The Bottom Line Not Front Line

March 21, 2003
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — The war against Iraq will have an effect on West Michigan businesses looking to work with international companies and on international companies looking to come to West Michigan.

The question is, what will that effect be?

Over the years, companies have come to West Michigan from Germany, France and Mexico, among other countries, to work with American counterparts and further expand business. Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc., is one of the people who facilitates these integrations.

Klohs said that while some companies that have been considering coming to West Michigan have decided to wait out the war, it always is a long process to bring a foreign company here.

“Attracting a company is a one- to three-year process, and while we could have a company in the pipeline, they are still 36 months out,” she said. “Many of the companies that we are prospecting with right now have the ability to look long term.”

What it boils down to, Klohs said, is that this is a business decision and not a political one. She noted that while many European countries have differing views on what the United States is doing politically, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will change business decisions.

“We recently had a reception with members of some of the German companies in West Michigan and we discussed the issues ahead,” said Klohs. “Many people agreed that on a personal level they don’t agree with the U.S., but to further their business and move forward they must be in North America.”

The same seems to be holding true for West Michigan companies doing business overseas.

Jeff Meyer, executive director of GVSU’s Van Andel Global Trade Center, said the general feedback he has heard has been that if there is a downturn in international business it doesn’t necessarily mean it is because of war.

“It is hard to separate a bad economy from war,” Meyer said. “The economy here has been bad and when these international companies don’t have any money, you can’t sell to them.”

He said there are companies that still want to expand into other markets, and just as Klohs said, that will remain a business decision, not a political decision. He added that because there has been a buildup to war, anyone who had jitters has already built that into the equation.

“My overall feeling is that as of now, people will carry on with business as usual,” said Meyer. “We will, however, know more within the first few weeks (of the war).”

One thing he wasn’t sure about was the effect the war would have on international business travel. He said there was a short blip after Sept. 11 but a fairly quick recovery, at least on the business forefront.

Jim Hettinger, president and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited, echoed Klohs’ and Meyer’s feelings in that businesses are looking and functioning more from the bottom line than from the front line.

“I haven’t seen too many changes in behavior but I have heard some foreign people, in doing business with their American subsidiaries, who said their family was quite reluctant to come to the U.S.,” said Hettinger. “Once they are here they understand that this is a big country, and most likely Grand Rapids and Battle Creek are not big targets. But I do agree that travel might see a slowdown. Especially if something happens to an aircraft during the next few weeks or months.”

If that should happen and travel becomes difficult, Hettinger sees an emphasis on telecommunications and an entirely different view of communication methods.

“In the end you have to differentiate between relationships between governments and relationships between people,” said Klohs. “For the most part I think we are able to ignore the sniping back and forth and make it work.”

“And ultimately we hope to get past the conflict,” said Meyer, “and to a better day.”           

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