Michigan Enabling Resilience

Dale Buss (Chief Executive Magazine)

Monday, January 11, 2021

Whether pivoting during the pandemic or fueling expansions, businesses found a friend in Michigan

A grant from MEDC helped Tentcraft pivot to make drive-through screening structures for use by mobile medical teams during the pandemic.

When Murray Kessler became CEO and president of Perrigo Company plc in late 2018, there was no question that he was going to overhaul a company whose growth had stalled. But there was no guarantee Kessler would try to reinvigorate the maker of self-care products in Michigan, despite the fact that the operation had been located in the state for more than 130 years.

Why he chose to build Perrigo’s new North American corporate headquarters in Grand Rapids instead of Chicago or other places is a vibrant illustration of how the state is winning as companies, the country and American citizens continue to relaunch the economy in the wake of the pandemic. “I was reluctant,” says Kessler, who had been a successful business leader on both coasts and was living in semiretirement in Florida. “I had never been to Michigan. But I ended up falling in love with the state and the people. We could have built the headquarters anywhere, but our team concluded we had everything we needed in terms of talent, diversity and the business climate right here.

“And MEDC [Michigan Economic Development Corporation] was the right organization to work with us. In fact, they’re helping us find people of like minds in exploring the possibility of building a ‘Silicon Valley’ of self-care in Grand Rapids.”

Governor Gretchen Whitmer and MEDC put together a strategic plan in 2019 aimed at building a more resilient economy. The fiveyear plan leverages Michigan’s culture of innovation, extensive R&D facilities, manufacturing expertise and high-tech talent.

“We developed our plan around focused industries where Michigan has competitive advantages,” said Mark Burton, president and CEO of MEDC. “We also renewed our commitment to empower economic growth throughout the entire state, from rural areas to urban cores and everywhere in between.”

As its response to companies’ needs and opportunities amid Covid-19 illustrated, MEDC itself is another arrow in Michigan’s quiver, heading an ecosystem that transcends major industry pillars and offers a comprehensive suite of programs and services to help companies fuel growth and connect them to the state’s highly skilled workforce.

When TentCraft, a maker of event marketing tents based in Traverse City, Michigan, saw its revenues plunge to nearly zero once the pandemic hit, CEO Matt Bulloch quickly pivoted to making medical structures that would help healthcare workers isolate patients for diagnosis and treatment. “We call them ‘medical partitions’—tents without a roof,” he says. “Right away, we were able to supply mobile infirmaries with drive-through screening tents. And we got a $75,000 grant from MEDC to help us retool, which was important because that award was very quick and even predated the federal governments Payroll Protection Program grants. Any glimmer of hope to keep going was important.”

The grants enabled manufacturers to retool nearly overnight and start making products that helped with the crisis, based on expertise they’d developed before. Trenton Forging relied on MEDC to help it achieve recognition as an essential manufacturer in the spring and connect the Tier 2 automotive supplier to marketing opportunities for its specialized metal components. “Other states tried to recruit us several years ago,” said Dane Moxlow, director of markets and innovation for the 52-year-old, family-owned outfit in Trenton, Michigan. “But we’ve got great people and great assets here in Michigan.” The company plans production lines with new materials that could boost its sales by about half over the next two years.

MEDC also pointed Calumet Electronics to state programs that helped the maker of printed circuit boards in Calumet, Michigan, ramp up production of its products for medical ventilators by nearly 40 percent when demand skyrocketed.

“Suddenly we had to pull in orders as rapidly as possible, even from 2021, for these components that we had been building for years,” said Rob Cooke, director of engineering services at Calumet. The company ended up shipping 40,000 circuit boards related to Covid-19 on demand, he said, “all asking for delivery in the March-April time frame. It nearly overwhelmed our factory floor.” Calumet is now planning to repurpose and expand its manufacturing capacity to meet rising demand for circuit boards.

“Michigan’s strengths in manufacturing, technology and the talent we have here positions us to be in CEOs’ decision-making for years to come,” says Burton.

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