Business mentorship key to restoring Haitis economy

September 10, 2011
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A partnership between West Michigan and Haitian businesses uses mentorship rather than charity to create a long-lasting, sustainable economic recovery in post-earthquake Haiti.

Kentwood-based manufacturer Paladin Industries was recently host to Port-au-Prince production company Maxima S.A. to share technical expertise and discuss strategies for streamlining production.

The professionals at Paladin provided specialized support on installing Thermofoil, a synthetic skin applied to a wooden part using vacuum forming for a high-quality look at a low cost.

As one of the first companies in Haiti to use a CNC (computer numerical control) machine, Maxima’s visit to Paladin was an opportunity for the executives to see this technology in effect.

Paladin CEO Larry Bell and Alan Applegate, vice president of business development, remarked on the interest Maxima owner Stefan Vervloet had in retaining Haitian jobs as opposed to automating.

“It was a humanitarian effort as opposed to a profit venture, said Bell.

Paladin will continue to be a resource to Maxima as the Haitian firm implements the new technology.

The relationship between Maxima and Paladin was fostered by Partners Worldwide, an international professional network focused on ending poverty through enterprise. Five years ago, long-term Partners Worldwide volunteer business mentors Bernie Woltjer and Nick Tuit began working with Maxima, which at that time employed about 70 people. The company has now grown to more than 260 employees.

“We had small needs that would normally have slowed us down,” said Vervloet. “We were able to reach out to Partners Worldwide to help us resolve these issues.”

Maxima, which originally specialized in manufacturing cabinetry and caskets, began constructing transitional housing units after the earthquake as a way of providing shelter to employees who had lost their homes. When other organizations reached out to Maxima for help, the firm changed its focus to housing, creating close to 8,000 homes to date, all of which are designed to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes.

Maxima will transition back into kitchen manufacturing once the demand for shelter subsides, Vervloet said. It is currently one of very few companies in Haiti to own and operate a CNC. Through the connection with Paladin, Maxima will ensure that it remains current in the wood manufacturing industry, securing hundreds of Haitian jobs.

After the earthquake, the world offered its support to Haiti, providing food, medicine and shelter. Vervloet said that while immediate relief is essential, long-term involvement can have negative impacts on the local economy if not done correctly. For example, local companies unable to compete with free donated goods have been driven out of business, leaving Haitians without jobs to support their families.

Verloet says there is an answer to that problem, and partnerships such as that between Paladin and Maxima provide a clear example: Rather than bringing products and employees into Haiti, buying local products and employing local people stimulates lasting growth instead of providing a quick fix.

“When people help Haiti, it’s keeping us in the news and in their prayers,” said Verloet. “But if you have knowledge, if you can add something to teach people to be more professional — this is how to build up Haiti.”

Partners Worldwide’s “100,000 Jobs in Haiti Initiative” will attempt to create similar partnerships between businesspeople, encouraging restoration efforts to be both strategic and long lasting.

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