A Really Big Shoe

October 31, 2003
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Gov. Jennifer Granholm came to Grand Rapids last week to give members of the Manufacturers Council of The Right Place Inc. a chance to express their views about the burdens of manufacturing in Michigan.

Or, at least, a half a chance.

The forum’s moderator, Fred Keller, of Cascade Engineering, sought to frame the discussion. He outlined the rising importance of innovation and competence on manufacturers’ part and fairness on government’s part, setting the stage for colleagues to expand on everyday realties affecting their firms.

Keller is an articulate guy, but the governor was a thespian and a lawyer before ever entering politics. So when she took over the mike, she took over the show and the stage, acting as moderator, producer, director and scriptwriter. And like any smart office-holder, she skirted unpleasant specifics.

That included avoiding three manufacturers’ allusions to the 800-pound gorilla of Lansing politics: protracted labor-management conflict that is bleeding Big Three market share and driving OEMs to seek salvation in Beijing.

Instead, Granholm kept her agenda Issue Lite, focusing on the more superficial topics of federal trade policy and China’s currency games, plus state taxes, incentives and job training.

The gorilla is still crouching there, though — the shaggy center of gravity in Lansing politics. And it looks like West Michigan manufacturers have no choice but to continue innovating by serving other OEMs and getting leaner and meaner.

  • Even as Granholm and the manufacturers were discussing the fate of the industry, word was received of the closure of another machine shop in Grand Rapids.

HibKuiper of Miedema Auctioneering sent a notice that the owners of Grooters Machine Shop have decided to retire and will be liquidating their business at a 10 a.m. auction on Wednesday, Nov. 5. Why is this significant? Because Grooters has been around since Aug. 7, 1922. That’s 81 years of experience closing its doors.

  • There are other issues afoot in the manufacturing community, as well.

So much so that, it seems, political posturing may be taking a backseat to finding solutions.

“It’s interesting that both the Republicans and Democrats are working on this,” said Cascade’s Keller. “In this case, that’s a good thing.”

But more trouble looms on the horizon.

Conventional wisdom on the unionizing efforts at Johnson Controls and Magna Donnelly (it’s true!) has scared the beegeezers out of owners, purely because of the foothold that could be gained in West Michigan and the potential to spread. (Can you say Steelcase?)

Plenty have pleaded that BirgitKlohs and The Right Place get involved to make it stop.

The Yamaha move is said to have been directly tied to the Johnson Controls open door and “not at my plant” scare.

Here’s the new conventional wisdom: The competition is fierce, and that ferocity would make the newly organized Johnson (and Donnelly) less competitive. The “creative destruction” of business gurus has those mainstays going out of business and being replaced by small and new businesses being hatched (especially those staring up under the GOP 9-point plan) that will do well and grow to replace them. Innovation, it seems, is a big key in the recovery, and manufacturers are worried that unions are an anchor on the innovative process.

  • Of course, the world of business serves up its share of embarrassments too. And rarely are they forgotten.

To wit, here’s a letter that might be suitable to send to DennisKozlowski, former Tyco International chairman, accused corporate looter and all-around swinging party guy.

This comes from “the good people of the fine community of Zeeland” and is titled “we care about you.”

Dear Dennis,

Geez! $6,000 for a shower curtain! Not bad. We can only imagine what the actual shower was like.

But, hey! What’s a little extravagance every now and then? And what’s the sense of being in charge of a global conglomerate if you can’t take a few liberties every once in a while with the corporate treasury to ensure your own personal comfort.

You see, Dennis, we understand!!! We feel your pain of having to live by the rules. Not fun, is it?

Oh, you don’t remember us?

Perhaps a little reminder will help.

Our fair town here in West Michigan was once home to a proud company named Batts Inc. It was a fine company, one that provided a good living for people who were willing to put in a hard day’s work (we’ll cover what that means in a future memo). And there were a lot of us.

A few years back, when you were head of Tyco, one of your companies bought Batts and proceeded to destroy in a day what it took the Batts family generations to build. We were all put out of work and forced to suffer emotional and economic hardship while picking up the carnage your cohorts caused us.

Given our experience, we write to you today because we wanted to let you know that we understand what you’re going through: the hard times, the stress and anxiety, the uncertainty about the future, the public humiliation of losing your job.

So, Dennis, take care of yourself and keep your chin up.

Best wishes with the feds, and we look forward to seeing you again … preferably alongside the highway, wearing leg irons and a bright orange jumpsuit, picking up trash on a 100-degee day.

We’ll make sure to honk!!!

P.S.: Loved the party video on Sardinia!

  • Most people can remember where they were when a significant event took place. You know, “I was in a sporting goods store when I heard Reagan was shot,” or something similar.

So what will Mayor-elect GeorgeHeartwell say when he is asked of his whereabouts when the Grand Rapids City Commission met last Tuesday for lunch with Gallium Group and JackBuchanan

The Calder Plaza hotel project, a long-running city saga if there ever was one, may be yesterday’s news by the time Heartwell takes office (especially if Mayor JohnLogie gets his way), but then again, it may not. It’s best to stay curious, George.    

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