Skills, Not Shivs

January 3, 2006
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If there ever comes a day when Fred Keller’s Cascade Engineering isn’t newsworthy, when its business practices have become commonplace in West Michigan, that surely will be a day worth celebrating.

With a reluctant awe, it’s hard to argue that the region’s triple-bottom line champion is anything but a darn good company.

Thankfully, in the real world, entrepreneurs like Keller become standards to emulate. With any luck, someday these pages will be filled with companies that somehow manage to exceed Keller’s innovative practices.

Last week, the company announced the implementation of an ex-offender reintegration program. Cascade will provide specialized training and employment opportunities as part of its participation in the new Re-Entry Roundtable of Kent County, tapping the expertise of its Welfare-to-Career program and Cascade University.

“The re-entry program is a smart, collaborative approach that goes to the heart of Cascade’s commitment to building both economic and social capital,” Keller said.

Ex-offenders are an under-utilized segment of the work force, he reasoned, while recidivism is costly and dangerous to the community. Incarceration costs are $28,000 per person annually.

The program is funded by a $495,000 U.S. Department of Labor grant awarded to Michigan Works! Area Community Services Employment and Training Council, one of only 10 such grants awarded nationally.

Specific goals are to employ 300 ex-offenders at participating companies in West Michigan, with at least an 80 percent retention rate.

  • Here’s a new variation of the glass half-full/half-empty argument:

Last week, AAA Michigan announced that Michigan self-serve regular gasoline prices had dropped 8.8 cents since the prior week. In Grand Rapids, the price of the average gallon of gas fell to $2.194 the week after Christmas from $2.337, comparable to the state average of $2.198.

Last year, however, a gallon of gas in Grand Rapids cost an average of $1.731, compared to a state average of $1.743.

So, are your Michigan gas prices down 8.8 cents per gallon? Or up 45.5 cents per gallon?

  • Marc A. Talsma, Grand Rapids bankruptcy attorney of 12 years, just took on the hardest case of his life. He will be representing none other than Marc A. Talsma.

Get it? The bankruptcy attorney filed for bankruptcy. Apparently, he knew all about that rule change on Oct. 17, filing just three days earlier. That’s putting your money where your mouth is.

  • In perhaps the epitome of everything wrong with Western civilization, Brit Alex Tew’s online experiment, The Million Dollar Homepage (www.milliondollarhomepage.com), is within reach of its goal. The 21-year-old launched the Web site in August with the intent of selling off the screen real estate to advertisers for a dollar a pixel in 100-pixel blocks until he made his million.

Four months and $907,000 (at press time) later, Tew has spawned a slew of imitators and has been featured in hundreds of media outlets from around the world, including The Wall Street Journal.

  • Norbert Dill, chef and general manager of the The Schnitzelbank Restaurant at
    342 Jefferson Ave. SE
    , confirmed that a change of ownership is imminent for the company.

For more than 70 years, “The Schnitz” — as patrons fondly refer to it — has offered traditional, hearty German fare and in doing so, has earned consideration as one of Grand Rapids’ historic treasures. Its ownership remains in the hands of family descendants, led by President Karl Siebert

  • The Big Three didn’t do too well in Slate.com writer Seth Stevenson’s guide to desk chairs. The Slate newsroom tested six popular office chair models over several weeks, and discovered that, yes, Herman Miller’s Aeron is still a slick chair, but 1994 (the year of the Aeron) was a long time ago. His rankings:

Unsittable:

Cachet, by Steelcase, $508. “Five-hundy for a lawn chair with wheels? No thanks.”

Celle, by Herman Miller, $629. “It’s really stiff … and it sucked almost as bad as the Cachet.” The low-cost alternative to the Aeron did score points for its ample size and sturdiness, with one tester dubbing it a “double-wide big boy.”

Very Good, But Not Superb:

Leap, by Steelcase, $924. “ …manages to exude an executive vibe yet avoids any hint of pomposity.” Quite comfy, but has an embarrassing “whoopee cushion” effect that raises questions of its long-term durability. Also, “at this price, though, it ought to be a radical step forward in office furniture, and it’s not — it’s just the same old sit.”

Aeron, by Herman Miller, $899. “Down goes the champ.” Stevenson lauds the chair’s mesh fabric and sexy, iconic style, noting that it was the top choice on looks alone of some testers. However, he believes it is “dated,” and nitpicks over its wheels and ability to allow a variety of sitting positions.

Winner — For Those Who Prefer Hard, Supportive Seat-Backs:

Let’s B, by Steelcase’s Turnstone brand, $399. “If you want a stiff seat-back that forces you to sit completely upright, this is the chair for you.” Admittedly, Stevenson hates the chair. He compared it to something “stolen from the bridge of a Star Trek ship,” and is not a fan of chairs that don’t readily allow the user to recline.

Overall Winner:

Liberty, by Humanscale, $955. “Here we have the Aeron’s logical successor.” The New York-based Humanscale, with its ergonomically correct design, has been gaining some ground in the market in past years, but this is where the Business Journal has to stop and ask, “Who the heck is Seth Stevenson?”

He likes the Liberty because it doesn’t have adjustment knobs and is a good recliner. A grand for a funky colored Aeron without knobs? And don’t they have Haworth dealers in Washington, D.C.

Forget this guy. Go home team(s)!    

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