A Conversation with Quentin Messer, Jr.

MEDC Communications

Friday, October 22, 2021

Quentin Messer, Jr. joined the MEDC as Chief Executive Officer in July of 2021. We recently caught up with Quentin to get his initial impressions of Michigan’s business community, and how the MEDC can help build a “championship economy” for Michigan.

You’ve been in your role as CEO for a few months now. What is your initial impression of Michigan and its business environment?

Quentin Messer, Jr.: Wow and wow. If you're not from the Midwest you have a tendency not to really appreciate just how big Michigan is. You know, I've said I made a commitment to colleagues that I wanted to get to all parts of the state. It's a lot of driving! And so the size of the state is impressive, but also it relates to the size and depth and breadth of our business community.

We have a business community that is unrivaled. It started in industry, with our significant strengths in automotive. We now have a commitment to being the future of mobility and we will, with our partnership with LEO and Governor Whitmer who announced the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification. But we have other industries that are incredibly vibrant and big in the state, whether it's bio innovation and digital health, whether it's agribusiness, whether it's additive manufacturing, whether it's cyber security, whether it's Fintech with companies like StockX and Rock Financial and others.

So we really have a state that has always been focused on entrepreneurship and focused on innovation. I think the challenge for me -- the opportunity for me -- is to make sure that people never lose sight of that. That Michigan was innovative in 1920, in 2020 and it will be in 2040 and in 2060, and that's the opportunity for me: to make sure that that message gets out.

You’ve referred to entrepreneurs as “risk takers”. Why are entrepreneurs so important to economic growth?

Messer: Every company starts off with an entrepreneur having an idea. The risk is, entrepreneurs frequently don't know how they're going to make payroll. They don't know where that next sale is going to come from. And so they have to take that risk and they have to be comfortable with that uncertainty. We have to celebrate that, we have to encourage it, we have to create a policy environment, we have to create behaviors to make people say, “Hey I'm going to bet on Michigan.”

One of the tremendous opportunities is that we have great, tremendous universities that produce a lot of research. We now have an opportunity and we've got tremendous people on our team who are working on this. How do we come alongside universities to make sure that more of that research gets commercializable? How do we come alongside our venture capital and our private equity community to make sure there's more risk capital for businesses who are based here in Michigan? With that, they can stay here in Michigan. There is enough capital here.

But then we also have to think about small businessmen and women who don't necessarily want to go public or have a strategic exit. They want to create a business that can stay in their family for generations. We have to make sure that works, and particularly for communities that may have historically not always taken advantage, or been afforded those opportunities. Whether it's BIPOC communities, whether it's people that are differently abled, or others.

It’s about how we make sure that we bring all of Michigan, all those entrepreneurs, and create opportunities and pathways for them to realize their entrepreneurial ventures and visions?

How is the MEDC working to help small businesses in today’s market?

Messer: I think there are a couple things we have to do. We have to listen to them, so we have to be actively engaged. That was what the Governor and Lieutenant Governor did all summer, and we were part of it with LEO and other parts of the state government, listening to understand what they needed.

Typically small businesses really need three things. One: They need speed. If they're trying to get permitting or they're trying to get registration, whatever they need from government, they need it to happen fast. Even if it's a “no” or even if it's a “not now”, they need to hear that fast. So one of the things we've committed to doing as part of our commitment to outstanding customer service is getting answers to people fast.

Two: They always need access to customers. They always need access to new markets. So we're working with entrepreneurs support organizations across the state, small business development centers, and tremendous incubators all across the state.

Last: We need to make sure that we provide vital support, whether it's financial, whether it's mentoring, whether it is connection to procurement opportunities to the small businesses themselves, to the men and women who are actually trying to make that payroll and trying to grow and access new markets. We need to listen to them and be very proactive in our responsiveness to their needs.

The term “economic development” can mean different things to different people. How does the MEDC make economic development relevant to all 10 million Michiganders?

Messer: That is a tremendous question. It is the question. It’s the question that keeps me up at night. I think there are really three big things that we can do at MEDC.

I think, one -- we need to aggressively tell our story and make sure that people understand that MEDC works not only with large business -- and we do work with some of the largest businesses in the world -- but we provide those grants, whether it's a half million, a million-dollar grants to communities to help them create vibrant places that people want to start businesses, that people want to live, and to which talent is attracted. But we're also there at the beginning of the small business journey and we're providing incredible connectivity to mentoring and, connection to capital. So I think that's one: we have to tell the story of all that we do.

Second, how do we make it relevant? We always have to remember that economic development matters only to the extent that people matter. If people's lives aren't being touched, and if our friends and neighbors can't see themselves inside of what we're doing here at MEDC, then we probably need to think again about why we’re doing it. The only reason we're doing this work is because it matters to people's lives and their livelihoods. It allows them to have that home, it allows them to buy that first car for their son or daughter, it allows some people who may not have cars to get connected to the job that allows them a chance to get that car. To begin a new. We have people who are returning citizens, people who are formerly incarcerated and they have a role. It is about making sure that the economy works for all of us. Because when 10 million plus Michiganders combine and come together and are united, there's no more unstoppable force on the face of this planet, than Team Michigan.

And then the final thing is... Look, we're in a global competition for talent, for capital, for ideas, and Michigan has always stood for ingenuity, and stood for invention. That's the way it was back when Henry Ford transformed the world, and as companies like StockX, and thinkers like some of our tremendous business leaders continue to do, so we'll be that way again.

And so that's what we do. And here at MEDC, we have the unique ability to bring not only economic development -- traditional economic development -- but community development, and we have art space economic development. So that whole notion that human beings are holistic people, that's what we do here at MEDC: holistic economic development that allows people to realize their economic dreams and aspirations right here in this great state.

What do you mean when you say we are building a “championship economy?” How does the MEDC help do that?

Messer: Michigan has everything it takes to be the number one four-season, all-season state. Most businesses and most people are willing, if there is tremendous opportunity, to go wherever their opportunity is. So we need to be the number one four-season state. Yes, we made tremendous strides in CNBC's ranking. We moved from 24th to 11th. That's great, let's celebrate it. Thirteen spots is the most spots that any state moved, but we're not going to be satisfied until we're number one because that's who we are as Michigan. You've got to stay hungry and so, how does that manifest itself at MEDC? First, responsiveness to each other, support for each other and breaking down silos. Two, it means responsiveness to our customers, making sure that we respond to them in a timely manner, and we figure out ways to get to “yes”, and to think not only outside the box, but just think as if there is no box. Just respond to solutions. And finally we have to work across government. We have to work with our executive branch, we have to work with our legislative branch, because we need partners in order to make this happen.

Economic development is a team sport. We all have a role to play so that's why I'm incredibly optimistic and hopeful. Yes we've got work to do, but we have everything we need to win what I think is the stakes to be the number one cold weather economy in North America.

When you see the beauty of the state, experience the communities and speak to the people, what does the idea of “Pure Michigan” mean to you so far?

Messer: I think it means what I began with: “wow!” You know, I applied for this position amid a global pandemic. I hadn't been to Michigan in over a decade. I had not been far beyond the Detroit Metro area. I've been to Flint and Saginaw maybe once or twice. And the lower peninsula has some beautiful parts, but it’s been great going to the U.P., and going to Marquette, and Iron Mountain, and Escanaba, and seeing the great businesses and hearing their stories, hearing people talk about why they love the state so much.

I think about the CTO of Walbro. Here's a young man who has been all over the world. He was in San Diego, he wanted to come back home, and there was a great opportunity for him. I think about the entrepreneurs behind DETROIT VS EVERYBODY, who now has MICHIGAN VS EVERYBODY. I think of that inventiveness. I think of the energy of Ann Arbor. I think of the hopeful revival and revitalization in Flint, led by Kettering and the University of Michigan-Flint. I think of Grand Rapids and I think about what you see on the Medical Mile and all the great great companies there.

And, you know, there's so many hidden gems about Michigan. Who knew that Michigan was such a center of design innovation? With Newell Rubbermaid and Stryker in the Kalamazoo area, and oh - what about the fashionable furniture makers in West Michigan and Holland? You think of Hayworth and Steelcase and Herman Miller. You know, who would have thought?

But that's who Michigan is because in one word, Michigan is “innovation” and when you are defined by innovation, you always are going to have a chance to change the world again and again. And that's what excites me so much about being part of this great team.

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