Street Talk: Agribiz tries speed dating — and likes it


Agriculture and the businesses connected with it are a $96 billion industry in Michigan, but there is still lots of room for growth. That’s why it is no surprise that organizations like The Right Place, along with the state government, are increasing their efforts to make sure none of that agribusiness goes out of state when there are potential customers and suppliers right here in West Michigan.

Last week was MiFOOD2014 in Hudsonville — aka the Michigan Food Processing and Agribusiness Summit — a day-long meeting put on by The Right Place and others to share the latest strategies and developments within that arena.

Mike DiBernardo, an economic development specialist at the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, talked about the new look of the ag supply chain and how vital connections are made. He focused on the Pure Michigan Agriculture Summit in Lansing a few weeks ago, hosted by Pure Michigan Business Connect and MDARD. Involving agricultural producers, processors, grocers and institutional buyers, it was described as “an invite-only business matchmaking event.”

DiBernardo said MDARD put profiles of interested buyers and suppliers on the Pure Michigan Business Connect website listing what they had to offer and what they were looking for. Later, the buyers were given the opportunity to make appointments with the suppliers they wanted to talk to; face-to-face meetings took place at a Lansing hotel throughout the day March 26.

“That was the first go-around of speed dating,” quipped DiBernardo.

“It was the first time we ever did something like this in the ag industry,” he added — and MDARD got some interesting feedback, hearing about bids that were submitted that ranged from $2,000 up to $1 million.

“The ag supply chain has always been based on who you knew,” said DiBernardo, but the Internet element offering introductions is expanding those horizons within the state.

“We’re really interested in everything from farm to fork,” said DiBernardo, referring to Michigan agribusiness. And that includes all the suppliers, from the companies that make harvest containers to the processed foods ready for the supermarket shelf.

“The whole goal now is: How can we help connect Michigan businesses to Michigan businesses?”

Other speakers at MIFOOD2014 represented organizations including The Right Place; McClure’s Pickles in Detroit; Cargill; HR Collaborative LLC; Marsh, a Boston-based business consulting firm; and the Global Food Protection Institute in Battle Creek.

Feeling the Blues

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit last week affirmed a $6.1 million fraud judgment against Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. The Appeals Court agreed that “BCBSM committed fraud by knowingly misrepresenting and omitting information about the disputed fees in contract documents. Its misleading information“helped sustain the illusion that BCBSM was more cost-competitive”than its competitors.

The ruling confirms last year's judgment by a federal court in Detroit, which found that BCBSM collected millions of dollars in hidden fees over a 20-year period from Hi-Lex Controls Inc. and Hi-Lex America Inc., along with their self-insured employee health plan.

Varnum attorneys representing Hi-Lex showed that BCBSM marked up employee hospital claims by as much as 22 percent and kept the markup. Reports provided to Hi-Lex did not disclose the hidden fees. Internal company e-mails showed BCBSM’s managers knew customers were unaware of the markups, and employees were trained to “downplay” the hidden fees if customers discovered them.

“We are very happy that the judgment was affirmed,” said Varnum attorney Perrin Rynders, whose team battled the issue for more than three years. “It’s been a long time coming, but we never doubted this would be the ultimate outcome. We applaud our client who had the courage to stand up for what’s right and persevere through this lengthy legal process. Litigation was not our client’s preferred approach, but BCBSM refused at every turn to accept responsibility for its actions.”

The Hi-Lex matter was the first to reach judgment out of more than 35 similar ERISA cases Varnum has filed against BCBSM on behalf of companies and their self-insured health plans.

Rynders noted the ultimate result is a win for more than just those clients who have filed suit.

“Employers work hard to manage their health care costs. It is upsetting that an organization trusted to help keep costs in line would violate that trust and take advantage of its customers,” Rynders said. “The cases we are handling are good for companies and workers all across Michigan because more money will be available for vital health care.”

The Varnum litigation team of Rynders, Aaron Phelps and Stephen MacGuidwin handled the three-week trial in federal court in May 2013 as well as the appeal in March this year. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision last Wednesday.

Isn’t it GR8?

In the spirit of all things Grand Rapids, collaboration among the city’s tourism organization and two of its biggest annual events has created a new online store for Grand Rapids-themed merchandise.

Experience Grand Rapids, the official destination marketing organization for Kent County, last week announced the creation of The online store provides the community with a one-stop destination for official apparel and merchandise from BeerCity USA, ArtPrize, Laughfest and GR&.

For those not familiar with GR& (pronounced GRAND, as opposed to GRAMPERSAND), the brand is making its public debut as a creative way to promote the city and its many “grand” things to experience.

“Experience Grand Rapids … is the perfect host for the destination’s fan merchandise. We are thrilled to have both ArtPrize and Laughfest as two of our community brand partners in the new We are proud to feature a link to the new online store on our website,,” said Janet Korn, Experience GR senior vice president.

“We are thrilled to be featured as part of the brand new Grand Rapids Store,” said Joanne Roehm, festival director of Gilda’s LaughFest. “This initiative will surely create additional exposure for some of the great events and organizations here in Grand Rapids.”

Fans can purchase items such as T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, stickers, key rings and more. The online store is a partnership between the brand departments and Markit Products, a local apparel and promotional merchandise company, which will produce, inventory and ship items purchased.

“ArtPrize is delighted to play a role in the promotion of our favorite destination — Grand Rapids.” said Christian Gaines, ArtPrize executive director. “By pulling together into a one-stop online shopping experience several of the playful, iconic brands that are woven into the cultural fabric of the city, Experience Grand Rapids has created a smart promotional outlet and given us a great way to express enthusiasm for the place we live.”

Gregg Palazzolo, CCO of Palazzolo Design, created and developed GR& and the idea to help promote the city’s building fervor to craft something new for visitors and residents alike.

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