Birgit Klohs said the Kent County business community has something that makes it unique: collaborative spirit and culture.
That public-private collaborative culture is what The Right Place president and CEO credits to her staying at the economic development agency since 1987.
“You don’t see it in other cities or regions,” she said.
When Klohs began her job as head of the organization, she said the West Michigan unemployment rate was around 11 percent. When the organization was founded two years prior, there was no economic development agency in the area.
Since then, she has led projects that have brought 44,000 jobs and nearly $5 billion in investments to the region from new businesses and those already here. As her 30th anniversary approaches Nov. 30, the area unemployment rate is around 3 percent, she said.
Klohs began with a staff of three. Now, there are 30 employees.
Part of what made that possible is the organization always works with intention. The group has operated under five-year strategic plans since its inception, with the last two being three-year plans to accommodate rapidly changing times.
“I’m a great believer, and so is the board, that if you don’t have a plan on what you want to execute, then any road will get you there,” Klohs said.
The organization was founded in 1985 to create job opportunities and give outside businesses one place to contact with inquiries.
It started with a primary goal of attracting businesses to the area, but shortly after her start, Klohs refocused the organization’s attention to retention, expansion and attraction, in that order. She said 80 percent of the agency’s focus is on businesses already here.
“That commitment to local companies has never wavered,” Klohs said. “We call on 400 companies a year in the region and make sure they have the resources they need to succeed.
“I really want to underline that because that’s something we’re very proud of. And it actually makes the region more successful and it makes it easier to attract new companies because they see the strong business climate we have today.”
The original organization focused solely on growing Kent County. But Klohs and her staff now collaborate with other West Michigan counties to ensure businesses make the best connections.
“The board of The Right Place has always been very regionally oriented, and we continue with that philosophy when we do our work today,” she said.
It was about two years after Klohs was hired when Leprino Foods, a mozzarella cheese producer, reached out to The Right Place. The agency contacted colleagues in Ottawa County and made the connection that brought the $20-million project to West Michigan. She said the county line didn’t matter; they were interested in getting the business to West Michigan.
Much has happened since Klohs took her position, and she has led numerous achievements over the years.
The Right Place established the first area Manufacturers Council in 1989, the West Michigan Office Furniture Industry Council in 1991 and the Printers Council in 1998.
The Grand Rapids Urban Development Program and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority were established in 1996 and 1998, respectively, and laws were passed allowing tax credits for repurposing old buildings, which paved the way for The Right Place’s role in the revitalization of Downtown Grand Rapids.
One of the biggest noticeable changes since she started is with technology and how it affects operations. While businesses now have a lot more access to information online, The Right Place used to get inquiries in the mail and had plenty of time to respond. That’s not the case anymore.
Klohs recently had to stop on the side of the road on the way to a meeting to arrange the sending of information to a German company that wanted it within a couple hours of initial contact. The team fulfilled the request, but in that respect, technology has made the work more challenging.
Of all the accomplishments the group has made over the years, Klohs would not say there is a single project that stands out boldly from the others. There are important highlights, she said, but it’s the “sum of the parts” that helped make Grand Rapids what it is today.
While the large projects are important and fun to do, she said, the small projects can be just “as much fun.”
“The backbone of this region is the mid-sized business,” she said.
She referred to the MOVE Systems International project, an eco-friendly food cart manufacturing business started by a decorated veteran, native to Michigan. The Right Place worked with the state, Start Garden and other organizations to get the business started.
“That project was just a blast,” she said. “It also was a phenomenal example of collaboration between various parts of the economic development ecosystem.”
For The Right Place to continue helping the growth of Grand Rapids and West Michigan, she said the next generation will need to carry the legacy forward.
It’s a field where there are “no ribbons for second place”; either the project is won, or it’s not. So, it will be important for the next generation to have the “commitment” and “vision” it takes to continue the work Klohs and others started.
Klohs had opportunities to work elsewhere, but she said she chose to be a “lifer” at The Right Place because of her passion for the community.
“It was always a privilege for me to have this job and for me to be the leader of this organization,” she said. “It has been incredible to be part of the renaissance of all that we are today.”