West Michigan delegation invests in relationship with the Netherlands


The West Michigan Global Initiative delegation opens the NYSE Euronext exchange in Amsterdam on April 16, 2013. Courtesy West Michigan Global Initiative

Members of the West Michigan Global Initiative are wrapping up a seven-day trip to the Netherlands on Friday, as part of the organization’s focus on strengthening business ties between the country and West Michigan.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is leading the delegation, which also includes House Speaker Jase Bolger and Agriculture, Rural Development Director Jamie Clover Adams, state Senator Arlan Meekhof and several other government and business leaders.

“This trip is one of the pillars of the organization,” said Brendan Ringlever, WMGI corporate development chair. “We take business, government and community leaders to the Netherlands to build the relationships that hopefully result in business activity between our two areas.”

The investment mission is part of an ongoing effort that began in 2012 with the establishment of WMGI and a visit from Dutch government and business leaders who toured Michigan businesses, participated in a roundtable discussion and attended a networking reception.

“It went well,” Ringlever said. “It has resulted in some business being done and some starting to do business and starting to talk.”

The plan is that the Netherlands and West Michigan delegates will make alternating yearly visits, increasing ties between the two areas that will lead to growth and new business activity for both.

Ringlever said the mission was instituted by the West Michigan Global Initiative, with the assistance of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., The Right Place and Detroit Regional Chamber.

The current visit is focusing on agriculture and financial investment, and also will reach out to Michigan-based businesses that have facilities and do business in the Netherlands. There also will be visits to shipping companies, dredging companies and automotive supply chain businesses.

The Netherlands is currently Michigan’s 18th largest export market and companies exported $332.8 million in goods and materials to the Netherlands, according to WMGI.

WMGI members believe that the Netherlands represents a great opportunity for deepening business relationships, particularly given the region’s historical and cultural ties to the country.

Ringlever pointed out that West Michigan has relatively recent historical ties to the country with many first- and second-generation Dutch families in the area, as well as many families whose ancestors immigrated multiple generations ago.

“West Michigan was one of the largest areas of immigration for Dutch people and you see that with a lot of the legacies and their families and a lot of the businesses in West Michigan, where those families came over to start anew,” Ringlever said.

“We want to keep those relationships alive with West Michigan and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. There was a disconnect; oftentimes state leaders and others would focus on other areas of the world to focus their economic development and their efforts, but in this organization the interest was ‘let’s focus on the Netherlands.’ It’s one of the U.S.’s larger trading partners and vice versa.”

WMGI acknowledges that in recent years Dutch companies were likely to look at New York, Miami or Los Angeles to establish new business ventures or partnerships. The organization said there is no reason why Grand Rapids shouldn’t be on that list.

“We want to establish West Michigan as the premier destination for Dutch companies to establish themselves in the U.S.,” Ringlever said. “It is critical because they will stop elsewhere like New York before they’d come to Michigan, and we need to get them to Michigan first because we have the people and resources and the culture that they are probably most familiar with.”

Ringlever pointed out that besides the historical ties, West Michigan’s culture is similar to Dutch culture and there is a similarity in the weather as well, both of which make the area feel like home more so than other regions in the country.

“I do business myself in the Netherlands and I will tell you there is a Midwestern feel to it,” said Jeb Burns, co-founder and president of WMGI. “There’s a directness in the way people communicate and do business, which I think is characteristic of the Midwest.”

In addition to focusing on present day business, WMGI also is focusing on the next generation of entrepreneurs. It is developing an exchange program to help students visit West Michigan and gain experience within the business community here and vice versa. The group is working with Grand Valley State University, Calvin College and Hope College and Dutch universities and colleges currently to establish the exchange program.

Besides just helping students from both areas study abroad, the program also includes an internship component that will match students with local companies for paid internship positions.

“It’s about helping kids get real jobs and real experience and be mentored,” Burns said. “For me, personally, internships were helpful. If we are going to do this and bring these influential people together and we’re going to try to help businesses grow, the best way to keep this going is to build up the next generation.”

Again, the group is relying on the cultural similarities between the Netherlands and West Michigan, hoping that visiting young people will feel a sense of community that will entice them to stay, much like previous generations of Dutch immigrants did.

There is already some evidence that this can happen.

“From the fall event, one of the Dutch businessmen liked Michigan so much that he actually rented a home on Lake Michigan for the summer,” Burns said. “That was something where they came over and were like, ‘It’s so beautiful here.’”

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