If you asked two bright young men who relocated to Grand Rapids a few years ago what the best thing is about living here, would you ever in a million years guess their answer to be “the climate”? But to Andreas Ekbom and Magnus Carlgren, West Michigan is practically tropical compared to their homeland in Linköping, Sweden, which is about even latitude-wise with southern Alaska.
In fact, Carlgren says, “It’s so rare for the sun to shine in Sweden, even in summer, that when it does, we all take off work and go to the beach! I started doing that when I first got here, too, but then realized I wasn’t getting much work done because the sun shines almost every day in West Michigan.”
Ekbom and Carlgren, both software developers, moved to this sunny clime nearly three years ago when the Swedish software development company they work for, Configura, opened its North American office in Grand Rapids. More about that later.
They found some other surprises, too: One of biggest – and hardest for them to get used to – was that “you have to drive everywhere,” Ekbom says. “We had heard that before we arrived, but you don’t really believe it until you actually see it. We hardly ever drive at home; in fact, I didn’t even have a car.”
“Our cities are much more condensed; things are not spread out like they are here,” Carlgren says. “All the restaurants, cafés and shops are in one area, so you walk everywhere.”
“I still miss being able to just walk into town and sit at a café with lots of other people on a Saturday morning. It’s such a genuine feeling [of connectedness],” Ekbom says. “Here, everyone goes to the mall.”
On the other hand, they observed, driving out to Lake Michigan whenever you feel like it is fabulous.
And then there’s that friendliness the Midwest is known for. ”In Sweden you could sit by yourself in a bar all night and no one would talk to you,” says Calrgren. “But here within five minutes someone will say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’”
Both have been taken a little aback by one of the first questions they usually get once they do strike up a conversation: “People right away ask you what religion you are or what church you belong to,” says Ekbom. “We don’t really talk about that in Sweden; you kind of keep that to yourself.”
Another point on the plus side is the housing here. “In Linköping, most people live in apartments; only those who are very well off can afford to live outside the city in a house,” Carlgren says. ”But I’ve got a house with a yard, trees, bushes; it’s really nice. And it’s only five minute from the office (downtown), so I ride my bike to work every day.”
Ekbom and his wife, Karin, also from Sweden, live in the Union Square condos in the former Union High School. “Most people who live there are like us, in their 20s and 30s. So we love it. We were in Kentwood before and we really didn’t meet that many people. But now we have a lot of friends.”
Which is one reason why his decision to move back to Sweden was a hard one. His three-year commitment is coming to an end and, he explained, he misses his old friends and wants to see his family more regularly. Plus, they’re going to have a baby in September and you know how those grandparents can be.
Looking back, Ekbom says, “I felt like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m really glad I did it.”
Carlgren and Ekbom’s boss, Peter Brandinger, also a Swede, was instrumental in choosing Grand Rapids for Configura’s North American office.
“We looked all over the Midwest – Milwaukee, Madison, outside Chicago – but by far the best economic development organization was here,” Brandinger says. “[The G.R. Area Chamber of Commerce] does an excellent job. We also met with the Right Place and knew immediately they could help us. They understood our company and put us in touch with the companies we wanted to do business with.”
No surprises there: Office furniture is one of the main industries served by Configura’s software solutions. Their client list now includes Steelcase, Haworth and Teknion.
“This is exactly the kind of company we want to attract,” says Birgit Klohs, president of the Right Place, Inc. “They fit our strategy perfectly: They’re foreign investors; they’re technologically advanced; and they’re a good fit for our market and our supply chain. This is a real success story for us.”
“Plus,” she adds, “they’re a really nice group of people.”
So do they feel this is the right place for them? “Absolutely,” says Brandinger, whose office has grown from two to 20 employees. “It’s been a very positive experience for all of us. We now have three more families from Sweden living here. It’s important that they can feel at home in a community where there are good schools and so on.”
“People in Europe still believe in the American dream,” says Carlgren. “They may not feel so good about your foreign politics right now, but the view of the United States is still very positive. A lot of people still see it as the land of the free; they want to come here and make money!”
So Carlgren is staying put, especially now that he has a serious girlfriend. “When I leave to go on a trip and come back here, I feel like I’m coming home,” he says.
Keasha Palmer is a freelance writer who lives near Rockford. She is a regular contributor to Rapid Growth Media.
Photos:Andreas Ekbom and Magnus Carlgren work at ConfiguraAndreas with one of his photos of Grand Rapids. He is an avid photographerMagnus CarlgrenPeter BrandingerPhotographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved