Innovation Drives Regions Economy

May 19, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Innovation and technology in both manufacturing and life sciences are at the heart of a strong economy in West Michigan, Birgit Klohs told the audience at the Seidman College of Business Alumni Association breakfast series.

“It’s not just about China,” The Right Place Inc. president said of blaming manufacturing problems on outsourcing. “It’s really about us.”

Klohs addressed the audience gathered at the Loosemore Auditorium on GrandValleyStateUniversity’s Pew Campus to honor several small businesses as part of the Small Business Administration’s 50 to Watch in Michigan. Keith Malmstadt, president of Great Lake Woods and SBA Small Business Person of the Year, and Dante Villarreal, the SBA Minority Champion of the Year, also were recognized at the event.

The companies that are doing well in West Michigan are the innovators and those who have carved a niche for themselves and their product, Klohs said. A few of those companies are the four honored at the event: HexArmor, Highland Group, Holwerda Homes and Primera Plastics.

Noel Cuellar, president of Primera Plastics in Zeeland, said technology and a strategic location within 30 minutes of his customers has set his company apart from the rest.

The plastic injection molding company has grown from two employees and two plastic injection presses in 1994 to 140 employees, 27 presses and $15 million in sales in 2005 with a projected $18 million for 2006. Cuellar said the company, which is housed in a national award-winning building built specifically for plastic injection molding, is just getting started.

“We have a very young and energetic management team,” he said.

The certified minority-owned company is also looking to change from a QS9000 certification to a TS2 certification, and has made changes in its financial structure that have proven beneficial.

Cuellar said with the financial support of Huntington Bank, the company is going to continue with future growth. “We see great things with their help,” he said.

With small businesses such as Primera Plastics growing and looking to expand, Klohs said, they will need an educated work force to support the growth, provide innovation and be able to work with new technology.

“I can’t do my job without an educated work force,” she said of attracting businesses to the Grand Rapids area.

Klohs also mentioned that the work force is growing older, and many of the baby boomer generation will soon be retiring and leaving the work force, which will cause a shortage of skilled workers.

“We really do need to think about that,” she said.

To help create and maintain that skilled work force, The Right Place has partnered with GrandValleyStateUniversity and other higher education institutions, as well as the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, to use a Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Part of the $15 million grant will be used with The Right Place to help give workers the skills they need.

“It’s really meant to give us in West Michigan a way to leverage what we already have,” she said.

Klohs also addressed the need for partnerships and urged the audience not to think in terms of political boundaries, but in terms of the good of the West Michigan region, including the counties of Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Newaygo.

Instead of competing with Holland or Muskegon, Klohs said, others in West Michigan should be happy for the region’s growth.

“We win as a region over Indiana or another state,” she said of when a company chooses to start or expand in another city in the region.    

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