What Makes A Town Attractive

November 7, 2003
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HOLLAND — In business, the former Prince Corp. liked to “surprise and delight” customers with its innovative products, creativity and commitment to quality and service.

At home, the automotive supplier founded by the late Edgar Prince carefully crafted a renowned corporate culture: Employees, from the front office to the production line, were highly valued, supported, provided generous benefits and perks such as a fitness center, and treated as an integral part of the operation.

The result was an intensely loyal, well-motivated and highly productive work force that made Prince a shining success story and the envy of many in the automotive supply industry.

The type of culture that made the difference at Prince — as well as at numerous other employers in the area that follow the same principles in working with employees — is something a group of business leaders wants to hold up as making Holland and Zeeland unique and attractive places to do business.

“We think those characteristics are critical to our ability to continue to create new jobs and new opportunities for everyone in our community,” said Don Heeringa, chairman of Trendway Corp. and a member of the group West Michigan Works.

Organizers of West Michigan Works believe the community culture and character, the work ethic, the earnest connection between management and workers, and the willingness to work together (as exhibited at Prince and many other employers), combined with the generally pro-business views and policies of community, business and political leaders, are what helped catapult the Holland-Zeeland area to great economic success in the 1990s, when unemployment at one point dipped below 2 percent.

“There is something unique about the values of the worker here and there is something unique about the values of the leadership,” said Bruce Los, owner of human resources consultant softArchitecture LLC and former head of human resources at the Prince Corp.

At a time when unemployment is more than triple that of just three years ago — mainly due to the staggering loss of jobs in the office furniture industry — the founders of West Michigan Works believe that highlighting, and then leveraging, those social characteristics can provide the community an edge in luring new jobs and employers to the area in the future. That belief is based on the premise that a community’s character and quality of life do indeed count in the economic development arena as much, and perhaps more, than public infrastructure, taxation, labor pool, land costs and other economic development criteria a business uses to determine where to locate a facility.

“It’s another tool, another angle that they can play,” said Los, a member of West Michigan Works.

“The things we’ve been taking for granted, we need to be more deliberative at. We need to be more pro-active in defining and celebrating what this community is all about,” he said. “Times are changing and rules are changing. The ramifications are huge if we can’t stay competitive as a community.”

Among the players involved with West Michigan Works are corporate leaders such as Haworth Inc., Gentex Corp., Request Foods, Trendway Corp., Tiara Yachts and Perrigo Co.

Paramount to the grassroots organization’s efforts is building an understanding of the nuances behind the character and the conservative nature of Holland and Zeeland, how the community can use those traits to create jobs, and how they can become beneficial to prospective employers.

In an era of intense domestic and global competition for job providers, the work ethic and cooperative attitude of workers and the support among business peers and political leaders are the kinds of advantages West Michigan Works’ founders believe they can leverage to sell the area to prospective employers and retain existing firms when they expand. The first step is to trigger a community dialog on the largely intangible issues that affect the area’s economic fortunes and attractiveness to outsiders.

“We’re looking at jobs, and how do we keep jobs in our community, and how do we grow jobs in our community; how do we keep successful organizations? You have to look at the whole equation,” said Randy Boileau, a Holland-area resident and marketing director for the law firm Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett.

“We’re good at this. We’ve always been really good at this. Why?” Boileau said. “That’s what we’re trying to find out and that’s what we’re trying to understand.”

A recent survey West Michigan Works commissioned found recipients generally viewing the area as a good place to live. On a scale of 1 to 10, issues such as faith, community heritage, “great place to raise kids,” “family-oriented,” and safety all rated a score between an 8 and 9.

Traits connected to the community’s employment environment and employers generally rate better on a local basis than a statewide perspective. The survey’s results indicate that the community’s culture is rooted in faith and a strong commitment to family, pride in the work of the individual, and a strong confidence in the future.

The West Michigan Works initiative is designed to create dialog on what made the community economically successful in the past and what may produce the same result in the future. In many ways, the initiative itself is a reflection of the community’s culture and heritage of self-reliance, even amid times of adversity and turmoil.

“We’re going to challenge people to talk about it and we’re going to engage people to talk about it,” Boileau said. “There are a lot of things going on that we can’t control. We need to get our hands around the things we can control and we can continue to use to be successful.”    

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