Talent Growth in West Michigan


As the President and CEO of The Right Place, Inc. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Birgit Klohs is passionate about helping companies in her community expand with top tier talent. In today’s episode, Birgit shares her business perspective of West Michigan. Listen today!






00:06 Lynne Jarman-Johnson: Money, I’m home! From finance to fitness, I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson with Consumers Credit Union. Joining us today is Birgit Klohs, the President and CEO of The Right Place. Birgit, thank you so much for being with us today.


00:17 Birgit Klohs: I’m delighted, thank you.


00:19 LJJ: I’ll tell you what, we have talked with you prior about what the Right Place is and the history and how you came aboard. You know what I find fascinating was the conversation that we had about strategic growth. You very much focus on strategic growth with the Right Place, how does that help the companies that are really looking almost with trepidation with what’s going on in the talent industry, and the issues they’re facing even though we’ve got phenomenal economic growth right now?


00:52 BK: We have had and have experienced for 10 years ­– phenomenal growth and it’s been… And you see it in the region, right? But we also need to look forward and part of our strategic plan is A, around strategic industries, but also about thought leadership. We look at ourselves as an organization that has to look over the horizon and say, “What’s coming at us? Where is the competition? What is happening, for instance, with tariffs? How does that impact our companies?” And then bring that knowledge to the businesses in our region to get them prepared, to make sure that they have the information that they need to make good decisions. And so, when we call on them, as I mentioned in our last conversation, we make 300 to 400 calls, visits, deep visits. It’s not just a, “It’s nice to meet you, Lynne.”


01:49 LJJ: Hey, how are you doing today?


01:50 BK: “How are you doing?” No, it’s not one of those.


01:52 LJJ: No.


01:52 BK: It is not only, “How are you doing?” But, “How can we help you move forward?” And it isn’t always bricks and mortar. What people see when they hear the Right Place, they often see what’s a buff what I call above the water, and it’s an announcement of an expansion. And 50 new jobs, and $10 million of investment. Yeah, hooray, that’s great, but there was a lot going on under the water. So, the intelligence that we bring to companies in terms of “What do you need? Where does it hurt? How can we help you? What other resources do you need?” 30 years ago, we founded something that is still unique in the country. We founded the Manufacturers Council, and it’s a group of 35 companies that get together on a regular basis to figure out what’s new in our various industries, what is happening to and in manufacturing. They get together to exchange best practices. And then say, “Okay, now we 35 know what’s happening, how do we translate that to all the other companies out here?”


03:01 LJJ: How do we share the knowledge?


03:03 BK: It’s all about sharing the knowledge. And so, we’ve become the conduit of sharing the knowledge. We can do that one-on-one. We do it with programming that we have. We have a big manufacturing conference about every two years. The whole notion of Industry 4.0, which is not so new anymore, it came out of Germany because it’s the next iteration of lean manufacturing practices, we are the ones… In fact, there’s a webinar that we just did on Industry 4.0, and we had over 50 companies participate to learn about, “What is this and how can I use it in my company to keep competitive?” Because our job is to retain these companies and help them stay competitive.


03:51 LJJ: When you look at efficiencies and you look at talent… We talked in our last podcast about talent and how important talent is, but the efficiencies of being able to find the correct talent with the technologies and making sure that you’re connecting those for growth…


04:11 BK: That’s correct.


04:12 LJJ: How has that been? Is that a fear for companies right now?


04:16 BK: It is a fear but there’s also our organizations that we collaborate with, that are helping us on that journey, so we are… I’m sure you know about Hello West Michigan.


04:27 LJJ: Oh, absolutely.


04:28 BK: Yeah, and they have been our partners now for four years, they’re housed with us. So, they help us on that talent journey. Then, Cindy Brown, who is our Talent Vice President, is getting deeply engaged with our business development team in looking at what can she bring to the party when we’re talking about talent, talent retention, training. Where are the resources? Have you looked at how you retain your talent from the right angle? We just had an investor breakfast with over 140 on inclusive hiring practices. How do you look at different applicants in the positions that you have open so that you really run the gamut. Now, what we have done is carve out a niche in terms of talent that does not go to the students in high school with the exceptions of Discover Manufacturing that we talked about. We’re talking about adults who need jobs and companies who are looking to fill those positions.


05:32 LJJ: And matching them.


05:32 BK: And matching them, right. The other fabulous… So, we have partners. We don’t mean to swim in somebody else’s lane. So, Hello West Michigan is a great partner. The Community College is a phenomenal partner. West Michigan Works and Jacob Maas and his team are partners. So that what we bring to the party of the company is a systematic approach to their talent needs. That’s what we really want to.


06:00 LJJ: When you have the companies that you work with on a deep dive, you really must sometimes just go home and smile about the fact that maybe there was a breakthrough, and you realize, “We’re going to continue to grow this business here.”


06:00 BK: Yes, that’s actually what motivates me every day and has for 32 years are two things. The best social service is a decent job. And that’s a quote from a fellow of mine. The full quote is, “The best social service is a good job with benefits.” And it’s from Ewing Kauffman, who has the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City and who supports entrepreneurs. That really is sort of my guidepost. That the work that we do helps a company grow, continue to be competitive, so that they can employ our citizens. That’s it, that’s my motivator. And so, when I drive home at night, and I drive by Oak Industrial Park, for instance, and you see all those companies doing well, then that makes me sleep better.


07:15 LJJ: It makes us all sleep better.


07:17 BK: Yeah, and then, of course, you also have to think about, “Okay, so what’s next, then? And how do we make that growth more equitable and inclusive? And how do we engage more of our community in that growth as well?” And that’s part of our next strategic plan, too.


07:33 LJJ: The Investor Breakfast that you had that focused on inclusive work. A wonderful breakfast. Tell us a little bit about the feedback that you receive from companies once they hear from others who are really feet on the ground, trying to break through some of the barriers that are there and that are in our community.


07:53 BK: Yeah, the feedback was really positive. What was most rewarding about it is you become sort of… You kick a stone, right, and it starts to roll, and then they make their own connections. So after that breakfast, there were companies talking to the speakers and saying, “How can I talk to you?” Exchanging cards and saying, “Okay, I need to learn this, what’s next?” Okay. So, if we have a continuum of that and a continuous… I don’t want to call it education, but bringing that thought leadership to our companies on, “Have you looked at it from a different angle?” That to me is also very satisfying because you may have done something really, really well for a long time, and you come to a presentation like this, “Oh,” and you have an aha moment that says, “Gee, I never looked at it that way.” You know, we all have aha moments. And then, you can connect to somebody and say, “Help me understand how you did this. It may not fit one-for-one in my company, but I can adapt some of what you have done to make my company more successful.”


09:06 LJJ: In your strategic plan and you look at content, I like the word content, it’s what you bring to the table to educate others, how do you look ahead to say, “This is spot-on. We know this is happening.” Is there an association of sorts of the economic developments that help you do that? I mean, I know you, Birgit, you’re always a learner. You’re constantly looking forward and a learner. How do you keep up?


09:34 BK: Well, what we do when we do our strategic… First of all, there is a very large organization called the International Economic Development Council that we’re members of. And we participate in their webinars, we go to their seminars, we go to their meetings. Because what I find is that I learn from my colleagues as much as you learn in a book, right? In fact, probably more. So, you exchange what is your best practice in Oklahoma City, and here’s how we do it. But the other thing we have done with each one of our strategic plans, we hire a consultant. And we had tip strategies out of Austin, Texas, who are probably one of the best in the business for economic development. And we asked them and that’s why it’s taken us 11 months. It’s not an afternoon planning where we just scratch something on a white board and say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do for the next three years.”


10:20 BK: They took a look at what’s happening globally, what’s happening nationally, what’s happening in Michigan, what’s happening in the region, how do they interreact and what kind of industries do we have who will be impacted, positive or negative, by those trends. So that we can then tailor-make our plan and say, “Okay, these are the kind of jobs that are going to be growing the next three to five years, so we need to figure out how to get into those industries and help them grow or attract them here. And here’s where we’re going to have to watch because there are companies that may be at risk because of automation, robotics, or whatever. And how can we help them, then, get their head around the fact that you need to kind of change, right?” So, we have literally hundreds of pages of their data, because your competition may have been in Iowa 20 years ago. Today, it’s in India.


11:15 LJJ: No question.


11:17 BK: So, you have to understand that even though this is a huge country from sea to shining sea, your competition today is global. And so, how do you position yourself properly in that global environment so you stay successful?


11:36 LJJ: When you have the webinars, how do companies find out about those and…


11:40 BK: We collaborate. This is through a program that we’ve had here at the Right Place called the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center. And what we do in addition to our traditional economic development retention, this is a part of our team that goes in and analyzes a business’ technology, the trends in the company…


12:04 LJJ: Walking hand-in-hand with that company.


12:06 BK: Exactly. And looking at, okay, you could… I’ll give you an example, from a number of years ago, company in one of our rural communities thought they needed a totally new plant, which is always music to our ears because it’s investment. But we had a specialist walk through there and this individual said, “You don’t need a new plant, you need a new plant layout.”


12:27 LJJ: Wow, so eye-opening?


12:30 BK: If you rearrange the way you do your business inside these four walls, at the end of the day he actually had space left over for internal growth.


12:30 LJJ: That’s amazing.


12:30 BK: So that’s a team that then works hand-in-hand with our business development team is our Manufacturing Technology Team. They often go together to a company. One of them looks at, “Is there growth opportunities?” The other one looks at, “Are there opportunities for you to do your business better?”


12:30 LJJ: You mentioned rural.


12:30 BK: Yes.


12:30 LJJ: How important is technology, the wireless, everything that’s going on, that is kind of mind-blowing. You hear the word 5G. What about the rural communities?


12:30 BK: They are… One of the reasons we took… As I said in… Last time we spoke, Kent County is our core county, yeah, it’s the largest county in West Michigan. It’s growing fast, but we took… We were approached by a number of our rural counties that said, “Can you help us too?” And I believe that our rural counties need the same kind of assistance, but in some cases it’s also different assistance. What works in an urbanized county doesn’t necessarily work in a more rural county, but we’ve done very good projects in Montcalm, in Newaygo. You look at it from both a traditional economic development perspective but also from a community development perspective. Maybe their economic development is around attracting new bicycling from point A to point B and having a beer at the other end versus a manufacturing plant. But we also want to make sure that they get the kind of economic development assistance and technology is huge and as I said at the end of our last podcast broadband, broadband, broadband. We need to bring that technology to our rural communities, so a child doesn’t have to go to the nearest McDonald’s to do his or her homework. And that to me is a national problem. We need to really tackle this.


14:37 LJJ: Absolutely. Birgit, thank you so much. You’re so full of wisdom and we really appreciate your time but also your vision for the West Michigan area and the global economy. It’s just awesome, awesome. Thank you so much.


14:52 BK: It was fun. Yeah, thank you.


14:52 LJJ: I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson. Money, I’m Home! From finance to fitness. Aaron Bowersox is our producer. Thank you so much, Aaron. Join us next week. We’ve got some more finance, fitness, and fun just for you.


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