The Clouds Have Some Very Silvery Linings

May 29, 2002
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It is the nature of the journalistic beast to hover over the worrisome and to dwell upon the scary.

And contrary to what most people in the business community think, this has nothing to do with the desire to sell more newspapers. Sales are just about the furthest thing from reporters’ and editors’ minds. Instead, the journalist’s impulse is to discover something and then proclaim it to the rest of the world in the clearest possible language. No, that’s not a lot of rah-rah; that’s just the way the craft is.

And for most of this year, people in the craft have been hovering, wringing their hands and dwelling upon sagging earnings forecasts, rumored lay-offs, actual employment cutbacks, rising first-time employment comp claims and so forth.

Yet George Erikcek, prominent stand-up comic and economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, early this year predicted that 2001 would look bad in comparison with 2000 — but then, he added, so would most of the rest of human economic history.

What brings all this up are a series of stories with quite a different tenor, which we set before you this week.

In a faint gleam at the end of the tunnel, for instance, there’s been a slight up-tick in industrial purchase orders.

And while orders and production in the furniture industry certainly slowed this year, this week’s Focus Section relates that American Seating is keeping itself very busy filling stadiums all over the country. As West Michigan’s furniture manufacturers were off to strut their stuff last week at The Merchandise Mart, moreover, we learned that these fierce competitors have been working closely for several years now to wring duplicative and other unnecessary costs out of their supplier relationships.

Too, speaking of suppliers, a new family-owned firm in Wyoming looks to be the drum major at the head of a big national parade in a new, relatively inexpensive, technology-intensive, utterly green way of coating wood products.

There’s more, too.

Though everybody in West Michigan unquestionably wishes the slow-down were behind us, it turns out that in terms of growth, this little regional economy is (a) not particularly little and, (b) has been and continues to be the economic growth leader of the upper Midwest. Not only that, but for the past 30 years, West Michigan has exceeded the national job-growth average by almost 40 percent. Another interesting facet of this economy is that it is not growing up around a single core city. Instead, West Michigan is a triangular economic order with three distinct urban areas: Grand Rapids, Holland and what is emerging as Tri Cities-Muskegon 

Part of this economy’s continuing success seems due to some singular attributes. One, certainly, is the strong leadership implicit in West Michigan’s unusually high percentage of family-owned and operated manufacturing, supplier and service firms.

Moreover, because West Michigan has a strong blend of agriculture and manufacturing, it seems to have a unique blend of people that would drive any economy: industrialists and farmers. Such people — and especially farm kids who’ve grown up to enter industry as managers — are the types to whom risk is a calmly accepted way of life and to whom the worrisome and scary are mere irritants.

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