Bill Jackson’s résumé could have been written to match his challenging new job description — or vice versa.
As the new regional policy director at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Jackson brings his experience as a small business owner, and lots of professional experience representing business interests in government affairs, in small towns and cities and in Lansing.
He’s also been on the government side of the desk: A Rockford area resident, he is currently a member of the Cannon Township planning commission.
Then there’s his nonprofit experience as the prime mover behind Volley for Mitchell, a charitable organization he helped found.
In late January, Jackson assumed the post of regional policy director, “responsible for initiating and carrying out the Chamber’s 2008 Regional Policy Conference directives.” That will include managing and overseeing the creation of five regional task forces, one for each of the five directives.
He will also build statewide coalitions and develop a strategic action plan for accomplishing the business agenda spelled out last September at the first West Michigan Regional Policy Conference, held over a three-day period at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids. Almost 600 people attended, mostly from the Greater Grand Rapids/Muskegon/Holland areas, but some from as far south as Kalamazoo/Battle Creek and as far north as Traverse City.
The goal of the first conference was to make sure West Michigan business is heard in Lansing, through a regular process of informing the state government about West Michigan opinions on what needs to be done to return the state to a healthy economy.
The 2008 conference was co-chaired by Jim Dunlap of Huntington Bank, Doug DeVos of Amway, investor and business executive Peter Secchia, and Jeff Connolly of Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Organization: Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce
Title: Regional Policy Director
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Rockford area
Family: Wife, Bridget; two sons, ages 10 and 12
Business/Community Organizations: Cannon Township Planning Commission; Volley For Mitchell.
Biggest Career Break: “When I left Comcast Spotlight to join Adams Outdoor Advertising, it involved me full-time in a lot of state and local government issues.”
The five directives, arrived at by votes cast by attendees at the policy conference, are:
- Eliminate the Michigan Business Tax and implement corresponding government spending cuts.
- Implement a right-to-work status for Michigan.
- Increase funding for health care providers with effective prevention practices.
- Streamline the permitting process within state government.
- Update funding mechanisms for transportation infrastructure.
“I have over a hundred people involved” on the five task forces, said Jackson, noting that “we continue to look to the other regions (in Michigan), to bring them in. We can’t do this alone.”
The first directive, which targets the MBT, is going to mean a lot of face time for Jackson in the halls of the state Capitol building — where he is no stranger. His job prior to regional policy director was at Adams Outdoor Advertising, where he was involved in state and local issues impacting the company’s business.
Jackson said that representing business in the government decision-making process “was what I wanted to spend the rest of my career doing.”
“Now I’m down there (in Lansing) a couple or three days a week,” he said.
A native of Grand Rapids, Jackson attended Central Michigan University where he earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in small business,” he said, beginning with a small, family-owned company in Grand Rapids that publishes catalogs and information for cross-stitch and needlepoint enthusiasts.
He went to work there right out of college as “chief cook and bottle washer. I did everything and anything,” he said, but mainly his focus was on marketing. In that capacity he traveled to a lot of tradeshows around the U.S.
“They gave me a lot of responsibility at an early age,” he said.
After a few years in that position, he left to work in sales at a small business his father had founded, North Kent Cyclery in Plainfield Township. In 1995, he bought the business from his father and then really started learning the ropes of being a small business owner.
“I know what it means to sign a ton of paychecks,” he said. The bicycle business had up to a dozen or so employees at one point, before Jackson sold the business in early 2001.
“My advocacy efforts started when I had the bike shop,” said Jackson, promoting the creation of bike trails on abandoned railroads. That involved working with a coalition of groups and various government entities.
His past nonprofit activities have also included serving as treasurer for the board of Gateway Middle/High School in Grand Rapids.
Three years ago, Jackson and a friend became co-founders of Volley For Mitchell, of which he is now a director. It is a growing, nonprofit organization that puts on an annual volleyball championship that attracted about 40 teams and 300 to 400 people last year. The funds raised by sponsorships of each team go toward medical research into the Duchenne type of muscular dystrophy.
After his experience running the bike shop, Jackson worked as a consultant for a couple of years before joining Comcast Spotlight in Grand Rapids, the advertising sales division of Comcast Cable. Jackson was the local area business manager for a little over a year. When his boss from Comcast Spotlight joined Adams Outdoor, she urged him to take a job there as manager of real estate and government affairs. He did so in April 2004, and at that point, advocacy “became my full-time job,” he said. Jackson said there were a lot more issues involving government regulations and outdoor advertising than he had previously been aware of.
Jackson’s advocacy on behalf of business isn’t confined to state government. Shortly after he started in his new position at the GRACC, the chamber dispatched him to Washington to join other members of the Great Lakes Metropolitan Coalition, seeking the support of lawmakers for its business agenda aimed at jump-starting the Great Lakes region’s stalled economy.
The coalition visited congressional representatives, urging them to embrace a Great Lakes regional business agenda that includes: improving the Midwest’s transportation infrastructure; creating a more open and secure border with Canada; adopting a comprehensive immigration policy; diversifying the region’s economy by boosting innovation and entrepreneurship; and harnessing the Great Lakes’ economic potential.
“The need to create statewide coalitions was a clear message that came out of last fall’s Regional Policy Conference,” said Jeanne Englehart, president and CEO of the GRACC.
At the time of that trip to Washington, Jackson noted that “in terms of GDP, the Great Lakes region is the second largest economy in the world, and it is time our lawmakers in Washington hear the unified voice of the region’s business community.”
“What is good for the Midwest’s economy is good for the nation,” he added.
While work is under way on all five of the Regional Policy Conference directives, one getting a great deal of news media attention lately is elimination of the Michigan Business Tax. State Rep. Justin Amash, R-Kentwood, recently introduced House Bill 4728, which bluntly calls for the repeal of the MBT. Twenty-three other state reps signed the bill with Amash.
“Michigan’s business tax places us at a disadvantage among those states with which we are competing for investment,” said Jackson. “Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, to name a few — all have lower business tax burdens than Michigan.”
“It’s time for our state’s top leaders to stop tinkering around the edges with tax credits to targeted industries — picking winners and losers — and give every business in Michigan much needed relief,” added Jackson. “The MBT must go!”