Partners in Perception

It was late afternoon on Tuesday, and some of the most formidable business competitors in West Michigan collected in a large conference room to discuss -- of all things -- how they could cooperate.

Three titans in the office furniture industry -- Haworth, Herman Miller , Steelcase -- were there. So were legal powerhouses Varnum Riddering and Warner Norcross & Judd. Local healthcare monolith Spectrum Health met there with Trinity Health West Michigan.

But this isn't a story about price-fixing in a smoke-filled backroom. The only thing that needed fixing, they agreed, was the way West Michigan presents itself to attract mid-career talent and to keep them here.

Interestingly, the very fact that about 125 individuals representing the area's largest employers met under one roof in Holland to work together speaks volumes about the character of the region itself.

And for those who don't know them yet, say hello to West Michigan.

Draw of the Region
Ann Harten, vice president of human resources and global information systems at Haworth Inc. and facilitator at the Tuesday meeting held at the Haworth headquarters, says that when it comes to recruiting talent, local businesses first compete against the draws of other regions -- not necessarily other companies.

Hot-shot executives who are considering career moves compare metropolitan areas, so they analyze how West Michigan stacks up against such regions as Nashville, Austin and Milwaukee in making their decisions, she says.

When they shared notes with each other, chief information officers and human resources executives at some of West Michigan's largest global companies discovered they were having the same problem with recruiting top-level talent, simply because there was a fuzzy perception of the area.

About three years ago, Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place Inc., organized a meeting among community development associations to develop a solution to the problem of a fragmented image of West Michigan, says Kevin Stotts, vice president of community programs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. Interested companies agreed to put up seed money to move forward with an assessment of the situation.

The final result was an organization called Quaeris (pronounced 'QWHERE us), Latin for "to seek." By pooling resources of businesses in an eight-county area, Quaeris is aimed at presenting a united image of the area primarily through a comprehensive website called "Hello West Michigan," says Stotts, the organization's interim director. The counties represented include Kent, Ottawa, Allegan, Muskegon, Newaygo, Kalamazoo, Barry, and Ionia.

To get a better picture of the perception people had of West Michigan, the group conducted surveys, focus groups and interviews in the spring of 2009 among recruiters for local companies, hiring managers, relocation specialists and new talent either already recruited here or that had turned down offers.

"A lot of people thought there was nothing in the state except for automotive manufacturing," Stotts says. "There was the perception that the economy was terrible. Anything west of Lansing was thought to be agricultural."

Communities such as Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon or Grand Rapids were thought to be suburbs of Detroit. "People didn't have any knowledge of any communities in the area. There was a total lack of awareness as a whole. Everybody was facing the same challenges."

Stotts himself was struck with two results of the surveys. "One surprise is that whomever is coming with that talent has a very significant say on whether they agree to come to West Michigan and whether or not they stay," he says "It's probably more important after they relocate here as to whether they are happy and satisfied."

The other revelation was the diversity of reasons people were hesitant to seriously consider relocating here. "The reasons varied by individuals," he says.

Some wondered if it was an "inclusive" region, others questioned whether there would be enough cultural activities, while others wondered if there would be high caliber sporting events or schools. "Minority candidates wanted to fit into West Michigan," Stotts says.

Sharing the Message
"The talent doesn't see the breadth of opportunities West Michigan offers," Harten says. She should know. Four years ago, Harten moved to the area from Chicago with a vague notion about the region. She says she soon realized "there was a message that needed to be shared. There are plenty of reasons we fall in love with West Michigan."

Harten likens the campaign to the effort to develop Silicon Valley. It didn't become a hotbed for technology just by coincidence, she says, as "it took people with vision to turn that area into what it is today."

Supporting the program are most of the area's largest employers, including Amway, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Spectrum Health, Meijer, MSU College of Medicine, Steelcase, the Van Andel Institute and Wolverine Worldwide.

At "Hello West Michigan," visitors will discover a website with vibrant photographs and an astounding wealth of positive tidbits of facts and figures aimed at communicating the economic vitality and quality of life found from Kalamazoo to Big Rapids and from the lakeshore to Grand Rapids.

"West Michigan is ranked #7 by Forbes for building wealth," reads one. "17 headquarters of multi-national firms," is another. "More than 40 languages spoken." And finally one tidbit sure to please those who now endure long drive-times to work:
"With an average commute time of only 22 minutes to work, West Michigan residents can choose from dozens of distinctive communities when deciding where to live and play."

The rest of the dynamic website is almost like a thick travel guide visitors might need and read before embarking on an assignment to a foreign country. There's seemingly everything on it: schools, sports, neighborhoods, faith, diversity resources, arts, culture and nightlife. In addition, there are separate sections highlighting five communities: Grand Haven, Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo and Muskegon, with links to a variety of related sites, including selected stories found on Rapid Growth Media's website

Another strategy for the site is the creation of a members-only portal for employees, relocation firms and others important to the attraction and retention of talent. Members of Quaeris can share information between themselves privately, such as a resume of a professional spouse who would need a job if the couple chose to relocate here. They can also share best practices, offer networking opportunities for human resource professionals, and provide other services to improve the recruitment efforts of individual employers.

Messages with One Voice
Quaeris aims to unite the messages of communities, chambers of commerce, economic development agencies and convention bureaus across the region with a common voice. Training courses will be offered to increase the cultural competency, regional awareness and connectivity among Realtors, human resources supervisors and others engaged in the recruitment or retention of talent.

While the billion-dollar corporate giants of West Michigan are spearheading the program, companies of any size can join Quaeris. Yearly membership fees are based on a sliding scale with companies employing less than 50 paying $1,000 a year. Cost for firms employing 1,500 employees or more is $20,000.

Organizations that contribute to efforts to attract and retain talent can also join as partners. These include economic development organizations, chambers of commerce, county governments, and other entities. They'll have access to training programs and regional messages, and be featured as a resource for talent.

"Spread the word," Harten told the group. "Send people to Hello West Michigan!"


Sharon Hanks is owner of The Write Words and editor of innovations and job news at Rapid Growth Media. She can be reached at [email protected].

Photographs by Brian Kelly