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Justice is manufactured here: Q&A with Janay Brower, founder of Public Thread

If you know Janay Brower, you know of her passion for people, community and justice. So it should be no surprise that her new business venture combines a very strong commitment to people, community and justice.
 
Public Thread is located is located at 906 South Division. The business produces quality cut and sew products for clients and provides pre-production services: design, sourcing of fabrics and notions, prototyping, sample making, and pattern-making.
 
Like many startups, Public Thread has a fascinating backstory. Unlike many startups, however, the vision is not as much about fast growth, profits and expansion; rather, it is about developing a sustainable business model, making quality products with a local workforce and creating living wage jobs.
 
In this interview with Rapid Growth, Brower dives into the story behind behind Public Thread.
 
RGM: When was your business officially started?
 
JB: I researched and worked on Public Thread for three and a half years before we launched. We started actually producing sewn goods for clients in June 2016.
 
RGM: How long were you thinking about this idea? What was your inspiration?
 
JB: Public Thread generates from many parts of my life. I grew up in Grand Rapids, went to GRPS and moved out to the suburbs in the middle of high school. I experienced two very different cities within the same geographic area -- one that had significantly more people of color and was under-resourced and one that was almost all white and highly resourced. This shift in location and culture opened my eyes to systemic inequalities and planted the seeds that opened up my world view to orient towards justice work.
 
After college, I worked for more than 11 years doing systems change and public policy work for vulnerable children and families at both the City of Grand Rapids and through the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness. What I saw at a systems level, mirrored by experience as a young person, was that, similar to many cities in the U.S., there are two different communities operating simultaneously -- and they are not equal. As I navigated through my work in the public and nonprofit sectors, I was continually challenged as to how I could put my values into action in a concrete way. How could I utilize my life experiences and what I have learned in my profession and thread them together? A common theme I kept seeing was the incredible need for living wage jobs and getting away from secondary systems that are not addressing root causes.
 
I researched and talked with a lot of people, finding out that there are so many talented people in GR and across Michigan with skills to design, sew and make things, but those skills are underutilized. I found out that less than one percent of the clothes we wear were designed by a person of color. I found out that a lot of small businesses need assistance with production in order to grow, and that there is a significant movement to re-shore apparel production in the U.S. Along with all that, I and many others I know and have met want to buy clothes, accessories and gifts that were made locally. We want to support domestic production and living wages. We want to build a stronger connection to the people that make the garments we wear every day. We want to be part of the solution and not wait any longer for someone else to do it. And so from all this, Public Thread was born.
 
RGM: What is your 'elevator pitch' for Public Thread?
 
JB: Justice is manufactured here. Public Thread is a social enterprise that offers small-batch cut and sew product manufacturing in Grand Rapids. We believe that being able to live in our own supply chain is critically important. Therefore, we pay living wages for our employees to make high quality, quick turn-around, sewn products right here in Michigan. We assist designers and businesses with product design, sample making and production of their sewn products. We also produce our own Public Thread line of products made with non-traditional textiles. We work in partnership with area breweries and community organizations in order to prevent materials from ending up in our landfills (because textiles/apparel are third biggest input into our landfills in Kent County).
 
RGM
: On your website you speak of building community. How does your business fit into the growing West Michigan "social entrepreneurship" community?
 
JB: We are working with a number of apparel or sewn product businesses in order to create a functional system and foundation across the supply chain to be able to grow all of our ability to design and make sewn products here in West Michigan.
 
RGM: So, early on, what have your learned so far? Have you changed any of your original assumptions about this type of business?
 
JB: Seriously, what haven't I learned? It’s crazy hard! I have definitely learned that it takes a village to launch a business. One of many challenges is that I really like doing work that has a positive impact on people, the environment and hopefully on the larger systems involved. These elements are not how most businesses lead into their work since so many are only oriented towards how much money they can make. It has been challenging to navigate a system that has become so focused on one thing to the detriment of the other elements. In particular, in this industry (cut and sew, apparel), the profit is made by squeezing labor. In order to make that $5 t-shirt, someone in the supply chain had to take the hit. That means if we value other humans and the planet, it requires a shift in thinking and in our purchases.
 
Public Thread was created to be a different kind of manufacturer -- one based on the triple bottom line (humans, the earth and money all matter). But we cannot do our work alone. We need designers, small businesses and end consumers that use their precious resources to be part of the solution. And now, seven months in, we are incredibly thankful for the amazing partner businesses, organizations and people that believe in Public Thread and have continued to invest in it with their time and resources. They are part of our inspiration every day.

RGM: Thank you Janay! 
 
Check out more details at www.publicthread.co
 
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Sales of electric cars drive job growth at LG Chem

LG Chem has emerged as a significant job creator in Holland, having added 140 new jobs in 2016 to a team that now tops 450 members. New positions for the business that produces lithium-ion batteries for the auto industry include technical operators, journeymen electricians, and engineers.

Fueled by the rapid growth in electric car sales, LG Chem accelerated its growth in 2015 and expects continued job growth in 2017.

Nick Kassanos, LG Chem MI president, says his company is in the “hiring mode” in 2017. He acknowledges the tight job market in West Michigan, but he notes LG Chem is a terrific opportunity for individuals looking for careers, not just jobs in an advanced manufacturing environment. “The challenge is always finding people,” he says. “The unemployment rate in West Michigan is below the national average. But we offer an opportunity  for individuals wanting to grow, build a career and work in an interesting industry.” 

LG Chem produces lithium ion battery cells for electric and hybrid vehicles, including the award-winning Chevy Volt. In November, LG Chem added the production of battery cells and battery packs for the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, the first-ever hybrid minivan. The Holland plant manufactured over six million battery cells in 2016, enough for more than 30,000 vehicles, and is expected to produce even more in 2017.

LG Chem Michigan Inc. (LGCMI) manufactures large, lithium-ion polymer battery cells and battery packs for electric vehicle and energy storage applications. LGCMI is a wholly-owned subsidiary of LG Chem, a South Korean company that has global operations focused on basic materials and chemicals, IT and electronic materials, advanced materials, and energy solutions. LG Chem is part of the LG Group.

For those interested in a career at LG Chem, visit their website here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Days gone by: Holland's Grand-Craft focuses on making boats the old-fashioned way, by hand

Boat building is not the oldest profession in the world, but it has to be close. And for Grand-Craft Boats, a builder and restorer of classic wooden boats, having an appreciation for “old” is very good for business. 

“Retro new is very popular in our country now,” says Jeff Cavanagh, owner of the Holland-based company that recently opened a second production plant in Holland to build its new $279,000 Super Sport power boat being introduced at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show November 3.

The introduction of the Super Sport is the first all new boat model from Grand-Craft in four years. The company was started in Holland in 1979 as a builder of vintage-design mahogany powerboats based on past Chris-Craft boat designs.

Cavanagh purchased Grand-Craft in 2010 and moved the business to its main plant and headquarters at 1821 Ottawa Beach Road on Lake Macatawa. Due to the high demand in his boats and restoration services, Cavanagh recently purchased the 10,000-square-foot former Chris-Craft facility at 60 Chris-Craft Way for production of the company's new 25-foot Super Sport and other custom runabouts.

Cavanagh says he has been working in the industry for almost his entire career, and he has long been fascinated by classic wooden boats and has a deep appreciation for the craftsmanship and design of wooden boats.

The company currently employs 12 people, and Cavanagh is looking to add two more people to his team, which he says is a great job, but is not for everyone. “Boat craftsmen are hard to find, he notes. He says an apprenticeship is typically one year and that he is aware of only one small school in the Upper Peninsula, Great Lakes Boat Building School, that has a program specifically for shipwrights.  He says all the boats are hand built and can take anywhere from seven to 18 months to build. 

The custom boat builder practices the slow process of cold molding planks of mahogany to create boats that are durable and beautiful to look at. New boats from Grand Craft range in price from $120,000 to more than $1.5 million for a custom designed, one-of-a-kind boat.

To learn more about Grand-Craft, you can visit their website here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

Business is booming at JR Automation: Company expands, adds jobs

Bryan Jones, CEO of JR Automation Technologies,  sums it up succinctly: “We work in cool industries on cool projects. It is unlike what anyone is doing in the world.”

The Holland-based JR Automation Technologies is a global leader in custom automation solutions for a variety of industries, including automotive, aerospace, medical device, pharmaceutical, food processing, construction, and more. The company which was founded in 1980, has been on a high growth trajectory since 2009 and has recently announced their intention to expand operations in Holland by investing $5.6 million, which will  create 250 new jobs in the area over the course of the project.

Jones says an improving economy, advances in technology and JR Automation’s culture and team environment have played key roles in the firm’s growth. “An expanding economy certainly has helped our business, but our success is much bigger than that,” he says. “Changing and improving technology is making it possible to do more. Process developments are changing the way that we build cars, airplanes, and any number of everyday products.  All of these developments generally need intelligent, intuitive systems to be viable.”

The new jobs that are being created through their recent expansion will be filled by both new graduates and seasoned veterans. “We are looking to hire individuals ranging in experience: new college grads to seasoned professionals in a variety of disciplines and skill sets. Mechanical, electrical and process engineers, controls engineers, software engineers, project managers, machine builders, machinist, fabricators, service technicians. JR is a very technically diverse team, and we will continue to add in all areas,” says Jones.

Despite the competition for this type of talent, Jones is very optimistic that his company offers an interesting opportunities for job seekers. “JR is unique in that we bring so many different talent sets together in a respectful, enabling work environment for the purpose of solving problems and building solutions that are bigger than what any one discipline or talent set could ever accomplish on their own,” he says. “We get to see the results of our efforts on a daily basis in the construction and run-off of systems that can be hundreds of feet long and cost multiple millions of dollars.”

Jones says  the technology being developed and used is industry leading. “It’s cool stuff,” he says. “We build things that move and make and manufacture and that are unlike anything else in the world. What could be more fun than that to someone who gets into building things and making things work? And while all that is happening, there is a true team atmosphere supporting one another and making the work days enjoyable.”

Several economic development organizations have played a role in JR Automation’s recent expansion, including Lakeshore Advantage, Holland Charter Township and the MEDC.
 
Those interested in employment at JR Automation should visit http://www.jrauto.com/careers.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Franks, sausage and specialty meats producer expected to invest $35 million in expansion

Kent Quality Foods, a West Michigan maker of franks, sausages and specialty meats for commercial customers, has announced the construction of a food processing facility in Jamestown  Charter Township. The company plans to invest nearly $35 million dollars, creating 140 jobs over three years.

“The project was a huge win.” says Emily Staley, director of marketing and communications for Lakeshore Advantage, a non-profit that aims to drive economic growth in West Michigan. “They looked all over the region and they chose us.” Staley says the Lakeshore Advantage team worked  for nearly nine months on this location process, helping to coordinate nearly 15 local and state organizations in winning this expansion for Jamestown Charter Township.

Staley says the jobs that are being created are “really good jobs,” including management positions and production supervision. She also notes the multiple benefits of the new facility to the region, including spin-off jobs with suppliers and construction.

According to Staley, key factors in the decision to build the plant in the local township were the experienced and educated workforce, the region’s expertise in food production and the teamwork between the private and public sectors organizations that are essential for a project of this complexity and size to be successful.

Kent Quality Foods was founded in 1967. Family owned and operated for three generations, Kent makes high quality sausages and franks for customers from hot dog stands to national restaurant chains, food service companies, broad line distributors, and the further processing industry. You can learn more at www.kqf.com.

Lakeshore Advantage is a non-profit organization that catalyzes resources to drive economic growth in West Michigan.  You can learn more here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 
 

Simms Electronics: Changing the world, one project at a time

Simms Electronics is a great example of a small company working on big ideas that turn into very smart products. And there is a very good chance you never of heard of them.

Simms Electronics is located at 3230 Broadmoor Ave. The firm designs and manufactures sophisticated IoT electronics that serve a wide variety of commercial products in the industrial sector.

IoT, which is the abbreviation for Internet of Things, refers to smart products that are connected to the internet.  Examples in the consumer market are home appliances and light fixtures that are connected and controlled by smart phones. In the industrial setting these products could include sensors for carbon monoxide and monitors to help control energy consumption in large commercial settings.

Matt Simms, the president of the five-person engineering firm, says the company keeps a low profile and is not able to share details about many of their projects, but he is committed to attracting and retaining software design talent to Grand Rapids. Simms says the IoT market is really growing and shows no signs of slowing down.
 
"We have several projects in the pipeline and will shortly be announcing new job openings,” he says.

Working with a  small company is a great opportunity for an engineer or software developer that values job variety, Simms notes.
 
"We are always working on different opportunities, with different products, in different markets and different industries,” he says. “You are not stuck working on one product for several years. It is great experience."

To learn more about Simms Electronics, including job opportunities, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

French auto & aerospace manufacturer taps Grand Rapids for first North American Innovation Center

As the auto industry hit a downward spiral of historic proportions about eight years ago, Hutchinson, a global automotive and aerospace innovator and manufacturer, was, like companies across the world, faced with an economy in which they were hemorrhaging major money.

Hutchinson’s Grand Rapids site, which has been operating in the city for 30 years and which was previously known as Paulstra CRC, “was in bad shape, losing millions (of dollars),” says Cedric Duclos, Hutchinson North America president and CEO.

“I was sent here to find solutions; we knew the easy way was to shut it down,” Duclos says of his arrival in Grand Rapids. “But that’s not the right choice. You have so much talent and experience here.”

Hutchinson, which employs about 300 people in Grand Rapids and operates 96 sites in 23 countries across the globe, did not leave the city — instead, it stayed, and the company is now in a far different position than the one in which it previously found itself. Last Wednesday, Hutchinson debuted its North American Innovation Center, also known as the 616 Fab House, which occupies 13,400 square feet of a renovated 100-year-old factory at 460 Fuller Ave. NE.

“We’re here eight years later and are a leader in this market,” Duclos says at the 616 Fab House’s grand opening on January 20, which was attended by more than 170 guests, including Hutchinson Global President & CEO Jacques Maigne, The Right Place Inc. President & CEO Birgit Klohs, and state and city leaders.

The space is the company’s second innovation center; its first, 507 Fab House, was designed by the legendary Gustave Eiffel and is located near Hutchinson’s Paris world headquarters. Housed in a factory that was once the Corduroy Rubber Co., which made parts for Detroit’s auto industry, the Grand Rapids venue was chosen because of “its central location to major clients and vendors” and is dedicated to “research, development and innovative thinking for all of Hutchinson’s divisions,” according to Hutchinson.

The Fuller Avenue site includes a mix of meeting rooms, videoconferencing technology, interactive showrooms with product and robotic displays, a fabrication lab and 3D printer center, a training and conference center, a board room, breakout and lounge seating, banquet facilities, and more. The interactive product display area shows all the products made by the company’s North American operations. For example, there are replicas of an airplane fuselage, a full-size automobile and military tank treads with actual Hutchinson parts inserted.

Duclos notes that about 70 local companies participated in renovating the new space, which sits on Hutchinson’s 30-acre Grand Rapids campus and which previously served as a storage facility.

“This facility is over 100 years old, so it’s full of footsteps from the past,” Duclos says. “In fact, if you look closely at some of these floors, you can still see those footprints. We felt it important to keep some of those footsteps visible, not just as a way to reflect on the past, but to also use it as a reminder that it takes the footsteps of many people to create things, to innovate, to collaborate, to create. Perhaps in another 100 years people will be standing here, reflecting on the historical changes this innovation had for our company, for our city and region, and for our state.”

The company’s decision to not only remain in Grand Rapids but open a world-class facility to drive global innovation “speaks highly for the region’s community,” says Klohs, the president and CEO of The Right Place, West Michigan’s leading economic development corporation that has assisted thousands of companies to invest more than $4 billion in capital and create more than 40,000 jobs throughout the region.

“It sends a message that says a company of this importance has chosen Grand Rapids,” Klohs says, noting that a global group like Hutchinson will draw other major companies to our area, including Boeing, Chrysler, Fiat, and many more.

“They can come to Grand Rapids and see the creativity that comes out of this company, and also this community,” Klohs continues.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, who was unable to attend the grand opening because she was at the Mayors’ Conference in Washington D.C., sent her congratulations via a recorded message.

“The city of Grand Rands is very proud to have a longtime business such as Hutchinson invest in our city, particularly in our manufacturing and technology sectors,” she says. “This innovation and dedication to advancing research and development is exactly what the city of Grand Rapids need to be a leader in this country.”

Photos courtesy of Hutchinson

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth. Connect with her on email (AKGustaf@gmail.com), Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Make no bones about it: Encoris is on the grow

Encoris is a five-year-old, Holland, Michigan-based company that specializes in the design and manufacturing of clear, custom skeletal models that are used by medical device companies like Stryker Orthopaedics, Johnson and Johnson, and Medtronic to educate and promote implant devices in the medical field.

The firm recently moved to a new manufacturing and design plant at 3612 128th St. in Holland, Michigan, specifically for enhanced manufacturing capabilities and efficiencies that Jim TenBrink, vice president of marketing & sales, says are needed following some successful trade shows and customer meetings in Europe. "Europe has really taken off," TenBrink says. "They do not make clear bone models and found our company through Internet search."

TenBrink says the company recently participated in a medical device show in Germany, where interest was high: "We're close to partnering with a German company, with 1500 distributors worldwide, that want our clear bones in their catalog." He says another company in Italy, a business incubator for inventions, also loved their products and they are in the process of crafting an agreement for an alliance.

In just four years from startup, the company has almost topped $1 million in sales and is expected to grow by 35 to 40 percent in 2016 based on expansion into European and teaching hospital/university market segments.

TenBrink says all of the Encoris products are designed and made in West Michigan by the company's 17 employees and contract designers using CAD engineering and design, 3D printers and hand sculpting to create the master molds.

To learn more about the firm, you can visit their site here.

Source: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Kendall College students achieve "per-feektion" in design competition

It's hard to imagine a better college assignment than being part of a design competition where you are given carte blanche to create anything you can dream of using an amazing material called Feek.

That is basically what students from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) recently experienced when they participated in Trendway Corporation's inaugural design competition, exploring the creative possibilities with Feek, a very unique coated foam product.

Top prize was taken by a team composed of Jordan Eastwood, Amanda Lumley, Hannah Snyder and Linghom Wang. Their winning design, Eco, introduces a set of elements for use in pediatric waiting rooms, including a butterfly, dragonfly and bee shapes.

Trendway President and CEO Bill Bundy, who also served as a judge, says the teams were given a ton of latitude with the competition. "We imposed very few limitations," he says. Instead, competition organizers let the student teams work through the entire design process, including extensive research on Feek, and then set them loose to create their own designs for whatever industry they deemed would be a good fit.

Bundy says Trendway holds the North American license for Feek and introduced the product in 2013. He says Feek especially lends itself to "whimsical, creative and fun" designs, which is exactly what he was looking for from the students since the winning design from the KCAD team will be featured in Trendway's Chicago Showroom during NeoCon week, June 15 through 17.

Trendway Corporation is an employee-owned company in Holland, Michigan. The company offers many products, including panel systems, filing, storage, case goods, seating, and architectural solutions with moveable walls, glass storefront and raised floor. Bundy says the firm is growing with several open positions, including a new job for someone specifically to expand and champion Feek throughout North America.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor.

 

Nucraft begins major expansion at Comstock Park HQ, projects 40 new manufacturing jobs to follow

Contract furniture maker Nucraft broke ground on a 47,700-square-foot expansion of its manufacturing facility last week, with the addition bringing the Comstock Park headquarters at 5151 West River Drive to a total square footage of 300,000 upon its completion next fall. 

CEO Matt Schad says the new addition, focused on the expansion of the facility’s machining, veneering and product set-up departments, could created a projected 40 new full-time manufacturing positions over the next two years in addition to the existing 290 existing employees there.  

“Those projections are based on where we anticipate the market going. Obviously, if there’s a downturn in the economy things may change, but it’s based on our sales projections and how we have done staffing in the past,” Schad says. “Our first step is to build the building, then we’ll be moving equipment into the new addition and at that point, we’ll assess our hiring needs.” 

Erhardt Construction is managing the expansion project, with design concepts by architects at Fleis & Vandenbrink. Schad says the team hopes to have the new, expanded space move-in ready by the beginning of October this year. 

“The market for contract furniture has been improving greatly over the past year or so and we’ve been very fortunate to be able to be a part of that,” he says. “It’s a matter of having enough capacity to service our customers, both conference products and private office casegoods.”

Schad says in the next few years, Nucraft will focus on increasing offerings in private office casegoods, as well as expanding Nucraft’s presence in the market for conference and meeting space furniture both here in the U.S. and abroad. 

“We’ve been successful in many of the major markets like New York, Washington DC, and Chicago and so that’s where a lot of our focus is, but we’ve also have had a lot of success in smaller markets like Minneapolis, Denver, and North Carolina and places like that - so the success is really throughout the country,” he says. 

“If we keep focusing on product development, keep relying on our fantastic internal sales force and independent reps and keep producing the high-quality furniture our customers expect, I think our growth will continue on.” 

To learn more about Nucraft’s products or available careers there, visit Nucraft online here

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Nucraft

Jobs, jobs and more jobs: Grand Rapids Chair Company hiring

Business is booming at the Grand Rapids Chair Company. Founded in 1997, the  business manufactures seating and tables for corporate, commercial and hospitality environments.   

Citing both an uptick in the economy and new product launches, Dean Jeffery, communication manager, says the firm has immediate openings for up to 20 positions at their new Byron Center-based facility. "We experienced a lull in the past couple of years. Our customers had no commitment to update spaces," Jeffrey says. "It is now stabilized and there is growth and activity. We are redoing schools, restaurants and offices. There is much more confidence in the economy."

Besides the renewed confidence, Jeffery also attributes their growth and aggressive hiring needs to the launch of five new product collections.

The open positions are primarily skilled labor and include general labor, welders, spray finishers and upholsterers. Jeffery says the company offers great pay, benefits, training and tremendous career opportunities. He notes there is no third shift at the firm, adding to the work-life balance and quality of life for all employees. He describes the new facility in Byron Center as modern and "state-of-the-art."

The company is located at 1250 84th Street SW, Byron Center, Michigan and has over 140 employees in both office and warehouse positions. Jeffrey encourages job seekers to send their resume to hr@grandrapidschair.com. You can visit their website here to learn more about the company.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Irwin Seating Co. expansion brings 60 new jobs to Grand Rapids Area

 Walker-based Irwin Seating Co. will bring 60 new jobs to the Walker community in 2015 as part of a 50,000-square-foot renovation effort of existing manufacturing space to accommodate a new product line for movie theaters called the Spectrum Recliner Series, which boasts a higher quality upholstery and comfort than typical theater chairs, says Vice President of Business Development Graham Irwin.
 
The world's largest manufacturer of public seating for movie theaters, auditoriums, arenas, performing arts centers, and convention centers, Irwin Seating Co.'s new Spectrum Recliner Series will require not only a renovated space, but also an investment in new machinery and equipment, including additional training for new employees. 
 
With over 400 employees between its two locations in Grand Rapids and Altamont, Ill., 287 of its total employees work out of the Walker manufacturing plant at 3251 Fruit Ridge NW. Irwin says all of the 60 new hires will be at the Wyoming location to accommodate the expansion, and most will be full-time positions as the company embarks on a slow but steady hiring of new employees over the next three years as new production begins to increase as well.
 
"We're in the process; we've done some hiring but it's really a three-year plan to ramp up," Irwin says. "We'll be looking -- as we build up our capacity we'll be adding folks throughout the year."
 
The renovations, machinery investments and new hires are in large part thanks to a $300,000 Michigan Strategic Fund incentive approved earlier this month with the help of Grand Rapids-based nonprofit The Right Place, Inc. alongside its local and state partners.

"Irwin Seating Company and the Irwin family have long been a part of West Michigan's manufacturing and economic growth history," said The Right Place, Inc. President and CEO Birgit Klohs in a press release earlier this month. "We are pleased to see the company continue to grow, innovate, and reinvest in the region. The expansion project further demonstrates the manufacturing sector's continued growth in West Michigan." 

Founded in Wyoming way back in 1908, Irwin says the company's mission is as simple as serving its customers and acting as an economic engine in the community it was created by. 
 
"As we achieve success it's part of our values to share that with our stakeholders and our stakeholders are our employees, but we hope the community is one of our stakeholders, too," Irwin says. "As we're more successful we'd like to share that success with the community we're in."
 
For more information about Irwin Seating Co. or inquire about job openings, visit www.irwinseating.com or call 616-574-7400.
 
Written by Anya Zentmeyer
Images courtesy of Irwin Seating Company/The Right Place

Love's Ice Cream named "Startup to Watch" by Making it Michigan Conference, expands distribution

Not all startups are made up of code and bytes. Some are based on fresh, organic ingredients and a commitment to sustainability.

Love's Ice Cream was recently named the "Startup to Watch" by the Making it Michigan Conference. Chris McKellar, founder, says the recognition was based on his company's business plan execution, short time to hit profitability, consistent growth and a steady progress with distributing his pints throughout Michigan. McKellar says he was nominated by his advisor at the MSU Product Center.

New distribution channels for Love's include their selection, out of more than 100 possible  products, to be featured by Westborn Market for at least a year. "I see that stroke of luck - being in the right place at the right time - as paving the way for the Love's Ice Cream invasion of the east side of the state," McKellar says. "It will help us get our small scale distribution wings."

Looking forward, McKellar says he is working on several projects. "Some are top secret, others not so much. We will be releasing a very special product this spring that has been over a year in the making. We are also starting to brew our own sodas, which will be available mid-February."

McKellar says he is still readying his vintage Love's Ice Cream van and anticipates being all over Grand Rapids in 2015 when the weather clears. "It made its debut last July but needed more restoration than originally thought. It's nearing completion and will be road ready for spring," he says.  

He also anticipates a very busy year. "We're constantly booking events all over West Michigan, and while 2015 still has lots of dates open, we're getting requests for 2016 already. In addition, we are getting regular inquiries from retailers around the state interested in carrying our pints."

To keep up with the growth McKellar says he will be hiring some staff in March: "We're looking to add a couple staff for the May - September season and we're encouraging food-minded people to apply in February."

Putting the growth and recognition in perspective, McKellar is quick to point what is at the heart of Love's Ice Cream. "Most importantly, though, we remain focused on putting out the only organically principled ice cream and vegan gelato in Michigan," he says.

For more information you can view their website here or their Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Plenty of job openings as manufacturing expands in Michigan

Blackford Capital, a national private equity firm headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has added five new staff members to the company. The hires are a result of the success of its Michigan Prosperity Fund (MPF), a fund that recharges the economy by investing in Michigan-based ventures.

Since MPF was created in 2012, Blackford has created 44 jobs locally, including 39 at portfolio company Custom Profile and the aforementioned five at the company's headquarters.

Jeff Helminski, managing director and head of the Michigan Prosperity Fund, says the new jobs at Custom Profile are a great entry-level opportunity for anyone looking for a job but especially for those who are entering the work force for the first time. "These are good jobs that pay well," he says.   

In his experience, Helminski says, these types of manufacturing jobs, many of which don't require a college degree or previous work experience, are rapidly increasing. In many cases, employers are not able to fill the openings and are having a hard time building their workforces. "Manufacturing is expanding," he says. "The basic requirements are that the individual has a good work ethic. There are plenty of openings."

The Michigan Prosperity Fund currently includes Grand Rapids-based Custom Profile, Inc., Metro Detroit-based Mopec, Grand Haven-based Grand Transformers, Inc. and Fenton-based Burgaflex NA.

To learn more about Blackford you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Are Porteen Gear's handcrafted camera and commuter bags Grand Rapids' best-kept secret?

Maybe yes. Maybe no. But the facts are that in a little over four years, Robyn Porteen has designed and sold over 9000 handcrafted leather camera bags throughout 60 countries, and her products have been seen in British Vogue, Conde Nast, Hemispheres Magazine (United Airlines), Shutterbug Magazine, and Professional Photographer's Magazine (PPA). Impressive.

Porteen, a professional photographer, started her business in 2010 when she designed and hand-crafted her first camera bag. "I wanted a bag that did not look like a bag," she says. "No one else was making designer camera bags then."  

Working from her Grand Rapids studio, Porteen has access to over 230 fabrics and 100 leathers from which she makes her bags, which she sells through her Etsy store. She also has a "bag builder" on her website which allows a customer to design and order their own customized bag.

Like any business, Porteen has had to adapt to changes in customer needs and competition.    When Etsy changed their policy to allow larger manufacturers to sell products online, cheaper versions of camera bags were suddenly available -- and Porteen says her sales "plateaued."

Reacting to the changing marketplace led Porteen to work with GROW to help refine her business model. Since then, she has launched a new commuter bag. It features the same hand-crafted ethos as her camera bags but opens her business to new customers who are seeking a unique bag to hold their tablets, small laptops and other mobile devices.   Porteen is also working towards participating in the highly curated Renegade Craft Fair, which features only the best in handcrafted merchandise.

Finally, Porteen is working towards securing assistance through Chase Bank's Mission Main St. grant program. With 250 votes, a small business can become eligible for a $150,000 grant. The voting ends October 17, so if you are interested in supporting Porteen Gear's application, you can vote here.

Regardless of the outcome of the Chase program, Porteen is moving forward. "There is not one negative review about my bags," she says. "That is what has kept me going."

To learn more about Porteen Gear, you can check out multiple sites: blog, Etsy Store, Bag Builder and Facebook Page with Chase Mission Main St. Grant program.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

 
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