Diversity Helps Drive Business

February 11, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — To compete successfully in the global marketplace, American companies need to promote diversity within their corporate ranks, as well as deepen their understanding of the people and cultures in countries where they want to do business.

That’s how Dennis Archer, chairman of Dickinson Wright Inc., sees it. In an address to the Economic Club Monday, Archer said that potential business partners overseas are “very subtly but directly” inquiring about the diversity profiles of American companies.

Furthermore, Corporate America is no longer just asking for diversity in-house. They’re demanding it to serve diversified customer bases here and abroad, he said.

“These corporations understand their market share.”

Archer, current chairman of the American Bar Association, a former justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and former mayor of Detroit, pointed out that of the 294 million people in the United States, just over 30 percent are people of color.

The U.S. Census Bureau had predicted that America’s Latino and Asian populations would triple in size by 2004. The agency has further predicted that non-whites will constitute 50.1 percent of the U.S. population by 2050 and that by 2056 the majority of U.S. residents will be people of color.

Presently, the majority of people worldwide are people of color, Archer observed.

According to Archer, the children and grandchildren of the present generation may very well be called upon to apply their skill sets in another country, but if they haven’t had the opportunity to live in a diverse country where people regularly interact with one another, how can they be expected to deal with the international marketplace? An “us vs. them” mentality just won’t cut it.

“We really must embrace this thing called diversity. It’s in our best interest,” he said. “If America needs and wants to be in the forefront, it needs to get beyond the issue of race.”

Archer’s presentation was preceded by a panel discussion on finding diverse legal services in Grand Rapids

Wendell Russell, senior counsel for Meijer Inc., said, “Our customers, suppliers and people that we do business with reflect diversity. They expect to see diversity reflected in our legal team.”

Panelist Jon Botsford, Steelcase Inc.’s chief global legal officer, pointed out that Steelcase operates in many different countries with many different cultures and laws. He said the company’s annual leadership conferences that bring in people from all different parts of the world are “quite fascinating” in terms of the richness that comes from diversity.

“When they come together in alignment and a new perspective, it’s typically true that we get something that distinguishes us from our competitors,” Botsford remarked. He said Steelcase has a long history of seeking diversity in its suppliers, its North American dealer network and in all other aspects of the business, right down to the ethnic foods on store shelves.

As far as diversity in the legal community, he said, most of his department’s efforts have been to encourage law firms that it works with to bring more minorities on board, but said the company doesn’t demand that a minority counselor be involved in every case.

According to Bing Goei, president of Eastern Floral, the future success of American businesses, large and small, hinges on diversity. He said it’s time for every business person at every corporate level to commit the resources necessary to diversify their organizations and believes government has a “tremendous” responsibility to support the effort.

“The bottom line is that our customers are changing and if we don’t respond to the demographic changes, we won’t survive as a company,” Goei said. “But more than that, diversity is important because we want excellence.”    

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