The growing sentiment demands Lansing action

September 22, 2010
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The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce West Michigan Policy Forum last week was fertile ground for thought, opinion and hundreds of quotable quips and zingers, most of them from former Ambassador Peter Secchia. He allowed that when asked by a Detroit News Corp. reporter for the defining difference between East and West Michigan, he instantly replied, “We put Miracle-Gro in our pants.”

But it was also fertile ground for what is almost news.

Marge Byington Potter’s business organizational shift includes a new name: Continental Rail Gateway (aka Detroit River Tunnel Project). Potter also brought as guests members of Canadian chambers of commerce.

Michigan Women’s Foundation board members are making a few changes. First the annual May induction to its Hall of Fame is being moved back one month to an April date. The Foundation has been actively pursuing aspects of offering a venture capital fund for women business owners and expects to make an announcement prior to the big dinners annually held consecutively in East and West Michigan. Oh, and that may change, too. It seems West Michigan women prefer to attend a luncheon, while East Michigan women prefer dinners.

Overheard at a “reserved” table after the Forum opening speeches by Secchia and Amway President Doug DeVos: “The wrong DeVos ran for governor.”

Grand Rapids Business Journal editorial cartoonist Michael Harris was pleased to have hit the business tax issue straight on, in a one-panel cartoon in the Aug. 30, 2010 issue. Secchia made reference to the commentary in agreement during his opening speech. Harris depicted garbage haulers picking government trash bags marked as “elimination of the business tax with corresponding spending cuts,” “Implement right-to-work status for Michigan,” and “Increase funding for those health care providers with prevention practices.” Secchia opined, “and that’s exactly what (legislators) did, and that’s why we’re back here today.”

Wine and cheese (racks)

The Policy Forum slightly overshadowed the anticipation of ArtPrize, which begins Wednesday in Grand Rapids. Debuting in time to take advantage of the ArtPrize crowd is Reserve, touted as Grand Rapids’ largest wine bar, which opens to the public Tuesday in the newly renovated Windquest Building, 201 Monroe Ave. NW. Windquest Building and Reserve owners Betsy and Dick DeVos, co-owner of Reserve Kameel Chamelly and general manager Chris Pawlisz will be among those dedicating the operation today. Reserve is located in the former River City Building, a seven-story office building on the northwest corner of Monroe and Lyon in downtown Grand Rapids, has received a top-down do-over, with a 3,500-square-foot condo and rooftop terrace on the top, the upscale wine bar on the bottom, and a lot of Windquest Group business in between.

One of those businesses is The Stow Co., the Holland-based company formerly known as Windquest Companies Inc. that celebrated its 25th anniversary by rebranding as The Stow Co. At an open house in the company’s jazzed-up Holland headquarters last week, Jon King, industrial design manager, told of plans to open a showroom within a few weeks on the second floor of the downtown Grand Rapids Windquest Building. King said the location will offer an enhanced presence for the company in Grand Rapids in order to showcase the company’s growing line of custom organization and storage solutions.

Plenty of cash, but no flow

A Duke University survey of 937 CFOs in the U.S., completed in mid-September, indicates that half of them will hang on to their corporate cash, due to economic uncertainty. The other half are going to spend some of their cash reserves in the next year, mainly as investments, paying down debt and making acquisitions.

Columnist George Will wrote recently that American companies “are worried,” and rather than hiring, they’re sitting on cash reserves “much larger” than the $862 billion in federal stimulus spending last year.

The Business Journal asked Timothy Doyle, senior vice president of the Business Banking Group at Fifth Third Bank in Grand Rapids, if he saw companies sitting on cash.

“That’s absolutely true,” he said.

Business bankers in West Michigan, he said, have “actually seen our deposit balances increase significantly through 2010” for their business accounts.

“If you want to put a number to it, I would say, as a percentage, we’re seeing our deposit balances up 20, 25 percent over the last year, as a result of companies hanging on to their cash,” said Doyle.

Doyle said he has asked these clients why they are conserving cash and they replied they are being cautious, holding off on hiring new FTEs, not purchasing new equipment yet, building their cash reserves…

They are, he said, “waiting for what they would consider to be some type of economic event that would tell them, ‘hey, now it’s time for us to purchase that new equipment, maybe it’s time for us to take on that new project, to hire new FTEs.’”

“But they are really saving money right now,” added Doyle.

The irony is that it means banks have plenty of money to lend – but some companies are afraid to borrow, and others may not need to, if and when they do decide to spend.

An unsettling exhibit

That ugly, in-your-face style of institutionalized racism ended in Michigan long, long ago, right?

Not exactly.

Fred Keller, CEO of Cascade Engineering, knows an attorney who purchased a house in East Grand Rapids in 1999. Buried in the fine print on the deed, among the restrictions, was one that said the house could not be sold to an African American.

That offensive text from bygone years had been overlooked and simply stuck to the deed. It was illegal, of course, and an embarrassment to those involved, but it serves as a vivid reminder that overt, condoned racism hasn’t been outlawed that long.

Keller believes that racism “still exists today in many different forms… But we have to keep working at peeling this onion back.”

He said he wants to demonstrate that all people who work at Cascade or do business with the company “are valued as human beings.”

“People of color face challenges every day,” he said, adding that it is important for white leaders in the community to understand that, and to do what they can to effectively break down the remaining barriers to acceptance of all people.

That’s why Cascade Engineering brought the traveling Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia to its corporate headquarters recently, for its employees to walk through and think about.

The Jim Crow Museum is at Ferris State University, organized by sociology professor David Pilgrim. It is meant to educate people about race relations in the United States, and includes mundane artifacts of everyday life designed or decorated to reflect a racist theme, plus historical photographs, advertising and other types of art.

While some of the items on display were supposedly meant to be humorous – to some people – they are actually very offensive.

“They were meant to be offensive. They were meant to humiliate,” according to the museum website.

Keller said many of his employees, especially the younger ones, who saw the traveling exhibit at Cascade Engineering expressed surprise at seeing how recent some of the artifacts and images are.

1999 wasn’t that long ago, either.

Pulte picks Whirlpool

PulteGroup Inc., one of the nation’s largest home builders has selected Whirlpool Corp. as its exclusive appliance supplier. Under the multi-year contract, Whirlpool will provide appliances to PulteGroup’s Pulte Homes, Del Webb and Centex communities in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Terms of the agreement were not released. Whirlpool stock closed Thursday just above $70 per share.

“This contract is just the most recent benefit from the company’s strategic purchasing initiative resulting from last year’s merger with Centex,” said Deborah Wahl Meyer, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for PulteGroup. “In addition to this being a partnership between two Michigan-based companies with proud histories, Whirlpool Corporation offers products that align perfectly with PulteGroup’s unique multi-brand strategy.”

“We are honored to work with a world-class corporation and industry leader,” said Tom Halford, general manager, contract sales and marketing at Whirlpool Corp. “We are thrilled to be the exclusive appliance supplier for all PulteGroup brands.”

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