Street Talk

Street Talk: The global economy

International flavor.

March 24, 2017
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With the election of President Donald Trump, the West Michigan business community has one question on the country’s place in the global economy.

Where do we stand?

The World Affairs Council of West Michigan will attempt to answer that question when the former CEO and president of Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Dennis Lockhart, comes to Grand Rapids for his first public appearance since retirement.

“We expect he will be quite forthcoming, as he has only left his position at the Fed at the end of February — so still very much in the know, but no longer ‘official,’” said Dixie Anderson, executive director of WACWM. “I heard Mr. Lockhart speak when I was in Atlanta. His remarks were some of the most cogent I have heard or read on his assessment on our economic prospects in the global marketplace.”

Lockhart spent 10 years running the Federal Reserve in Atlanta, where he was responsible for all the bank’s activities, including monetary policy, bank supervision and regulation, and payment services. He also served on the Federal Reserve’s chief monetary policy body, the Federal Open Market Committee.

“He’s coming with my good pal Ambassador Charles Shapiro, head of our Atlanta World Affairs Council, as Mr. Lockhart is a former board chair of the Atlanta WAC,” Anderson said. “They will have a great conversation together.”

The event is scheduled for 12:30-2 p.m., April 21, on the 10th floor of the Fifth Third Bank Building in downtown Grand Rapids.

Sexy specs

Kent County Treasurer Ken Parrish had a zinger to open up his annual investment report to Kent County Board of Commissioners last week.

“Now, on to the very sexy subject of governmental fixed-income investments,” Parrish said, jokingly we think. Parrish’s report looked at where Kent County investments were in 2016, which totaled $333.6 million.

The county had $71.8 million in governmental securities and $47.3 million in Triple-A rated investment pools.

Kent County’s largest holdings were $207.4 million in certificates of deposits and money market accounts at 21 banks, including $33.3 million at Bank of America, $29.1 million at Chemical Bank and $20.3 million at The Private Bank.

The county also holds $7 million in cash in the bank.

Parrish said all of the banks, except First National Bank of America, hold four- and five-star ratings from Bauer Financial. First National Bank of America has an “adequate” three star, he said.

Parrish said the county’s $73-million general fund yielded a little more than $524,000 in interest, which is “nothing to write home about.”

All told, the total investment pool netted $2.2 million.

Resting on laurels

A pair of Hope College grads who, in the late 1990s had an idea for a new type of beanbag chair, received the 2017 Outstanding Growth Award from The Association for Corporate Growth Western Michigan.

Matt Jung and Chip George started Comfort Research in 1997 after an afternoon of shredding foam mattress pads and stuffing them into their old, worn out beanbags.

Realizing they were onto something, the pair developed their first product, The Fuf, and quickly accumulated more than 1,200 orders.

Today, Comfort Research has two additional product lines, UltimaX and Orahh, which launched this year.

The company’s products are available under brand names Big Joe and Lux by Big Joe at retailers across the country, including Meijer, Target, Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club and Amazon.

Comfort Research said it sold more than 10 million chairs in more than 75 styles since its founding 20 years ago.

The company also grew to 250 employees and opened an additional facility in Lewisburg, Tennessee, with a third facility planned for Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Comfort Research has had an amazing growth trajectory that they expect to see continue thanks to a strong focus on drop-shipping through well-known dot-com partners,” said Rabih Jamal, president of ACGWM.

Jung and George received the Outstanding Growth Award this month during an awards ceremony at DeVos Place.

Eligible companies must have an operational, financial or other business presence in West Michigan, $10 million minimum in annual sales, demonstrated growth in sales, profitability or employment, and continuing community involvement.

Jason Brinks, ACG Western Michigan board member and special events committee chair, said this year saw an increase in first-time nominees, as well as a return to a more optimistic outlook.

“More first-time companies were nominated this year than in recent years,” he said. “Among our nominees, we saw a fairly diverse range in terms of industry, but the common theme across all was increased optimism compared to two to three years ago and increased optimism looking forward.”

Brinks also said this year was more challenging for the judging panel, because so many companies showed consistent growth.

“One key in our decision making is seeing sustainable growth,” he said. “This year, many of the companies that were re-nominated showed consistent growth, which made selecting the best company for the award more difficult.”

Semester abroad

Enrollment for international graduate students at Grand Valley State University is rising.

The university reported an increase of 60 percent during the past five years. In fall 2012, international graduate student enrollment was at 96 students; in fall 2016, enrollment was at 162 students.

Jeff Potteiger, dean of The Graduate School at GVSU, said the importance of international students cannot be underestimated.

“International students bring a unique cultural life experience and personal history to Grand Valley that enriches the environment for everyone,” he said.

Shinian Wu, professor and director of the graduate program for applied linguistics, said eight of the 15 graduate students in the applied linguistics program are international students from countries like China, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

“Our alumni and new students are sharing their experiences with family and friends, and that is a very powerful recruiting tool,” Wu said.

Oyekanmi Oyebanji came to GVSU from Nigeria after learning about the university through a friend.

“After talking with my friend, I did some online research about Grand Valley and its programs,” Oyebanji said. “I could see the applied linguistics program would be a good fit for me.”

He said his adjustment to West Michigan has been smooth.

“It is wonderful to be part of a community that appreciates inclusion and diversity. It makes me feel at home,” he said.

Yikua Xu learned about GVSU’s graduate program in applied linguistics after Wu was a guest lecturer at Xi’an International Studies University in China, where Xu earned a bachelor’s degree in English. She started GVSU’s graduate program in fall 2016.

“There are a lot of activities and opportunities to be involved with,” she said. “I joined the Asian Student Union and have made a lot of new friends.”

In March 2016, President Thomas J. Haas visited Xi’an International Studies University while in China for alumni events.

At the Xi’an event, Haas hand-delivered admissions letters to three students; all three began degrees at GVSU in fall 2016.

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