking about alumni job candidates.
Some expats who want to change careers move back to start the school's MBA program, giving them training and time to build a network of contacts back home. "They've gone elsewhere, they've developed that expertise, and they're looking to bring that back to Buffalo," Applebaum said.
There are some coordinated efforts underway. The recently resurrected Jobsapalooza jobs fair, for example, primarily serves the colleges in Western New York but is open to students and recent graduates from schools outside the area.
"Coming back home after they have the degree in hand," said Mike Skowronski, corporate relations developer for Niagara University's Career Services Office and co-chair of Jobsapalooza.
The Western New York Association of College Career Centers is putting on next year's event, scheduled for Jan. 10, a time when students are home on winter break. The companies represented typically are looking to fill entry-level positions, but more experienced workers are encouraged to attend, said Chris LaGrow, Fredonia State College's assistant director of career development and the other co-chair.
At the jobs website hosted by Buffalo Niagara Enterprise and Buffalo Niagara Partnership, more than half the visits to the site come from outside the area, and a good number of those visitors are likely expats, said Christina Lopez, manager of workforce development for Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
Thomas A. Kucharski, president and CEO of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, recalled a trip in fall 2011 to a conference in Charlotte, where his group stopped by the official Bills Backers bar in town to watch the Bills-Raiders game on TV. "By the fourth quarter, people were handing us resumés," Kucharski said.
Employers need to develop a more concerted, well-researched effort to find these expats and make this program a higher priority, Kucharski said. This search for skilled expats could be focused in parts of the country where industries have downsized, he added.
Social media shows promise for building these connections, with the Buffalo Expat Network maintaining a presence on Facebook. And groups are turning to area high schools and colleges to try to tap into their alumni directories.
Citybration's Gorman compares expat matching to the effort to create electronic medical records. The key is setting up searchable databases that can match the expatriates to the jobs for which they are qualified — jobs that may be hard to fill from the employee pool already in Western New York — and making the expats aware of these opportunities even at times when they aren't explicitly looking for a new job, experts said.
News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report.