Economy in transition

May 12, 2006

Leaders convened in Grand Rapids on May 9 to study how economic development can become a byproduct of collaboration. The event was hosted by Kettering and Grand Rapids Community College.

Dwight Carlson has a clever way of describing an entrepreneur these days - he's the guy with so many arrows in his back he's bulletproof.

Carlson should know. A 1967 graduate of Kettering/GMI, he's spent a career growing successful start-up firms including Xycom in 1968, then Perceptron and most recently Coherix.

The colorful keynote speaker got heads nodding and laughter ringing inside the Applied Technology Center in Grand Rapids when Kettering University and Grand Rapids Community College: (GRCC) hosted "Leveraging Innovation to Advance West Michigan Manufacturing" on May 9. About 60 participants, representatives of the two institutions and staff from several government agencies attended the half-day symposium.

"I start high-tech companies in Michigan," Carlson told the group, "but how would you like to be Jim Epolito (CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation)? How would you like to be in charge of economic development in Michigan right now? That's the toughest job in Michigan!"

Carlson challenged participants to rock their world. "The universities of America do a tremendous job of producing knowledge but once the knowledge is published -- the work is done," he said. "Innovation is taking knowledge and turning it back into money. They know that in Boston and California. We've got to fix that here, because I know that once you get Americans pumped on something, they'll knock walls down."

Rob Sobie, vice president of Marketing for Cardinal Health, offered some clues on how to do that. Sobie, who grew up in Grand Rapids and attended Grand Rapids Community College, spoke on strategies for advanced product development and profits.

Sobie said one way is for organizations to look at new product development by asking: "Is this an extension of our core capabilities? If it is, be willing to take singles, doubles, triples and walks while looking for the homerun," he said. "And you have to be smart about your choices - the same capsule is used on Advil as on paint balls - are you smart enough not to put the paint balls in your mouth?

"West Michigan is well placed to capture innovation," Sobie added. "There is a diversity here and tremendous talent pool waiting to be tapped."

Major Horton, a 1984 graduate of Kettering/GMI, spoke on manufacturing strategies for the new economy and admitted he's "not your traditional manufacturing guy." Horton is the senior vice president of Rackspace Managed Hosting of San Antonio and is a member of Kettering's Board of Trustees.

Horton compared aspects of the new economy to the old economy. For instance, the new economy uses as little capital as possible, while the old economy had a heavy capital investment. The new is heavy into information technology, while the old was laden with manufacturing technology.

"Basic services are neutral in the new economy," he explained. "Take the cup holder in a car, for instance. The cup holder was a huge 'delighter' when it was introduced and finally gave you a place to put your coffee or Slurpee, which you were previously putting who knows where! Over time, this 'delighter' became a 'satisfier' and is now considered a 'basic' service. Could you imagine a car today without a cup holder?"

The same is true with customer service, Horton said. "Organize your efforts around the best customer you have and give them only one throat to choke. It's an important success attribute for today's new economy."

Epolito was the final keynote speaker during the symposium and congratulated the two institutions for collaborating on such an important topic. He said he was sick of hearing from East Coast companies that Michigan is a "fly over" state. That's where Michigan's 21st Century Jobs Fund comes in. "It's designed to jump start the economy with $100 million for 2006," he said.

Fund officials received 500 proposals that will be peer reviewed and then go to a 19-member board. The first awards should be announced in August. "This will be a tremendous coming together to seed the Michigan economy and get us to grow and come back," he added.

Written by Pat Mroczek
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