Chamber director brings new perspective to Grand Rapids

September 6, 2011
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Rick Baker earned his sheepskin from the school of hard knocks early in life.

He quickly grew accustomed to an early-to-rise way of living while growing up on his father’s dairy farm in Minnesota, where hard work and earning a living were natural cohorts.

Then, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Baker went to work for a neighbor’s sawmill. The job was fast paced, the wood planks were heavy and hand slivers were as common as ticks on a hound, even when wearing protective leather gloves.

The images of those sawmill days remain firmly etched in Baker’s memory.

“I remember how heavy the planks were,” said Baker, who recently hired on as president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “Sometimes they were wet, quite heavy and very rough cut. It was hard work — and loud.”

Rather than bemoan the manual work, Baker considers those experiences the potter that shaped the clay of his life.

“I’ve never been afraid of hard work,” said Baker. “Most of my life it was, ‘Let’s go and get stuff done.’ It wasn’t lackadaisical.”

Perhaps it was those long days of hard work that made Baker, the oldest of five children, decide to venture into a white-collar career. He took the first step when he enrolled in Upper Iowa University in northeast Iowa, where he eventually earned a degree.

“There was not a lot of support for me (from his family) to go to college,” said Baker. “I worked to pay for my own schooling.”

Apparently, education and personal moxie have served Baker well.

He has more than 23 years of chamber of commerce experience. His last position was president and COO of the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce, with offices in Moline, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa. The chamber included 1,800 member businesses and a chamber staff of 34 that operated with a $4.6 million budget.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber, conversely, has a $3 million budget, 2,700 member businesses and a professional staff of 28.

The Quad Cities chamber covered a business community of multiple municipalities in a bi-state metro area of 380,000 that resulted in a much-needed merger of three chambers of commerce and a regional economic development organization, which Baker conceptualized and led.

“I took an organization that was in rough shape,” said Baker. “That’s why I was asked if I could merge them together and have a greater impact.”

Baker assumed the helm of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce in April, succeeding Jeanne Englehart, who wrapped up a seven-year tenure at the chamber.

Some locals grumble about the economy in West Michigan in general and in Grand Rapids specifically. But from an outsider’s point of view, Baker said that, while he understands the underlying reasons for pessimism, he sees mounting evidence for another viewpoint, as well.

“The business community is very innovative and supportive of entrepreneurs,” he said. “It’s a great collaborative community.”

To West Michigan’s credit and strength, its manufacturing base is not as deeply connected to the auto industry as in the southeast part of the state, said Baker.

“We’re a little bit better diversified in science and human medicine,” he said. “People outside of Michigan are impressed with the number of higher education institutions in downtown. It creates a lot of energy.”

The pieces to improving Greater Grand Rapids’ sputtering economy are falling in place, Baker believes. On some levels, it’s at the baby-step stage, but at least it’s heading in the right direction.

And Baker intends to have the GRACC play an integral role in the area’s economic resurgence.

“I think we are growing a strategic planning process at the chamber,” said Baker. “We need to do more for the business community to help them overcome the hurdles, such as work force issues.

“We need to get our arms around the resources available in this community and make sure the businesses are aware of the resources we have and have central access to them and position them in the right direction. Then we can look at the gaps and see if there’s anything that needs to be filled so that they can change, depending on the economy and other factors.”

According to Baker, the “work force issues” include culling a qualified work force.

“I’m hearing some segments of the economy are starting to incline again, and companies are in the hiring mode,” said Baker. “One of the challenges is being able to find qualified workers. That’s been a common theme I’m hearing as they try to grow and meet their demands.”

The bump in cultural and entertainment amenities and quality of life plays an important part in drawing a young, trained work force — i.e., students who graduate and are then on the prowl for a place to launch their careers, said Baker.

They’re a key source of new talent, and they are less likely to make an exodus out of Michigan after earning their diplomas if they’re made aware of what West Michigan has to offer, said Baker. He doesn’t believe the hard sell is necessary.

“This place is cool,” said Baker. “It sells itself. Living along the lakeshore is like living in California without the saltwater. Those individual pieces make it attractive to people, and makes retaining and attracting businesses a little easier. People have a really positive outlook about the economy and where we’re headed.”

Baker said there’s something good to be said about the number of large, family-owned businesses in the area that do so much to shape a community’s character.

“It’s quite different when they’re publically traded,” Baker said. “It’s a ripple effect. I’ve seen it go in the other direction. It’s a different relationship when a business (headquarters) is located outside the region.”

The bloom is still very much on the rose for Baker, when it comes to appreciating Grand Rapids’ four seasons; the winter season is shorter compared to Minnesota and, of more recent memory, Illinois.

“They are cold and long — colder and longer than here,” he said. “I don’t mind the variety of the change in seasons here. I like fall and I like spring. I’m not fond of extreme hot or cold, but I deal with it.”

“Deal with it” has been Baker’s mantra, whether milking cows, stacking planks of wood or helping to chart a better economic future for Grand Rapids. He said he knows other people in the area share that same passion.

“We very much have control of our own destiny,” said Baker.

“You have to work at it and get out of your comfort zone. The people here are very upbeat. They make great ambassadors for the community with their positive attitude.”

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