Street Talk: Why you do what you do


There are many awards ceremonies that occur throughout West Michigan each year.

Some are put on by nonprofits, some are affiliated with associations, some are hosted by governmental units — and all are sponsored by businesses.

And by “sponsored,” what is really meant is financially supported.

Why do West Michigan’s businesses underwrite these events with their names and their dollars? Marketing and community goodwill certainly are part of the answer, but they’re not the whole reason.

John Irwin, West Michigan regional president for Huntington Bank, offered some insight Wednesday at the Women’s Resource Center’s annual Pillar Awards.

This was the event’s 14th year with Huntington as a presenting sponsor, and along with law firm Warner Norcross and Judd’s participation, that fact put Irwin and Warner managing partner Doug Wagner behind the mic and up on stage.

“People ask me why we do this,” Irwin said, counting off suggestions such as “burnishing my resume” or trying to build his business network. “I’m way too old for that stuff.”

Instead, when Huntington is approached with a sponsorship request, Irwin said he puts it through his personal “filter on decisions of who/what to support.”

Or, more accurately, his personnel filter. Irwin said he talks to Huntington employees and gauges their interest in certain events, causes and organizations before committing the bank’s dollars.

The deciding factor? When somebody says, “Good job, John, I’m glad we’re a part of that.”

Another part of the equation is supporting employees who are very involved in certain organizations outside of company time, according to Wagner.

April Goff, senior counsel at Warner and a specialist in employee benefits plans, is chair of WRC’s board of directors. Shlynn Rhodes, project manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield Blue Care Network of Michigan (another Pillar Awards sponsor) is board vice chair.

Their participation at the leadership level, Wagner said, is important to WRC’s success throughout the year.

This year’s Pillar Awards, which recognize companies for their commitment to empowering women at work, went to Baker Holtz CPAs and Advisors, D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s and Equity Transportation. Heart of West Michigan United Way was honored for its efforts to enhance diversity in the community.

“Employers that invest in the recruitment, retention and advancement of women employees see improved employee retention, productivity and bottom-line results,” said Sharon Caldwell-Newton, WRC executive director.

The same can probably be said for corporate sponsorships, too.

Still laughing

Of course, if you’re going to have a successful event, it helps to have an entertaining master (or mistress) of ceremonies. Not to take anything away from Irwin and Wagner, but WRC should sign Judge Sara Smolenski to a lifetime contract for the Pillar Awards.

Her Honor brought her typical passion and humor to the event, right away referencing a technical snafu two years ago that left her standing at the podium for 20 minutes just filling time.

“Said a silent prayer this morning that the videos work today,” she said by way of introduction, drawing laughter from veteran attendees.

Smolenski said for the most part the role of emcee is scripted and organizers like it that way, but there is some wiggle room.

“I did LaughFest last night for 200 people and really had a great time,” she said. “This is a scripted program, so I have to fit them in when I can.”

Recognizing that one of the award recipients, Baker Holtz, is an accounting firm, Smolenski related her most recent experience with the online TurboTax program. She said the first question had to do with whether the filer had passed away before filing the return.

“I am very proud to say I did not have to check that box!”

She also paid tribute to the Dominican Sisters, saying she knew they were in the audience because she can always pick out their car by the bumper sticker affixed to it: “Honk If You Love Jesus. Text If You Want To Meet Him.”

Valuable insight

Ever wonder how that successful coffee shop or brewery got started?

Local First is offering an opportunity to find out with its second INsight Conference, scheduled for noon-5 p.m., March 25, at the Bissell Tree House. A cocktail reception will follow.

The event features candid interviews and case studies of local entrepreneurs who talk about business ownership and leadership at a personal and professional level, and the struggles and successes that have shaped their businesses.

The interviews will feature Tami VandenBerg (The Pyramid Scheme, The Meanwhile Bar) and Heather VanDyke (Bear Manor Properties and Harmony Brewing Co.), both speaking about building community-engaged businesses, and Ryan Knapp and Trevor Corlett from Madcap Coffee, an internationally recognized company with products in over 137 locations around the world. They will be talking about how they ended up starting Madcap, and how they have built and maintained direct relationships with farmers and coffee shops.

“Owning a local business is deeply intimate and personal, and at INsight, I felt surrounded in this community of people who understood my experience and let me know that this is part of the journey,” said Anissa Eddie, co-owner of Malamiah Juice Bar and an ideaXchange case study at 2014’s INsight Conference. "We also gained valuable resource connections and built relationships that came from the INsight Conference.”

This year’s ideaXchange will be led by Herman Miller’s Dan Broersma, who will engage participants on ideas involving internal employee engagement and incentivizing green practices. Tickets range from $30-$85 and are available at or at the door.

Milking cookies

Blame it on technology. The Girls Scouts went high-tech this year and instituted an online format for the sale of their wildly popular cookies. Although not directly admitting that the new technology has had an influence on the program, officials said this year “cookies have been selling at a much faster rate” than anticipated by the cookie baker.

“While this is great news that Girl Scout cookies are in demand, Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore and many other councils have encountered a cookie inventory shortage that changes the timeline for the delivery,” read a press release last week.

Oops! The onslaught of “national sales” will delay local delivery by about four weeks, according to Shore to Shore officials.

“[Our forecast] has resulted in a tightness in cookie inventory and an inability to meet cookie orders at the dates originally requested,” said Brenda Smith, sales director at Little Brownie Baker, which makes the cookies. “The situation was made worse by winter weather that resulted in a plant shutdown for two days in February and an ingredient delivery delay in late February.”

She said the good news is that local councils will be receiving all of the cookies that have been ordered. “However, we have had to delay our cookie deliveries,” she said. “The new date for cookie delivery will be the week of April 13. Cookie booths are now rescheduled for April 18 through May 16.”

And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

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