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Lakeshore businesses plan expansions

Sixty-nine percent of businesses in Allegan and Ottawa counties expect to expand in the next three years.

October 5, 2018
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Employers in Allegan and Ottawa counties are planning to invest more and create more jobs than last year.

According to the 2018 Business Intelligence Report by Zeeland-based economic development organization Lakeshore Advantage, 69 percent of businesses interviewed in the West Michigan lakeshore region plan to expand in the next three years.

Lakeshore Advantage, along with chambers of commerce based in Allendale, Hudsonville, Holland and Grand Haven, conducted 98 interviews of executives at primary employers in Allegan and Ottawa counties.

The 2018 report is the analysis of interviews conducted from June 1, 2017, through May 31, 2018.

Jennifer Owens, president of Lakeshore Advantage, said the organization uses information in the annual report to best support area employers.

Of the expanding companies interviewed:

  • 100 percent invest in training

  • 100 percent plan to introduce new products or services in the next two years

  • 99 percent report increasing or stable market share of their key product

  • 89 percent report increasing or stable international sales

  • 85 percent invest in research and development

  • 74 percent report their key product is emerging or growing

  • 25 percent have college interns

Half of the companies that provided expansion plan details reported all of their investments will go toward technology and equipment, compared to 11 percent of companies whose entire investments will be in real estate.

“This leads us to understand that our expanding companies are investing in increasing capacity and technical capabilities, which leads to increased growth in sales, jobs, employee training investment and skills,” Owens said.

According to Lakeshore Advantage, more than one-third of the primary employers in the lakeshore region have facilities in other states. Of those, the report found 53 percent plan to expand in the next three years.

The employers have to decide where those expansions will occur, and Lakeshore Advantage works to ensure they stay in the region.

Business leaders in the area said the report discloses issues and barriers to growth that expanding employers face — the top being lack of skilled labor — which helps business development organizations create the best programs to combat those issues.

“The work Lakeshore Advantage does to facilitate these surveys and pull together the ‘business pulse’ is critical to our success as a region,” said Janessa Smit, executive director of the Allendale Area Chamber of Commerce.

Lakeshore Advantage is working on a number of projects to combat lack of talent, according to Emily Staley, the organization’s vice president of marketing and communications.

The organization is working with schools to raise awareness of opportunities in the area and with West Michigan Works! to connect employers with opportunities to develop and retain employers.

She said companies are using creative ways of dealing with talent shortage, such as investing in additional training for existing workers.

Staley said the organization is working to help employers receive state Going PRO Talent Funds to go toward employee training.

Besides reacting to weaknesses, Lakeshore Advantage and other organizations work to promote growth through marketing the area’s strengths.

For this region, Staley said a big aspect is the diversity of manufacturers. The types of manufacturing include food, automotive, agriculture, office furniture, pharmaceuticals, automation systems and more.

She said manufacturing is the base of the region’s economy, accounting for one in four jobs.

Sixty-nine percent of the primary employers interviewed are manufacturers.

Because of such high investment in training, Staley said the manufacturing workers are typically highly skilled.

She said another of those strengths year after year continues to be quality of life.

Respondents also reported positive business climate, employee work ethic and community leadership.

“We must be vigilant in playing to our strengths and learning from other regions experiencing wins in business investment and talent attraction to be sure ours is the region of choice for both,” said Jane Clark, president of the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce.

Zeeland-based Gentex Corporation is one company that has announced expansion within the region. The manufacturer of products for the automotive, aviation and fire industries announced in February plans for a $100-million expansion that will create 250 new jobs with an average annual wage of $50,000.

“We believe a sustained culture of innovation and investing in the people and community that support that culture are what have allowed our company and this region to thrive economically,” said Steve Downing, president and CEO of Gentex.

Ottawa County has the fastest rate of growth in Michigan, according to the U.S. Census, and Staley said Lakeshore Advantage is working to capitalize on that momentum.

Staley said talent is an issue nationwide, and Lakeshore Advantage is exploring other regions in the country similar to the lakeshore that have high rates of employment.

For example, she said Lakeshore Advantage representatives soon will be going to Indianapolis to meet the area chamber and business attraction and economic development organizations.

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