Photo by Dave Lewinski
Jeff Helminski is the founder and Managing Partner of The Moravian Companies, a Metropolitan Detroit, MI based real estate development firm. Jeff is responsible for directing the company’s development, investment and advisory activities.
Before founding Moravian, Jeff was Vice President of Development at Silverman Development Company. He was involved with all facets of developing Silverman's real estate opportunities. His primary responsibilities included market analysis, due diligence, investment underwriting, design, and entitlement of residential and commercial properties including over 1000 residential units in ten residential and mixed-use projects.
Prior to joining Silverman, Jeff was employed by General Motors Truck Group. He served on GM's engineering staff in both product and manufacturing engineering positions as well as working as production supervisor of assembly operations.
Jeff holds an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, a Master of Science degree in Engineering from Purdue University, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Michigan Technological University. He is a full member of the Urban Land Institute serving on the Steering Committee of the Detroit District Council and as a member of the national level program committee. He is also an active member of the Michigan Association of Planning where he serves on the Government Relations Committee and the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce Public Policy Subcommittee.
Jeff is the youngest member of the Oakland County Business Roundtable, Co-founder of the Young Professionals Leadership Council, a Board Member of Fusion, a founding member of the Center for Michigan’s Emerging Leaders Forum and is a frequent speaker on entrepreneurship and the attraction and retention of young professionals in Michigan.
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In my previous post I suggested a no cost option as a small step towards addressing this issue of attracting and retaining young talent. But what if we really think outside the proverbial box and pretend for a minute we have some funding to play with. What could we do to attract this desired cohort in a direct and meaningful way that would get their attention?
There is a tremendous amount of money from foundations, state and federal government and some philanthropic-minded high net worth individuals and families targeted at community development and job creation, and the attraction & retention of talent fits within that goal. What if we took just a little from each pot and spent it on a direct marketing initiative to attract and then support the most promising young, entrepreneurial talent in the world?
I am thinking of a place, a physical space or a mixed use community with apartments, a business center, a YP community center (we have them for senior citizens and kids why not YP’s?), some form of salary and a student loan forgiveness program like the rural physician loan forgiveness program. There would be seed money to help fund start up costs, a mentoring program and connectivity to established business, community and political leaders to incubate these burgeoning entrepreneurs.
We would commence a campaign to reach out to the top universities and young entrepreneurs around the world and it would be a competitive process to be admitted to the program. Once in you would have all the support you could ever need to start your business which could be the next Microsoft or Starbucks or Apple. The only catch is you and your company would have to stay in Michigan.
Sound crazy? Probably does. Besides, we like to think it has to be “made here” to be real or worthy. Why look outside of Michigan to recruit the best and brightest in the world. We don’t need them; we already have it here, right?
It would probably require more cooperation between communities that are better at fighting with each other than working together toward a common goal than we are capable of. After all, it could only be located in one place and we are very good at viewing things as a zero sum game so there would be one winner and everyone else would be a loser, right?
Maybe not; maybe we are finally at the point where something this radical might actually be able to be pulled off. Hmmm, what if…? Or what if you the reader of my crazy idea have some other radical concept to help us move forward as a state. A big idea or a small but unconventional step in the right direction.
Think about it. What’s your idea? Let’s find a way to make it happen. Michigan is counting on us.
I am one of the believers in the Lou Glazer philosophy of economic development. The single most determinative issue to the future prosperity of Michigan is the attraction and retention of young talent.
The best local source of information I am aware of on this topic comes from Michigan Future Inc. The empirical data show this to be true and the experiential data I have gathered over my time spent in successful cities around the world seem to indicate the theory holds.
The debate rages on as to whether YP’s first select a job or a place. I have observed first hand the decision making process about where to live as made by YP’s with the greatest amount of opportunity and flexibility. This comes from observing my classmates at Stanford Business School in making post graduate moves and more recently my sister’s process as she finishes her MBA at Duke. I have concluded that the decision-making process is place first, job second.
However, I believe that economic opportunity (ie. job opportunities) is a significant component of what makes a place attractive. I think this is a shift from the decision-making process of past generations and therefore difficult for some members of those past generations to understand. I will offer one not so scientific example to illustrate this point. During the boom years of the late 1990’s when jobs were plentiful in Detroit (remember when GM stock traded at $90 and I thought my stock options were worth something?), the Michigan brain drain we talk so much about today was still in effect.
I am certainly neither the first person to identify this issue nor the first to blog about its importance to our state. We in Michigan are far from the first to identify this important issue either. Virtually every other state in the union has seen the same light and is targeting these young talented individuals for recruitment to their state.
The question I often ask myself is: What makes us any more likely to win this talent battle than any other state? If you read the materials from chambers of commerce and economic development organizations from around the country, you could replace Nashville with Detroit or Arkansas with Michigan and it would look about the same as our materials. Every state has economic development dollars and incentives to throw at this objective. What can we do that is unique and different and meaningful?
How about this? How about, in order to show the YP’s of the world that Michigan is truly committed to this effort, we set aside one position on every board, commission, task force and advisory panel at the state, county and local level for a young professional. Create an extra slot or fill all newly vacated positions with a YP.
This is a no cost, highly visible way to show the level of commitment we as a state have to this important group. This would show YP’s that not only do we want you located in our communities; we want you engaged in the decision making that will shape our communities. It would infuse new perspectives, new energy and a new level of connectivity between experienced leaders and young leaders in helping chart the future course of our state.
I have made the very conscious decision to live my life and build my company in Detroit. As I interact with the many people and groups of which I am a part, I often here people say that it (the economy, the political quagmire in Lansing, etc.) will get better eventually; some even put a timeframe on it: after Obama takes office or by the end of 2009.
These are people I generally consider thoughtful and insightful professionals. And yet they say this without any meaningful analysis of the current state of affairs or identifying a process or even a sequence of events required to address the types of things that need to happen to "fix" Michigan.
The only explanation I can come up with for this lack of real analysis of the situation is that they don’t want to think about what the alternative would mean for them and the lifestyle they have become accustom to. Thinking about changing careers or moving out of the area can really rain on your parade; so many people simply convince themselves that it is not going to happen.
Burying our heads in the sand can be very dangerous for us as a region. I have chosen to be here because I believe there is a great future ahead for Michigan, but it isn’t just going to happen. We can’t sit back and let time pass so it can heal all wounds. We must take action; meaningful, thoughtful, coordinated action. That means you, me, our legislators and everyone else. Reading what others think needs to get done doesn’t bring us any closer to a solution. We must act, individually and collectively. It will take all of us to accomplish this immense and important task. And unfortunately not everyone can or will grab the rope and pull so those of us that do have to pull doubly hard.
What can we, the young professionals (YP’s) of metro Detroit do? How do we become part of the solution?
It’s a balance between sticking together within groups of ourselves to create a diverse community of connected, supportive, like-minded individuals that can collectively leverage the power and influence of a coordinated group and integrating ourselves into the established power structure. Finding a home within the community of engaged YP’s is relatively easy. If you need help getting connected, start with organizations like Fusion, GLUE, Young Professionals Leadership Council, United Way and the seventy or so other YP focused groups in the area. The more difficult task is getting inserted into the established decision making bodies that govern our communities and set the tone and direction of the institutions that drive our region.
How do we do that?
Here is a thought starter for you: Get involved in local, regional or state politics. Get appointed to your local planning commission, run for County Commissioner, encourage a YP to run for state office and support their campaign, or better yet, run for office yourself.
I believe Detroit is at an inflection point in its history and the decision we make today will determine our future course. When I talk about taking action, I am talking about game-changing action. That doesn’t mean spending three hours on a Saturday morning serving breakfast at a soup kitchen, which is certainly a laudable action and necessary in our communities, but for those of you that have the skills and abilities to be a game-changer, go do it in whatever way suits you. Invest the time and make the sustained and consistent commitment to become part of the solution. Just think about where we could take this place if we were in charge!
Michigan is at a crossroads. There are important and difficult decisions to be made. We each have an opportunity and, I believe, a responsibility to play a leadership roll in what those decisions will be. I will share with you this week my thoughts on why I chose to locate in Michigan, the critical importance of young talent in our state and a few ideas about what we as a state and as young professionals can do to move Michigan forward.
One other thing that will be helpful to understand as you read on is that any reference I make to Detroit means all of southeast Michigan which includes Ann Arbor and other non-Detroit proper areas - even though there are elements from each side that prefer to disassociate themselves from the other.
Ann Arbor in particular is a critical part of the future of SE Michigan and Detroit benefits from the intellectual and innovative elements of Ann Arbor.
Symbiotically, without Detroit (and a strong Detroit) Ann Arbor is an isolated outpost lacking many of the big-city benefits it realizes by having a large metropolitan area as close as Detroit.
As a former Ann Arbor resident (I now live in Ferndale) I can attest that part of what contributes to Ann Arbor’s great quality of life is the benefit of living in a smaller University town while still having easy access to big-city amenities.
Why am I here?
Before I get into the throws of this blog I have been asked to write, I will try to provide some perspective on the experiences that color my view of the world and, more importantly, the lens through which I view the issue of moving Michigan forward.
I, along with my younger brother and sister, was born in Cadillac but raised in Muskegon by amazing parents. My dad was a teacher and coach at a Catholic school, my mom stayed home to raise the three of us. They managed to raise a family of five on today’s equivalent of $33,642. We qualified for food stamps but my parents wouldn’t take them. They felt they were able-bodied people who should be responsible for taking care of themselves. I didn’t realize we were "poor" at the time. I never knew any better.
Eventually, my father left teaching and became a life insurance salesman. By the time I was in the 8th grade, we were situated in more of a true middle class lifestyle. We once even got to take a vacation to Sea World in Ohio!
Jump to undergrad: Mechanical Engineering at Michigan Tech. University, after which I was on to the prototypical automotive career as an engineer at General Motors - mostly manufacturing engineering. I earned a Masters in Engineering from Purdue at night. I spent time as a line supervisor at Pontiac East Assembly Plant with about 30 UAW represented employees working in my department. I then moved to the roll of Business Manager of Final Assembly (125 hourly employees and 5 salaried supervisors) before "retiring" from the auto industry. I left GM in May of 2001 to attend business school at Stanford University.
After earning an MBA at Stanford I followed my wife to Ann Arbor where she was attending Law School at U of M. I was a post MBA career changer, moving into real estate development. I worked for a small developer for three years, and after my wife passed the Bar Exam, I started my own development company focusing on urban, infill redevelopment. That was two years ago. As you can imagine, it is a tough time to start a real estate business.
My wife and I have chosen Michigan as our home and the place we will build our careers and raise a family. I view Michigan and Detroit as a place with great opportunity and equally great challenges. I am often asked why I am here; why I came back and am now staying. People say to me "you have the skills to go anywhere in the world and succeed. Why are you screwing around in Detroit?" I am understandably asked similar questions by my business school classmates from New York, London, San Francisco, Chicago and other world class cities. However, the most fervent questioners are those born and raised here; life-long Michiganders who know this place for better and worse.
I am here because the Detroit region fits me. It’s real, unpretentious, maybe even slightly unrefined. It has history, character, challenges, potential and it has a future that I can be part of shaping. It is big enough to have everything a major metropolitan area can offer, while the circle of engaged individuals and organizations is small enough that you can get to know people and have a meaningful impact on your community.
I am here because I love this state, because there is opportunity amidst the challenges we now face and because even though I am young and early in my career (maybe precisely because of that) I can help shape Michigan’s future.