The Underpinnings Of West Michigan Future

June 28, 2004
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By any measure, the nation’s economy has become exciting. Consider it: 900,000 new jobs in the last quarter. That’s 10,000 new jobs a day. Moreover, the office furniture industry seems to be back on track.

Something else entirely local is even more exciting.

Practically in tandem with this month’s annual Entrepreneur of the Year festivities, a growing group of successful business people made a formal, public and very special commitment to the community.

We refer to the creation of Grand Angels, Inc. and Bridge Street Capital Partners — two entities that exist entirely to make the kinds of investments that will help promising new West Michigan businesses step successfully to the next level.

The formation of these two groups fills a critical gap — perhaps the critical gap — in this region’s bridge to a future of continued economic health.

One of the factors that makes this region so economically distinct over the long haul is that local people own and operate such a large percentage of its businesses.

It’s no secret that such people exert a powerful influence for community growth, stability and health thanks to their native interest, affection and loyalty to their hometown. Local ownership is usually willing to invest extraordinary time and energy in many ways that no transitory corporate ladder-climber ever can.

Don’t get us wrong. Officers whom multinationals assign here usually have loads of talent and energy that they willingly and generously expend in United Way’s campaigns. They also volunteer at places like GROW, to help people learn to craft business plans and make their start in the world. Such involvements certainly benefit the community. But at least half the motivation for such involvements is to decorate those volunteers’ resumes. Such business people necessarily have their sights focused on an executive suite at a distant corporate headquarters.

And where does that leave the new local entrepreneur who has made a start, but now needs practical advice in building further? How do such firms become successes stories without capital? That’s the gap multinationals can’t fill, because their focus is on the world of enormous numbers.

But business people who have matured as part of the community’s weave are different. Consider the words of Charles Stoddard, founder and former president of Grand Rapid’s Grand Bank, now the executive director of Grand Angels.

Grand Angels exists, he said, because its investors “want to help entrepreneurs and to play a role in building a new generation of successful, philanthropic, community-minded CEO’s.”

That seems to say it all. The Fifth Thirds of the world will continue to acquire local banks. Multinationals such as Magna will continue to target locally founded firms like Donnelly. And that’s fine.

The multinationals are necessary and important to this community.

But small businesses are its blood, bones and muscle.

And as long as new entrepreneurs spring forth, and as long as investors who understand them — investors who’ve been there and done that — are willing and able to lend them money and counsel, Grand Rapids and West Michigan will retain the unique inner strength that wells up from within broad local ownership.           

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