Disaster brings outpouring of support for Japanese residents

March 28, 2011
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The agony and struggle in Japan continued last week as help poured in from around the world, including from Grand Rapids. Amway announced it is contributing a total of $2.5 million toward relief efforts, even as Amway President Doug DeVos traveled to Tokyo to personally express the company’s support at a meeting of employees and distributors.

“I can assure you that all of us around the world are thinking of you and praying for your strength and your comfort together through this time,” said DeVos.

Amway Japan President John Parker also is there, in Sendai — one of the hardest-hit regions — to meet with Amway distributors.

Jim Zawacki of Grand Rapids Spring & Stamping, which builds parts for many cars made by Nissan, Honda and Toyota, forwarded an email he received from a full-time employee in the GRS&S Tokyo office, Ralph Yamagiwa.

Yamagiwa thanked Zawacki and all of the people at GRS&S for their kind and encouraging words, noting that the Japanese now refer to that horrific day as 3/11.

No one knows yet what the ultimate impact will be on the country’s industry and economy, he said, noting that the Japanese government — like that of the United States — had already been facing an “astronomical” budget deficit before 3/11 happened. The good news, he said, is “the feeling of unity” among the people. The Japanese version of Congress even called a “cease fire” on political infighting as it pulls together to deal with the catastrophe.

The unanticipated flood of cash donated to Japanese relief was so huge it crashed the computer system of the Mizuho Bank, the country’s largest. There has also been an immense outpouring of volunteers from around the world, including the U.S. Navy, which has supplied food, blankets and water by helicopter to the most isolated areas where the tsunami struck. Yamagiwa‪ wrote that the Navy’s Tomodachi Project — tomodachi means “friend” — is very appreciated and effective.

“As a Japanese citizen, I would like to express our thanks to the goodwill of the U.S.,” he wrote.

Restoration “may take time,” he said, but there should be progress “little by little, and we should regain our normal day-to-day life eventually.”

Snyder draws a crowd

The TV station turnout was worthy of a rock-star. No fewer than eight TV crews showed up last week in the Grand Rapids City Commission chambers to cover Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the unveiling of his incentive program for municipalities. Crews came from as far away as Flint to hear the governor. Jon Koeze, who directs such media events for the city, told the Business Journal that eight TV crews was a new all-time record for City Hall. Eat your heart out Lady Gaga.

Bikes and debris

While we’re in the commission’s chambers, commissioners gave GR Planning Director Suzanne Schulz the green light, so to speak, to develop a policy that would include inserting bike lanes into the redesign of a street. Lake Drive has been the first to receive that treatment, and another area is on deck. Schulz plans to have her bike-lane design policy before commissioners later this year.

Also, City Manager Greg Sundstrom proclaimed at last week’s meeting that “This is the most exciting day I’ve had since I’ve been city manager!” No, Sundstrom wasn’t talking about hosting the governor here last Monday. He made that comment when he unveiled the city’s new plan to replace its refuse bags and tags with trash collection carts.

The change is expected to save the city and residents money by switching to a private-sector pricing policy similar to what most waste haulers charge. But the policy will cost residents more to dispose of an old appliance or other bulk item. By the way, Cascade Engineering will make the carts.

Reporting the take

Last week, Kent County Clerk Mary Hollinrake provided the county’s Legislative Committee with an interesting update of what went on in her territory last year. She said court costs totaled $11.8 million, but the county only collected $3 million of that — and that’s normal because most of the people who are assessed costs can’t afford to pay them. Most of the $3 million went to victims. She also said the county collected $1.2 million in restitution costs. “I think we had two or three large cases of fraud,” she said.

Hollinrake said the county generated $1.5 million more in fees last year above the overall cost to deliver the services. When asked by County Commissioner Dick Bulkowski if the fees could be lowered, she said no, because the state sets the fee levels. But Hollinrake pointed out the county charges $10 for certified copies of birth and death certificates, while the state allows her to charge up to $26 for those and other documents. She also said the county loses about $20 for every gun permit it approves, but she can’t do anything about that situation because the charge is controlled by Lansing.

On a different note, which truly reflects the economic times and the advancement of technology, Hollinrake said her staff size last year was at the same level the clerk and register of deeds offices were in 1974.

Best of the best

The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce held its annual awards banquet last week, honoring several businesses.

They included: Hispanic Business of the Year — Natural Choice Chiropractic; Hispanic Person of the Year — Robert A. Alvarez; Most Promising Business Award — Super Cream Bakery; and the Building Bridges Award — Darel Ross II.

A diversity leader

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce will host its 2011 Diversity Visionary Award Celebration Tuesday. Business and community leader Bing Goei, CEO of Eastern Floral and The Goei Center, will be presented with the 2011 Diversity Visionary Award.

“Bing’s passion and decades-long commitment to diversity and inclusion, and his leadership on these issues in the Grand Rapids community, make him a deserving recipient,” said Jeanne Englehart, president and CEO of the chamber.

Michigan still the ‘Auto State’

Despite the decline in the Big Three, despite the Great Recession, despite the loss of manufacturing jobs — Michigan is still “absolutely” the automobile capital of the United States.

So says Thomas Klier, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Klier was the keynote speaker recently at the 8th Annual Midwest Supply Chain Management Conference at GVSU, sponsored by The Right Place and MMTC-West, in partnership with APICS Grand Rapids, The Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, Michigan State University’s Broad Graduate School of Management and The Institute for Supply Management.

Klier’s presentation was simply called “Economic Outlook — A Midwest Perspective,” but his specialty as an economist is ongoing study of the automobile industry.

As to the economy in general, Klier noted that we are seeing “strong fundamentals,” specifically “sustained growth in corporate profits,” and household debt is shrinking as Americans are saving more than they used to. The downside is the increase in oil prices, the ongoing EU debt crisis and the continuing home foreclosures in the U.S.

In the U.S. economy, the auto industry is not nearly as dominant as it once was, but it’s far from dead. Light vehicle sales in the U.S. “are coming back,” estimated to be about 13.4 million this year. Fewer than 8 million of those vehicles will be made in the U.S., according to Klier’s estimate.

The long-term decline in the Detroit Big Three’s combined market share halted in 2010, said Klier; they are much leaner now and in better shape to compete against the Asian car makers.

As for Michigan in particular, Klier sketched an interesting picture of the geographic changes in U.S. auto production from 1980 to now. Back then, the industry was more spread out over the country, with auto assembly plants on both coasts as well as in the Midwest. Today, there are no conventional auto assembly plants on either coast, although there is now an assembly plant on each coast for electric vehicles. Electric car production, however, is still far below the scale of conventional auto production, and the big unknown so far, according to Klier, is just how many electric or hybrid vehicles are Americans really going to buy?

“So both coasts are now empty of (conventional) vehicle assembly,” he told the Business Journal. “It’s all in Auto Alley, except for two plants in Texas.”

What he calls Auto Alley is a swath of states topped by Michigan and eastern Ontario, which have the highest concentration of auto assembly plants.

As for Michigan, its light vehicle output in 2010 represented 21 percent of the U.S. total, said Klier. Almost 35,000 people in Michigan were employed in auto assembly plants, and more than 85,000 in parts production. Together, that is 21 percent of the 570,000 people working in U.S. automotive production.

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