Seeing opportunities

June 18, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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There are opportunities galore for new business investments in West Michigan, but not everyone beyond the region can see them — which is why Therese Thill works for The Right Place Inc.

Thill, vice president of business development at Right Place, joined the Grand Rapids region’s economic development agency in November, after accumulating years of experience in economic development in Michigan and Arizona.

Her first brush with business development and seeing opportunities, however, took place in Budapest, Hungary.

Thill, a native of Livonia, earned a bachelor of arts degree in international marketing and French from the University of Michigan. She went to work for a year and then decided to advance her education at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz. She graduated from the one-year program in 1993 with an MBA in marketing.

Then she and a friend saw an opportunity to start a business in Budapest, as Hungary was beginning to find its own way in the world after having been a rigidly controlled Soviet satellite state since World War II. “So we went out and did it,” said Thill. “It was quite eye-opening, actually.”

It was an opportunity for Thill and her business partner to apply what they had learned in the Thunderbird classroom “in the real world, and find out what worked and what didn’t.”

The opportunity they saw was this: The mail service in Hungary wasn’t very reliable or secure. Often, mail was tampered with along the way. Sometimes, it was inexplicably delayed for weeks.

Thill and her partner named their company Pony Express, and their customers were individuals and businesses in Budapest with mail going to and coming from the United States. Pony Express collected the clients’ mail and shipped it securely to the U.S., and also received incoming mail shipments from the U.S.

After about a year, Thill said, the business partners received a “great offer” and sold it to an American they knew — another graduate of Thunderbird — who was living in Russia, where the mail service was equally daunting.

Therese M. Thill

Organization: The Right Place
Title: Vice President, Business Development
Birthplace: Livonia
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Single
Business/Community Organizations: International Economic Development Council; volunteer coach, Girls for Change.
Biggest Career Break: Starting her own successful small business with a partner in Budapest, Hungary.

Thill returned to the states “and got a regular job” for Oakland County Planning and Economic Development Services. Her assignment was to start up the agency’s exports development program.

As the international trade specialist, Thill developed the first county resource specific to the international trade needs of the region’s business community; she worked with 315 businesses on all aspects of international trade, from 1996 through 2001. Among other things, she organized five trade missions to Canada, Mexico, Germany and China for 55 companies, coordinating 236 meetings with prospective business partners.

“We won a NACO (National Association of Counties) award for our trade mission model,” she said, which involved companies along with various government representatives and university people.

Then the county’s export program transitioned to Automation Alley, Michigan’s largest technology business association that drives growth and economic development throughout the region encompassing Detroit and the counties of Genesee, Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne.

“So from there I switched over into a more traditional economic development role,” said Thill, but still with Oakland County PEDS. Thill was a business development manager, working in business retention and expansion and new business attraction.

After 10 years, Thill left for the sunny Southwest, taking a job with the Greater Phoenix Economic Council in 2006 as vice president of international economic development, which included coordinating and advising the Arizona Global Network, a statewide multi-agency business attraction program. The thrust of the organization was direct foreign investment in the sustainable and biotech industries.

In 2008, she joined the Greater Phoenix Innovation and Technology Accelerator as vice president of business development. A business incubator, GPITA primarily supports the biomedical, alternative fuels, solar energy and other industries that require wet-lab space.

Then, in 2009, it was back to Michigan, straight into the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Although the recession was in high gear, the MEDC was looking for an experienced sales professional.

“They brought me in to institute a very proactive, targeted business attraction strategy,” she said. She managed a team of sales professionals, including some responsible for promoting Michigan business opportunities in China, Japan and Europe.

“We’ve got some good assets here,” said Thill, one being a wide diversity of opportunities.

That diversity was demonstrated in late May by the announcement of several major business expansions in West Michigan. Three involved The Right Place and received state incentives to make expansion investments here, which Thill sums up as “large projects in different skill sets and in different industries.”

Those were:

**The Amway expansion in Ada, where an $81 million investment in a Nutrilite tablet plant is expected to create 200 new jobs over the next few years.

**The $1 million expansion at Center Manufacturing Inc. in Byron Center, an automotive-type plant that will require 100 new workers over the next three years for production of parts for Honda Power Sports.

**The $2.1 million expansion at MedDirect Inc., 3200 Broadmoor Ave. SE, , requiring 300 new workers in its customer service center and medical patient accounts receivable service.

Still more business expansions were revealed in Muskegon and Greenville. Muskegon Castings Corp. plans to invest up to $10 million at its existing plant, resulting in the creation of 55 new jobs. The company chose Michigan over a competing site in Indiana, according to the MEDC.

In Greenville, Huntington Foam LLC is planning to invest up to $2.56 million, creating 30 new jobs as a result. It molds foam components for the appliance, plumbing, furniture, electronics and automotive industries, and neighboring states were also trying to lure the Huntington Foam investment to them.

One of Thill’s first major projects at Right Place was participation with the major trade mission organized by the MEDC, which took Gov. Rick Snyder and economic development professionals from around the state to Germany and Italy in March. The group also included representatives of Michigan colleges and universities, plus some business owners. Both Thill and Right Place CEO Birgit Klohs were on the trip to pitch the investment opportunities in West Michigan.

German and Italian businesses have long been active in Michigan, and state business leaders and economists say the potential growth opportunities for the Mitten State are enormous. Michigan exports to Europe totaled $6 billion in 2011, with transportation equipment and chemicals accounting for nearly half of the total.

Approximately 80,000 Michigan residents are employed by German- and Italian-owned companies that operate here. These companies are heavily concentrated in advanced automotive manufacturing and research and development, sectors well known for producing high-wage jobs, according to the MEDC.

Listening carefully to potential investors interested in Michigan is an important part of Thill’s work. She said some companies want to know if Michigan is a right-to-work state, “something we hear quite a bit.” She can comment favorably about unionization rates in the Grand Rapids area, compared to southeast Michigan. She also noted “there has not been a strike in Grand Rapids in many, many years.”

West Michigan’s location in the Midwest — three hours’ drive from Chicago — offers good proximity to a major concentration of the U.S. population, whom Thill sums up as “people with money to spend.”

One weakness in the industrial arena that West Michigan has to cope with is the same problem throughout the nation: an insufficient supply of trained, skilled workers.

“To counteract that, we talk about some of our unique programs” that business and higher education are developing in West Michigan, said Thill. She points to Autocam as one example of an industrial company aggressively tackling the problem in conjunction with Grand Rapids Community College. For some types of training courses in skilled trades offered by GRCC, the credits can be applied toward a four-year engineering degree.

And if you work for Autocam, “Autocam pays all or some of the tuition. It’s a pretty good deal,” said Thill.

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