When Marla Schneider was the president of Three Rivers Distilling Co. in Fort Wayne, Indiana, her hard work earned her the 2021 Small Business of the Year from Greater Fort Wayne Inc. It was well-deserved, considering she didn’t plan on pivoting from creating alcohol to manufacturing hand sanitizer, but she and her team did it.
“We rode through the pandemic as an essential business, manufacturing and donating over 9,000 gallons of hand sanitizer to the community,” Schneider explains. “It was an experience like none other, and I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it, but my time had come to get back into economic development, which is what brought me to Muskegon.”
Schneider joined the Greater Muskegon Economic Development (GMED)
team as the president/CEO on June 1, 2022.
Career took a turn
She was born and raised in Fort Wayne before attending the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in information technology with an emphasis in web, media, and human performance.
“I have definitely had an interesting career path,” Schneider says. “[In New York] I was a developer for websites and information systems in the nuclear power plant industry for an inspection company. After 9/11 happened, I decided that I wanted to move back to Indiana to be near my family. I accepted a job in economic development as a marketing manager and felt like I found my true passion.”
She worked in economic development for a decade in Fort Wayne and then in business development for seven years with start-up ventures. Schneider was among Fort Wayne Business Weekly Magazine’s “Forty Under 40” winners in 2014.
“My goal when I left economic development in 2015 was to gain private sector experience, so that when I decided to return to economic development, I would be more in tune with the challenges that businesses face in phases of growth,” she explains.
Eager for Muskegon move
She gained great experience when she worked in the private sector but missed the world of economic development, and the Muskegon job seemed like a perfect fit.
“I’ve always loved West Michigan and I have family ties in Ludington, so I was somewhat familiar with the Muskegon area,” explains Schneider. “Once I researched and visited Muskegon for the first time, I was very impressed with the momentum of the community and the willingness to change, but also to preserve the community’s brand personality and be authentic to the history and the residents who live here.”
As GMED president/CEO, Schneider oversees the economic development programs that support the community’s business growth. She also is responsible for cultivating partnerships with businesses, elected officials, regional and state economic development partners, and other stakeholders to develop the vision and strategic plan for economic development in Muskegon County.
“We have three key priorities that we’ve established for the organization this year,” Schneider says. “The first is to meet with 400 businesses from varying industries in Muskegon County. This is a shift from only focusing on advanced manufacturing in the past. The second goal is to work with our school systems and higher education institutions to help develop talent and workforce for our base employers. The third priority is to work with the Muskegon Heights community to help with redevelopment aligning with the vision plan for the community.”
Her personal goals for the organization include attaining more private investment in economic development from local industries and to be recognized as the first point of contact for business and economic growth in Muskegon County.
“In order to do this, we need to be more visible and communicate our values and successes to the community using marketing and public relations platforms,” Schneider says.
Building the organization
Her early time on the job consisted of getting to know staff better, from their roles to their passions; meeting as many business leaders, elected officials, stakeholders as possible; and learning the organization’s policies, finances, data systems, and other practices.
“Alongside those activities, I also compiled a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis that I performed with each of my board members individually to establish our organization’s goals for 2023,” says Schneider.
She’s still meeting with as many businesses and stakeholders as possible each week in addition to working on a structure for the organization to be systematic internally.
“I’m also working on our external relations and marketing, from building private investments to more brand exposure for the organization,” Schneider says. “Muskegon has a great deal of momentum for development, but there is still a lot of work to be done to empower, expand scope, and build capacity into the economic development organization, which is one of my goals.”
Schneider is off to a busy start, but she is determined to make Muskegon a place that its residents are excited to call home.
“Ever since I moved here, I have been telling everyone that Muskegon is West Michigan’s best kept secret,” she says. “I don’t think that the rest of the tri-state area has quite caught on that Muskegon has shifted from a heavy industrial city to an environmentally conscious, inclusive community with an abundance of natural assets, beautiful beaches, winter activities, and advanced industries that are beginning to attract a diversified workforce.
“It is sure to catch on in the next decade, and then Muskegon will have an entirely new set of good, growing pain challenges to overcome. I’m enjoying the time that we are in now, but also looking forward to the day when we’re talking about boutique hotels and parking garages.”