People raised in small towns often can’t wait to leave, but a few years in the big city can make them yearn for home. A Ludington manufacturer is taking advantage of this by building a team of boomerangs.
“Boomerang” is a term used in human resources circles to refer to someone who leaves their hometown but later moves back.
Eric Erwin is president and CEO of FloraCraft, a family-owned company founded in 1946 that makes foam products for the craft and floral industries. Its portfolio of brands includes FloraCraft Foam, Artesia, Desert Foam, Gala Boutique and Twinklets Glitter, and its products are sold at Walmart, Amazon, Michaels, JOANN Fabrics, Hobby Lobby and other major retailers in all 50 states and 17 countries. The company grew from just over 200 employees before the pandemic to 300 in fall 2020 as it worked to catch up on the order backlog that accrued during the manufacturing shutdown. Today, it has more than 250 employees.
Erwin recently spoke to the Business Journal about the organization’s efforts to attract and retain employees in an era when the talent shortage is on everyone’s minds — especially in manufacturing.
FloraCraft actively looks for top professionals wanting to return to Ludington, as they tend to have gained valuable experience while away but now are ready to put down roots in their hometown and be fully invested in the company and greater Mason County.
“One of our key strategies, in terms of bringing back ‘boomerang’ people to fill key positions within our company, is something I’m very proud of,” he said. “And I’m finding out that it also fits in with the whole ‘Zoom Town’ phenomenon that’s happening across America, as well — that people are finding the area that they really want to live in and returning to their hometowns to raise children and families, even if they still have a job somewhere else. Ludington is becoming a popular site for people to return to, and FloraCraft has been a really cool company (that) built some of our top leadership from the local people that grew up here, went away, then returned years later to help us continue to grow.”
Erwin said most of FloraCraft’s marketing is through word-of-mouth, as boomerangs tell their schoolmates and friends about moving back, and those people decide to relocate, too. But the company also works closely with the Ludington and Scottville Area Chamber of Commerce to help tell the region’s story — about the beauty of northwest Michigan, with its scenery, hunting, hiking and biking trails, beaches, golf courses and more. Erwin acknowledged it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Ludington, which like many cities across the U.S. is struggling with the affordable housing and child care shortages. Even so, FloraCraft has been successful drawing boomerangs home. Erwin is hopeful the new elementary school that’s under construction and a tight-knit community that cares about friendships, family and public safety will continue to win folks over.
For FloraCraft, the return-to-Ludington trend began decades ago, with owner and chair Lee Schoenherr (pronounced “Shaner”).
Schoenherr, a Ludington native, worked for his uncle as a teenager in the 1940s at what was then known as The Foliage Company of America. After finishing high school, Schoenherr enlisted in the U.S. Army before going to work at a variety of positions on the East Coast and in Ohio. Eventually, the call of Ludington beckoned, and he ended up buying his uncle’s company in 1974 and renaming it FloraCraft. As it turned out, many of his future employees would take a similar path back to their hometown.
John Nielsen, for example, grew up watching the sunset nearly every day at Ludington State Park with his family. Nielsen spent more than 20 years working in finance in the Grand Rapids and Detroit areas before coming back to his hometown in 2020 as FloraCraft’s CFO — allowing him to once again visit the park at sunset and relive those warm childhood memories.
“I didn’t realize the impact (Lake Michigan) had on me until I left,” he said. “I’ve always found Ludington’s beauty so calming, which was a major reason I came back.”
Phil Gable, vice president of extrusion, previously worked in the U.S. Army Materiel Command, making stops in Texas, Arizona and southeast Michigan before moving back to Ludington in 2014 to take a leadership role with FloraCraft.
“I wanted my kids to have the same quality of life my wife and I had growing up,” Gable said. “I have an even greater appreciation for this close-knit community now, after living in other areas around the country.”
Annie O’Connor, vice president of supply chain, was set on going to college and never coming back after graduation. While home one summer, she took an internship with FloraCraft. Nearly 20 years later, she’s still with the company, and every position she has held has been created just for her.
“Having Ludington natives on our team only makes us stronger as an organization,” O’Connor said.
Her husband of nearly five years also works at the company.
“We know the community, have a strong desire to immerse ourselves in it and want to see local businesses thrive,” she said.
Erwin said it’s people like these who make FloraCraft and the region better for everyone.
“I’m constantly amazed at the talent, compassion, empathy and teamwork of our people,” he said. “Having worked in bigger cities, you don’t always see that. They know the culture and want to see the community grow. Having this pipeline of local talent returning home just adds more value to our team. It truly is our homegrown talent who has been crucial to our success over the years.
“We’ve created a culture with a heavy focus on taking care of our team members that is getting noticed more when hiring, especially from the Ludington natives. From ‘the gift’ to investing more in employee growth and leadership development, we’ve shown we want to retain and grow employees from within as much as we can. People want to be a part of that.”
“The gift” he refers to is when Schoenherr announced he would be giving over $3.5 million — 25% in cash bonuses and 75% in retirement contributions — to all employees except senior management the week before Christmas 2018.
“A few years ago, I began thinking that I would like to do something more targeted for our employees, who really are the heart and soul of FloraCraft,” Schoenherr said at the time in a Business Journal report. “This idea has developed over the past year and is my way of saying ‘thank you’ to our team for the role they have had in our success.”
The gift amounts were made based on length of service with the company, with 45-year employees receiving nearly $75,000 and the average award amount equaling about $20,000.
“(The story) blew up all over the internet. It’s really made Ludington a famous little town worldwide,” Erwin said.
But a one-time deal like that is not the only way FloraCraft takes care of its employees and draws in new ones. Erwin said it creates personalized professional development plans for its employees and future leaders, which could include training focusing on the transition from management to leadership through the FloraCraft Academy; online graduate classes at universities; membership in trade organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers, with its roundtables and resources; paid travel and networking opportunities; annual assessments; succession planning; and more.
“We’re always learning, we’re always staying aware of what is changing our industry so we don’t become so isolated up here in a small town in northwestern Michigan (and) so we know what are the best practices of some of the more innovative companies across the country,” Erwin said.
“And we want to make sure that we’ve got the best executives running the business at every single level. There’s a very strong handful of what we call high-potential leaders/future leaders, and all of those people have got development plans that help direct their career. … But we believe education and development is an absolutely strategic imperative to the whole business, not just for our returning boomerangs, our future leaders or our executive team.”
Erwin said the payoff shows up in FloraCraft’s retention numbers, which are “astronomical” in terms of employee tenure and low turnover.
“More important than that, for three years in a row, we’ve done an employee engagement survey to measure exactly how our employees feel about the work they do, about the people they work with, or about the leaders (who) are entrusted with their work, and we have increased our scores every year for the last three years and are significantly above both the national averages and also Michigan averages of companies that are so assessed. I feel very good that we are doing the right thing in terms of meeting the expectations of our employees.
“This is a small company acting more like a big company when it comes to our employees and how we think about them, and I know we’re well respected in the community and also in western Michigan, and of course, my primary goal is to be the employer of choice for anyone in Mason County who wants to have a great job.”
More information about the company is at floracraft.com.