The informed the impaired the impassioned

May 9, 2011
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Inforum, first formed in 1962 in Detroit as the Women’s Economic Club and now a statewide organization with a strong and active Grand Rapids chapter, hosted Michigan native Anne Doyle for a breakfast meeting last week and a speech related to her new book, “Powering Up! How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders.”

Doyle is the daughter of a rather famous Detroit sports broadcaster, Vincent Doyle, inspiring her career choice — one which made her one of the first women to enter professional sports locker rooms. She began that broadcast career at WZZM in Grand Rapids, in the same year that Suzanne Geha was first hired by WOTV/WOOD TV, and together they formed the league of the first women to be hired as television news reporters in this region. (Sister publication Grand Rapids Magazine featured them as a cover story in 1975.) Doyle’s broadcast career took her across the country, and eventually into the executive ranks at Ford Motor Co.

Earlier this year, Geha agreed to introduce Doyle during her Grand Rapids appearance, and honored that commitment last week at Doyle’s insistence, despite fretting that doing so would distract from Doyle’s keynote: It was Geha’s first appearance after an abrupt departure from TV 8 after a more than 30-year presence primarily as a news anchor. As Geha was introduced to an audience of more than 200 women (and one male, public relations consultant Rick Kamel, who had been Doyle’s cameraman in the ’70s), the audience gave Geha a standing ovation. Visibly moved, Geha clapped her hand against her chest and without missing a beat told the group, “I’m at a point of transition in my life,” which the audience again applauded, including many peers from WZZM.

It was undoubtedly one of Inforum’s defining moments, walking the talk of a membership created “to support and advance the business environment by creating opportunities for women to lead and succeed.”

Geha also honored her commitment to the Michigan Business and Professional Association, which late last week lauded the efforts of 101 Best Companies to Work For (West Michigan region). Geha has almost annually co-emceed the luncheon. MBPA hires a Chicago accounting firm to add up points based on a more than 20-page questionnaire and to document company interviews of employees. The group was selected from more than twice that number in a process that began last summer.

And here to explain budget cuts …

Perhaps she has a new career built on an exhaustive community schedule: Geha was announced to be the moderator for a public forum on Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget impact on “necessary changes and the positive impact they will have on education in our state”… or so said State Rep. Tom Hooker, R-Byron Center, one of nine legislators set to explain it all 5:30 to 7 p.m. tonight, May 9, at the Lowell V.F.W. Flat River Post on Alden Nash SE.

The Republican communications staff announcing the event wanted to assure constituents knew the forum would be bi-partisan: both Democrats — Reps. Brandon Dillon and Roy Schmidt, both of Grand Rapids — are expected to participate with the area’s Republican contingent.

Impressive turn out

Wyoming Mayor Jack Poll said he was impressed with the results from last week’s election, when a number of incumbents were voted out of office. Why was he impressed? Because his message — and the city’s — to Wyomingites is to “be informed, be involved.”

Poll said he includes that statement with every letter he writes to residents and he believes it’s having an effect. In past years, Poll said, normally only two candidates would file for a seat on a school board. Now, he said, five and even six candidates are running for almost every school board seat.

The downside, of course, is that more Wyomingites may keep a closer eye on Poll’s performance. But, frankly, he doesn’t seem like the type of guy who would let any increased attention bother him.

State of the university

Longtime GVSU Counsel Thomas Butcher pointed out last week that the word “state” is part of his school’s title, as in Grand Valley State University. But he said that word has taken on a different meaning for him. In the past, it identified the school as a state-supported university.

Now, however, he feels the name pretty much only accounts for the college’s location: in the “state” of Michigan. He said if Gov. Snyder’s proposed 15 percent funding cut to state universities makes it into the state budget, the state’s financial support of GVSU will fall to a record-low 17 percent.

Maybe it’s time for a name change? (Not for Butcher, but for the school.) How about “Grand Valley S University?” After all, the “S” in “state” is 20 percent of the word, and that’s still being more generous to Lansing than Lansing’s fiscal support for the university.

China syndrome

“A lot of people try to make everything really simple — and it isn’t so simple,” said Win Irwin, president and CEO of Irwin Seating.

Such as the subject of U.S. manufacturers setting up shop in China.

Irwin is scheduled to be keynote speaker Wednesday at the manufacturing forum put on by the Kentwood Economic Development Corp. and the Wyoming-Kentwood Area Chamber of Commerce. He said he was going to talk about U.S. manufacturing in China, and one message he will deliver is: “All manufacturing was never going to go to China,” and it never will.

Another message is: Every situation is different.

Irwin told the Business Journal that Irwin Seating began considering China in the late 1990s when there was a boom in construction of movie theaters in less developed countries — and theaters need seats.

Irwin Seating is one of the leading companies in the world in the production of public seating for movie theaters, auditoriums, arenas, performing arts centers and convention centers. From Kuala Lumpur to New York and from Minsk to Muskegon, Irwin Seating’s chairs, bleachers and telescopic platforms are installed in thousands of locations.

Starting in 2000, Irwin Seating had some “nice business” going in China and Malaysia. That included a WFOE (pronounced “woofie”) in China — a Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise.

“We were trying to produce products for those areas, not to bring things from China to the U.S.,” said Irwin.

Then movie theater construction began slowing down, so the company moved its Malaysian production to its China WFOE. Meanwhile, competition continued to build from foreign manufacturers and emerging Chinese manufacturers, whose prices were lower. Irwin Seating began customizing production in China to get orders, but there still weren’t enough sales. To keep the China WFOE going, the company eventually began building some products for shipment back to the U.S., but Irwin is quick to say it was “not a lot,” just “a little bit,” and it wasn’t the reason for being there in the first place.

By 2008, he said, it became clear the company was in the midst of “a perfect storm of not good things.” A faltering economy was looming over the U.S., and things were also changing in China. WFOEs that exported products from China had been getting a tax break from the Chinese government — until it reduced the tax break dramatically.

Irwin points out another peculiar fact about foreign companies manufacturing in China: The government requires them to pay employees more — about 10 percent more, he recalls — than Chinese employers pay.

Then there was the rise in value of the Chinese currency against the dollar, which makes products made there more expensive to sell in the U.S. Then the Chinese economy expanded further, tending to force wages up. Then there was the shortage of ships to move product out of China …

“So we cut our losses in 2008, and closed operations (in China) by the end of that year,” said Irwin. “We weren’t really bringing jobs back here because we had never really set up a lot of production” for shipping products back to the U.S.

For companies considering an overseas manufacturing operation, Irwin said, “you have to run your numbers. Every situation is different.” His personal rule: If you can get at least a 40 percent cost advantage by manufacturing somewhere else, it’s almost always to your advantage to do so. If the advantage is only 20 percent or less, “then you must ask yourself, is it really worth doing all the things you have to do to bring it from somewhere else, over to here?”

Irwin Seating’s labor cost is only about 10 to 15 percent of its total production cost, he said. Raw materials are a bigger part of the cost. Fine furniture, on the other hand, is labor intensive, with labor costing 30 to 40 percent — which is why so much fine furniture is now made outside the U.S.

“I think those trends that we saw (in China) in 2008 have continued,” said Irwin. China is not trying to export as much as it once was because its market demands are growing internally, and its currency has continued to appreciate.

Some types of products “just aren’t going to move (to production in China), and it is true that a lot of stuff is coming back … just because the advantages over there aren’t what they used to be,” he said.

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