GRBJ 30th Year: Reflections on 30 years in the business of business


I’m often asked where the Business Journal idea came from. My business background ranges from selling lemonade and popcorn in front of my grandparents’ home in the Netherlands and setting up a bicycle-parking rental out of their garage, to odd jobs around the neighborhood, being a writer throughout school years and graduating with an MBA from MSU.

My years as a local chamber of commerce executive were punctuated by a barrage of complaints from business leaders about the local media, especially the daily paper. The overriding perception was that it minimized or ignored local business and business news. That perception reached a crescendo in the late ’70s.

After announcing my planned departure from the local chamber in 1979, I suggested to a few trusted insiders that I would try to resolve the “news problem.” In 1983, we delivered on that pledge when we launched the Business Journal.

Prior to 1983, business news in Grand Rapids didn’t exist in the sense it does today. Anything resembling business news in GR traveled almost exclusively by word of mouth at meetings, forums and via various “offline chat rooms” that included Sayfee’s, Duba’s, Ottawa Grill, Fables and the Pantlind Hotel, as well as the Peninsular Club, University Club and other private clubs for the well connected.

GRBJ 30th Year

We changed that when we launched the Business Journal. Grand Rapids was a rare commodity: a community with a business journal — the only one in Michigan. We were pioneers.

A modest effort in the beginning, the Business Journal gave voice to business. No longer would business news be ignored or relegated to irregular wire service fillers in the back of the daily. It became important! It was risky and it was challenging: Parting with my former partners, it was just me and the bank. The bank was a terrific supporter of the venture.

Entrepreneurs understand well this financial loneliness. But achieving this 30-year milestone says more about this community and our talented and dedicated staff. The creation of the Business Journal was my mission, one shared by our team of dedicated professionals. Naysayers were abundant, including the local daily.

Competition can be enlightening. I believe we helped improve business coverage by all media in this community. It forced the daily to pay attention to business coverage in a way it had not felt the need to do before.

My position as founder of this publication provided a unique window onto the myriad of changes in the Grand Rapids economy and landscape. Many of those changes are chronicled in this issue.

We started with a dream, a concept and an unknown future, similar to most business startups. We sought to provide great journalism where no one else had ventured. Month after month, week after week, the Business Journal featured news about business before any mention appeared in the daily — or anywhere else, for that matter. In some cases, important news we uncovered never appeared in local media at all. That situation, while not as pervasive as in 1983, still exists today.

Some people cite this as a reason for declines in mass media over the years, and a rise in niche media like the Business Journal and broadcast cable media.

The Business Journal filled the news void for those who took their business news seriously. They didn’t appreciate having it ignored, minimized or trivialized by the daily, or dumped into 10-second sound bites by broadcasters.

I often reminisce about the many outstanding people I have come to know via my special “window.” It has been a privilege. We don’t have enough space to recognize them all, but I do appreciate their continuous support, encouragement, contributions, ideas and comments.

In 1983, Grand Rapids opened a fabulous new Amway Grand Plaza tower building, and Steelcase had just opened its new international headquarters. Monroe Mall was “improved” for the “umpteenth” time, and the economy of Grand Rapids was booming after a series of economic challenges such as high gas prices, obscene interest rates, supply shortages, auto slumps and erratic weather.

The next 30 years promise to produce an even greater impact. Many local icons of the past have disappeared, and the most critical element facing this community is to replace the leadership group that brought us to this stage of development. Local history tells us the new leadership will come mainly from within. The next generation of leaders already exists, emerging and gaining confidence. The Business Journal will continue to identify them.

The world is changing and shrinking. Forces pushing change are difficult to alter, and economic and public policy challenges still exist, but entrepreneurs will continue to see new opportunities. Dark clouds always have silver linings. A point of view does matter!

Grand Rapids remains an economic beacon to others in this state — a “can-do” city. GR continues to expand and to grow entrepreneurs willing to invest in the community. The world discovers over and over again what we have always known: Grand Rapids is, and always has been, a very special place.

In this community I feel we have been blessed. Grand Rapids is the greatest city in Michigan, where dreams and ideas still come true.

Thank you, subscribers! Thank you, readers! Thank you, advertisers! Thank you, vendors! Thank you, staff! And, thank you Grand Rapids!

John Zwarensteyn

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