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No Regrets

West Michigan entrepreneurs haven’t always listened to wise advice and statistical analysis, preferring to forge ahead on “a feeling, a hunch and a vision.”

By Marty Primeau
Photography by Michael Buck

Perhaps G.A. Krause said it best: “There is some opportunity here.”

The founder of the small shoe factory that would become Wolverine World Wide was talking about West Michigan. In 1903 he and his sons built a shoe factory in Rockford, making 300 pairs a day. Today Wolverine’s products, including leading casual brands, are sold globally in nearly 200 countries and territories.

And Krause wasn’t alone.

The West Michigan region has produced a myriad of innovative ideas and products, from Pop-Tarts to private-label pills. Entrepreneurs thrive here, and a high percentage of family-owned businesses have remained here for several generations.

“We’re awfully lucky that we’ve had people in West Michigan who are willing to try things,” said Hank Meijer, whose father and grandfather founded a grocery store empire 75 years ago. “The current thinking is that creative ideas will be fostered in larger cities. But there is something in the scale of Grand Rapids that makes it big enough to find the tools and talents, yet small enough to foster experimentation.”

Simply put, said Peter Secchia, former CEO and chairman of Universal Forest Products Inc. and U.S. ambassador to Italy, “People here are willing to take risks.”

Consider Melville Bissell, who built a carpet sweeper machine to help his wife clean the sawdust particles in their small crockery shop. He patented the invention in 1876 and built the first Bissell manufacturing plant seven years later. It’s still in Grand Rapids, and Melville’s great grandson, Mark Bissell, runs the company.

Or Dan and Dorothy Gerber, a young couple looking for an easier way to strain and mash their baby daughter’s peas and carrots. Dorothy suggested Dan talk to his father about using the family’s Fremont Canning Co. to simplify the process. Gerber Baby Food was developed, eventually selling to Nestle, but the plant remains in West Michigan and is currently the site of a $75 million expansion related to infant/toddler food research, Nestle’s key site internationally.

Luther Perrigo was proprietor of a general store and apple-drying business in Allegan. In 1887 he had the notion to package and distribute patented medicines for country stores. His company developed the “private label” concept as a way to build company loyalty. Through the years, Perrigo has acquired several businesses throughout the world, but remains in West Michigan. Last year the company announced plans to invest $10.5 million to expand its Allegan headquarters and add 400 jobs over the next five years.


Photography courtesy Meijer

In 1962, the Meijer family opened the first Thrifty Acres, the original supercenter combining food and general merchandise under one roof.

“All of these people took huge gambles,” Meijer said. “It wasn’t always the result of a careful analysis — it was more of a feeling, a hunch and a vision.”

In the mid-1800s, household furniture put Grand Rapids on the map. It was an industry that gradually evolved as craftsmen recognized a future in high-tech office systems. Today, Grand Rapids has gained a reputation as a leader in “green” furniture design.

But even with the nickname “Furniture City,” the area never has been dominated by a single industry, said Gordon Olson, city historian. “As a result, there’s been more of an opportunity for mid-size corporations to emerge here and stay here.”

Many are family-owned and passed from generation to generation, he said. “The owners continue to live here and support others. For instance, Win Irwin of Irwin Seating Co. will tell you about his grandfather and two brothers who started one furniture company after another.” Irwin Seating is the world’s leading manufacturer of public seating for movie theaters, auditoriums, arenas, performing arts centers and more, and is headquartered in Grand Rapids.

Olson also cites Herman Miller, an icon of office furniture manufacturing, who taught his son, Howard, the fine art of clock making. Howard took over the company’s clock division in 1926 and renamed it; today Howard Miller Clock Co. still is located in Zeeland, across the street from Herman Miller Inc.

Just as important as family values is the role of religion, Olson said, referring to R.H. Tawney’s book, “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism,” which makes the connection between spiritual salvation and economic success.

“Basically, it says that strong values toward family and community are keys to success — and those things certainly exist in West Michigan,” Olson said.

Jeanne Englehart, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and former business owner, agrees. “People here respect and reward hard work,” she said. “It’s part of your religious or family heritage. When you look at Grand Rapids, you see a wealth of knowledge passed down in family businesses through two, three and four generations,” she said. “And people here have such strong philanthropic expectations.”

Just look at Amway.

Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel were best friends in high school when they decided to be business partners. They tried a number of ventures before starting Amway, a direct-sales company, in the basements of their neighboring homes. Amway — short for American Way — developed into a multibillion-dollar global business.

Not only has the company remained in Ada, the founders dedicate time and money to improve the quality of life in Grand Rapids, from funding museums, research, hospitals and arenas, to underwriting the July 4 Family Fireworks Event.

“There’s a direct tie between the great philanthropic activity in West Michigan and our entrepreneurial spirit,” said Bob Roth, president of RoMan Manufacturing Inc., a leading manufacturer of water-cooled AC transformers and other stacked-core transformers, founded by his father and Robert Hoffman — and still owned by their families.

“Having worked together in the industry since 1959, our fathers started RoMan as a means of working for themselves,” Roth said as he accepted the 2008 Jeffrey Butland Michigan Family-Owned Business Award by the U.S. Small Business Administration. “As a family business, their philosophy was humble: Grow the pie and expand everyone’s piece.”

And that dynamic of being open and sharing is prevalent in West Michigan, he said. Roth serves on the board of Grand Valley State University’s Family Owned Business Institute, whose mission is to promote and support family businesses.

Looking forward, Mark Bissell believes Grand Rapids will continue to be ripe for entrepreneurs. “Grand Rapids offers a competitive community with excellent schools, a growing presence in the arts and an abundance of leisure activities year round.” GR
Marty Primeau is managing editor of Grand Rapids Magazine.

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