By Carol Cain
Senior Producer and Host
WWJ-TV CBS Detroit Michigan Matters
Why are Meijer, Amway, Steelcase, Wolverine Worldwide and Pennant Health Alliance moving in together in downtown Grand Rapids?
It’s about jobs and creating an environment that spawns new products and transforms the downtown into a hipper place.
Welcome to GRID70 – an innovative design hub in downtown Grand Rapids where five firms from the west side have sent design teams to brainstorm grocery products, athletic shoes, office furniture, health and beauty aids, and more.
It’s hoped GRID70 – which stands for Grand Rapids Innovation and Design and its address at 70 Ionia Street – will become a catalyst for creativity.
“This is creating excitement that will help keep young people here,” said Fred Meijer, 91-year-old patriarch of the retailing giant who visited GRID70 with wife, Lena, the day Paul Pytlowany, WWJ-TV CBS chief videographer, and I were there to see what the buzz was about.
GRID70 is housed at the four story building owned and managed by Rockford Development Corp.
“I wanted to come back and get involved the minute I heard about it,” said Amanda Sievers, 27, program manager at GRID70, who moved back to Grand Rapids from southern California.
The idea of five companies whose headquarters are located outside of Grand Rapids coming together to work on products is causing many to wonder where it could lead and whether the concept could work in cities like Detroit.
“Whether you’re re-thinking shoe design, or the office environment, or food, there are similarities,” said Hank Meijer, 57-year-old co-chair and CEO of his family’s retailing company. “Together, we think there might be magic in there.”
Meijer, which is privately held, rang up sales over $14 billion last year, according to industry experts.
The Meijer family is the wealthiest in Michigan, according to Forbes’ magazine’s annual report of billionaires which pegged Fred Meijer’s fortune at $4.7 billion, ranking him 223 on its list.
They, along with other well heeled West Michigan families with names like DeVos (Amway Co-Founder Rich DeVos was no. 243 on the Forbes list with $4.2 billion) and Van Andel are all involved.
Wolverine Worldwide’s GRID70 team is working on apparel and well known brands it markets including Hush Puppies, Merrell and Harley Davidson apparel.
Steelcase, which provided all GRID70 furniture, also has a design team working on commercial furniture.
Amway, a $9 billion firm, is focusing on products and markets in this country and elsewhere.
The brainstorming is taking place in an informal setting where Dockers and jeans are common and some employees come to work on skateboards or bikes. The atmosphere is very different from traditional environments found at the five firm’s headquarters.
“Our group is working on projects of the future,” said Seth Starner, manager of business innovations at Amway who works on a team at GRID70.
Starner, who works for the company based in Ada, Mi., loves being in an urban, downtown environment where he can walk to lunch or coffee.
Being in a walkable downtown is vital to many.
“My generation is picking the city we want to live in first and then finding a job,” said Sievers.
She added the cool products being worked on at GRID70 are also resonating.
“Young people know these brands (like Merrell and Harley Davidson) and when you tell a 23 year old college graduate that he or she may have a chance to work for the company that makes these cool products it makes an impact,” Sievers said.
GRID70 is taking the focus on reinventing to a different level.
“It was pure self interest,” said Hank Meijer of their decision to join up with the other companies. “How do we stimulate creativity and innovation inside our company?”
Meijer opened a test kitchen where Ray Sierengowski, Meijer’s Corporate Research Chef, who hails from Detroit, is working.
And they are helping train young talent there too as Sierengowski works with students from the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College.
The retailer brings over 700 new or revamped products to market each year.
“We are working collaboratively with other tenants here in practicing culinology,” said Sierengowski. “What happens when you have people from outside, who may be working on shoes or office furniture talking about how they do things. It just brings about creative ideas and solutions.”
“The cross collaboration pushes creativity into areas we had not thought about before,” Sierengowski said. “Heck, I may be responsible for helping people at Wolverine make changes on the next tennis shoe you buy!”
With early success, the question is: could GRID70 be a template that might work in Detroit and other cities looking to spark reinvention?
“I can easily see this working in other places,” said Meijer, who is involved with the influential Business Leaders For Michigan organization of CEOs.
(Carol Cain is Senior Producer and Host of WWJ-TV CBS Detroit’s Emmy winning Michigan Matters airing 11 a.m. Sundays. You can watch the Michigan Matters: Focus on GRID70 special airing this Sunday. You can read Cain’s columns on business and politics in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at 248-355-7126 or via email.
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