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Michigan CEO Summit Bullish On State’s Future

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(WWJ Photo/Matt Roush)

(WWJ Photo/Matt Roush)

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DETROIT (WWJ) – Thursday’s groundbreaking Michigan CEO Summit, hosted by Business Leaders for Michigan, the statewide successor to Detroit Renaissance, was a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities of Detroit in particular and Michigan in general.

The event was held at the spectacularly restored Westin Book Cadillac – with a shabby deteriorating building visible behind the new parking ramp.

More than 300 business and economic leaders packed the Renaissance Ballroom to share their optimism about the state’s future and to lay out a business-friendly Michigan Turnaround Plan — while outside, the city’s municipal financial future is on the brink, with bankruptcy a possibility.

Besides the turnaround plan — which calls for the end of the state personal property tax, and which calls for a “frictionless labor environment” without backing controversial right-to-work legislation — the event also talked up a new proposal, Leveraging Assets to Grow the New Michigan. That plan lays out a 10-plus-year vision for growing a new Michigan economy and up to 500,000 jobs.

“People in Michigan are reinvesting in Michigan,” said BLM president Doug Rothwell.

Panelists spoke of building the New Michigan, driving growth through innovation and entrepreneurship, and investing in growing new enterprises in the state.

Hans-Werner Kaas, managing partner of the Detroit office of McKinsey & Co., noted that “it all starts with education.” And Charles McClure, chairman, president and CEO of auto supplier Meritor Inc., pointed out that Detroit is in prime position to take advantage of young people’s desire for an urban environment — as exemplified by his 23-year-old daughter, who lives in downtown Detroit.

Gerard Anderson, chairman, president and CEO of DTE Energy, pointed out that venture capital is still a problem in Michigan — so his company created a venture capital fund that has resulted in $33 million being deployed into Michigan startups.

Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State University, played up how Michigan’s research universities tie the state to the world. And she and Michael Miller, director of Google’s Ann Arbor office, praised growth in business plan contests like Accelerate Michigan and incubators like the University of Michigan’s TechArb as crucial laboratories for innovation and new jobs.

There were also inspiring tales of growth: Michael Jandernoa, former CEO of the Allegan generic drug maker Perrigo Co., told of how he and his team built the company from $30 million in sales and 300 employees to more than $2 billion in sales and more than 8,000 employees. He later established tech and life sciences investment funds and helped found Grand Angels. And Brig Sorber, president and CEO of Two Men And A Truck International Inc., described how his summer job with an old truck at Michigan State University turned into an enterprise with 1,400 trucks at 200 locations in 32 states and 4,500 employees.

Added Blake Kreuger, chairman president and CEO of Wolverine World Wide Inc.: “I think it’s important to remember that Michigan is a brand. The most important thing people can do is not necessarily to do with their business.” Instead, he said, it’s to insure that Michigan has “vibrant and dynamic urban environments to attract the millenials.”

And several panelists reiterated the oft-repeated refrain that Michiganders are their own worst critics. “If you give people a positive image of Michigan they will take away a positive image of Michigan,” said Alan Schultz, chairman of Valassis.

Jandernoa said Michigan has “the talent base at the senior management level, the middle management level, and the line level, with the ability to tackle problems and make changes.” And Sorber said Michigan has “great communities that are great places to raise a family,” and a four season climate that lets residents both swim and ski.

Luncheon keynote speaker Robert Taubman, chairman, president and CEO of Taubman Centers Inc., took attendees back 100 years, wondering who would have attended a Michigan CEO Summit in 1912.

They would have included the founders of what is today Steelcase in Grand Rapids, fresh off their first major achievement, the world’s first steel wastebasket, cutting fire hazards in office building. And Lou Upton, founder of what today is Whirlpool, inventor of the first motor driven washing machine. And former health spa manager W.K. Kellogg, inventor of a unique method of toasting grain flakes. And Fremont canner Frank Gerber. And a gentleman from Kalamazoo named Upjohn, inventor of the first “friable” pill, that stayed solid in dry air but broke apart easily in the body, making medicine by pill possible. And better-known names like Ford, Dow and Chevrolet.

Back then, Taubman said, “Michigan’s entrepreneurs were changing the world and creating untold wealth.”

And Taubman said Michigan’s entrepreneurs can do it again.

He ticked off many of the same advantages as earlier speakers — a highly skilled work force with more engineers than anywhere else on the planet, world class research universities, a state government operating under stable surpluses for the first time in recent memory, and 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

In a panel on Michigan “alumni,” John Webb, managing principal of Atlanta, Ga.-based JAM!…Just Add Marketing, said much of the outside perception of Detroit remains negative: “We spell Detroit with seven letters, but outside Michigan it’s a four letter word.”

James B. Nicholson, president and CEO of Detroit-based PVS Chemicals Inc., reported he was challenged by a surprising shortage of skilled workers in Michigan’s historic blue-collar occupations, such as welding and truck driving.

The New Michigan plan offers six thrusts:
* Brand Michigan as the “Global Engineering Village,” along with expanding engineering education capacity
* Brand Michigan as the “Gateway to the Midwest,” by boosting logistics firms, growing Wayne County’s Aerotropolis and investing in transportation
* Create a “Higher Education Marketplace,” with growth in university enrollment and university- and industry-funded R&D
* Grow the “Natural Resources Economy,” by boosting agricultural exports, tourism and alternative energy technologies
* Brand Michigan as the “Global Center of Mobility,” by leading in sustainable transportation, multi-modal systems and improved safety technologies
* Brand Michigan as a “Life Science Hub,” including efforts to grow pharmaceutical development, research, testing, and medical labs, and boosting medical tourism to the state.

Participants came from as far as Escanaba, Marquette and Traverse City for the event, with West Michigan and Mid-Michigan well represented. Indeed, the Investing In M panel was moderated by a reporter for WOOD TV 8 in Grand Rapids had featured panelists from Allegan, Rockford and Lansing.

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