West Michigan Lakeshore employer outlook positive despite 2020 challenges

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lakeshore economy is poised for growth over the next three years. 
 
That’s the finding of the 2020 Business Intelligence Report, based on an analysis of business executive interview responses from 120 companies in Allegan, Muskegon, and Ottawa counties.
Jennifer Owens is president of Lakeshore Advantage. 
Nearly three out of four respondents anticipate new products in the next two years. Companies reporting new goods on the horizon tended to be in advanced manufacturing, aerospace, automotive, durable goods manufacturing, and food processing industries. 
 
While the pandemic has been disruptive in many ways, it didn’t stall product development efforts for companies like Gentex in Zeeland.
 
“This past year, we developed new partnerships, acquired innovative technologies, and expanded our product portfolio, not only in the automotive industry, but also entirely new markets,” says Craig Piersma, Gentex Director of Marketing and Corporate Communications. “This growth trajectory will continue in 2021 as we extend our capabilities in digital vision, dimmable glass, car connectivity, and sensing systems.” 
 
Looking to the future
 
The report captures a pre-pandemic baseline and reveals what’s top of mind for area employers as they emerge from a crisis stage and look to the future.
 
“Data drives our work, and employer input is crucial to support our local economic base. In the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we administered 10 weekly quick polls and received 1,000 responses that enabled us to meet immediate business needs,” says Jennifer Owens, Lakeshore Advantage President.  
 
Business leader responses several months into the pandemic show that — while down from pre-COVID-19 responses — 72% of companies are currently reporting increasing or stable sales. These companies were likely to be in advanced manufacturing, durable goods manufacturing, and food processing industries.
 
Offering perspective
 
When asked about changes their companies plan to make in the next six months, 47% of respondents reported a focus on increasing sales efforts while 32% were boosting marketing efforts.

The report gives companies in Muskegon, Ottawa, and Allegan counties a bird’s-eye perspective on how the pandemic has affected businesses in the region, according to Morgan Carroll, Great Muskegon Economic Development Director of Business Development.
Morgan Carroll 
“They can compare how they're performing with some of the top corporations in West Michigan, see how their own industry has been impacted, and learn about what others are doing to adapt,”  Carroll says. “This report also reinforces that every company, no matter their size, has had to make changes, but the overall outlook for growth along the Lakeshore is strong."
 
Plans for expansion
 
Before mid-March, three out of four employers indicated they had plans to expand in the next three years. When asked this question again several months post-pandemic onset, 55% of business executives indicated plans to expand in that time frame. 
 
Perrigo, a leading provider of quality, affordable self-care products with their North American Base of Operations in the West Michigan Lakeshore Region, started construction on two distribution centers in the region in 2020.
 
“Our combined Allegan and Ottawa County campuses comprise the company’s largest manufacturing operations by far, representing more than half of all the units we produce on a global basis,” says Ron Janish, Perrigo’s Executive Vice President, Global Operations and Supply Chain. “With 11,000 employees globally and over 4,000 employees in West Michigan, the region is truly the cornerstone of our global operating network.”
 
Report on region
 
Business executive interviews were conducted by Lakeshore Advantage, Greater Muskegon Economic Development, The Chamber of Commerce Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg, and other area chambers to produce this regional West Michigan Lakeshore-area report.

Elizabeth Butler 
“(Our chamber) has been partnering with Lakeshore Advantage on collecting this data. ... Including business leaders from Northwest Ottawa County responses with others in the Lakeshore region gives a regional perspective on the Lakeshore’s economic health and vitality,” says Elizabeth Butler, Chamber of Commerce of Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg Director of Economic Development Strategic Directions.
 
The report also highlights company partnerships and expansions, expansion trends, and industry trends to look for in 2021. The full 2020 Business Intelligence Report is available at bir.lakeshoreadvantage.com.
 
This just in ...
 
Owens, along with Lakeshore Advantage staff and board members, presented the highlights on Jan. 29 in a fun 30-minute newscast format in lieu of the traditional luncheon that was canceled because of restrictions the pandemic has placed on large gatherings.
 
In the West Michigan Lakeshore Region, manufacturing accounts for about 40%  of the Gross Regional Product for Allegan, Muskegon, and Ottawa counties. Jobwise, manufacturing makes up 28% of jobs, with workers, in general, earning 33% more in hourly compensation — wages and benefits — than comparable workers in the rest of the private sector.  
 
Launched in 2003, Lakeshore Advantage assists primary employers, from startups to large world-class corporations, in West Michigan’s Allegan and Ottawa counties. In 2020, it supported 14 business growth projects, resulting in $152 million in private investment and 652 new jobs, and assisted 395 primary employers. Those stats reflect double the typical support in a year. 
 
In addition, the economic development organization also provided resources to 63 startup companies that raised $2.1 million in capital and administered two grant programs that injected $3.625 million into the local economy for more than 450 small businesses. 
 

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.

Shandra Martinez is the managing editor of The Lakeshore WM.
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