Dean Barber

A Comeback Story

In Site Selection on October 6, 2014 at 1:10 pm

People love stories. I love stories and sometimes will frequently tell them in order to make a point.

I am by no means an accomplished storyteller, as I can recognize squirming body language and the pained expression of someone trying to be polite. Still, I will inflict a story upon others in the belief that it may touch them in some way for the better.

In helping companies find that best and most efficient place from which to operate, I am hugely dependent on data, most of it unsurprising and mundane. At those times, when pouring over columns of numbers, I am engaged in abstract or analytical thinking in order to make any sense of it. And to stay awake.

How About a Little Exceptional?

Narrative thinking, encapsulated in storytelling, is a different animal. It is ideally suited to the exceptional, which is what I would think that any economic developer would want to convey about his or her community.

Pull up a chair, Mr. Dean Barber, and let me tell you why Skunkfoot is so very special. As I see myself a participant in a largely incomprehensible cosmic play with its own conflicts, characters, beginning, middle, and end, chances are I am going to take the time to listen.

Even if it is not a particularly good story, I will most likely get something from it. But if it’s a great story, well, you might just have me hooked.

Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain were all great storytellers. Their stories thrived on conflict and disruptions from the ordinary. And so they were irreverent and poked fun and criticized the way things were but also shed light on the way things could be. I would advise you read them.

But Now I See

This past week, I was in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the surrounding region. Like all places, I needed data, by which I could flip on the analytical switch and make deductions. But I also wanted to hear stories, because that would give me further meaning of the place.

The big story, the over-riding story of Michigan, and not just of the Ann Arbor region, is one of comeback. And everybody loves a comeback or a turnaround story as it plays to the dramatic narrative. As the old hymn reminded us, “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.”

Said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan: “There’s really been a big, big change recently.”

I credit much of the positive change to Gov. Rick Snyder, who just might be my favorite economic development governor now. I like the efforts put forth by Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Rick Scott in Florida and Dennis Daugaard in South Dakota, who comes across as almost weirdly humble. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Rick Perry in Texas also seem quite keen on economic development in their respective states.

Snyder’s Way

But Snyder, a former venture capitalist and chairman of Gateway Computer, has been the principal architect of a wholesale recovery plan the likes of which I don’t think I have ever seen before.

Since taking office in January 2011, about 300,000 new private sector jobs have been created under Snyder’s watch and the unemployment rate has been nearly halved from 13.6 percent to 7.4 percent.

The Tax Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, ranked Michigan’s corporate tax climate ninth most favorable in the country for 2014. The state was ranked 48th in 2011, before the Michigan Business Tax, an unpopular value-added tax, was repealed soon after Snyder took office.

Michigan now ranks sixth nationwide for the best entrepreneurial climate, up from 41st in 2007 and 2008, according to MiQuest, a Lansing-based nonprofit.

The state had 103 active venture-backed firms in 2014, up 66 percent in the last five years, according to a report released earlier this year by the Michigan Venture Capital Association.

Under Snyder’s watch, an unemployment trust fund that had a deficit of $3.9 billion now has a $1.5 billion surplus.

A Tectonic Shift

But in terms of grabbing headlines and creating the most chatter, Michigan becoming a right-to-work state is something akin to a tectonic shift. I know that it fascinated me and that I wrote plenty about it, because it happened in the very cradle of organized labor.

Snyder maintains the right-to-work issue wasn’t on his agenda until unions backed a voter proposal to place collective bargaining rights in the state constitution — a move he said would have been disastrous for the state’s already tarnished business climate.

“I didn’t go looking for this one, but when it’s put on the table, I don’t back away from a tough issue,” Snyder said.

And that seems to be the gist of why the business community supports him and hopes to stay the course with a second Snyder term. (But it is by no means a certainty, as polls indicate a tight race with Democratic challenger Mark Schauer.)

Snyder cultivates an image of being “one tough nerd” who is bi-partisan in his efforts to fix things that need fixing.

Business Backing

“For a while we were headed in the wrong way,” said Mark Alyea, president emeritus, Alro Steel Corporation. “That’s no longer true.”

Kurt Darrow, chairman, president and CEO of La-Z-Boy, which has been based in Michigan 89 years and recently moved into a new headquarters building in Monroe, said most business leaders are committed to Snyder’s reform agenda.

“We’re tired of being beat down and like the time when we were a top ten state,” Darrow said. “We’re going to do all we can get him re-elected because the alternative would be a big step backwards.”

Stephanie Hickman Boyse, CEO of Brazeway Inc., based in Adrian, said there has been “a complete change in culture with the workforce in Michigan” and yet the state retains a much deeper bench of skilled labor than in other states where it operates.

“The skill base is here. You can hire great engineers and great IT people, but we also have found higher skilled non-degreed people here in Michigan,” said Ms. Boyse, whose company manufactures HVAC, automotive, and refrigeration aluminum products.

“We cannot fill those jobs in Kentucky, Indiana, and Mexico like we can here. And that’s been an epiphany for our company.”

Like her fellow CEO members of Business Leaders for Michigan, she credits Snyder for much of the turnaround of the state’s fortunes.

“He’s a very down-to-earth, get-it-done kind of governor. His approach is ‘how quickly can we get this done?’ and ‘what is the right thing to do?’ He works with people to get a collaborative resolution in solving problems in a very nonpolitical manner. Rick has gotten people excited about the state of Michigan again.”

During my few days in Michigan last week, I came away with my own story based on hearing stories from others. I know this place now is a far bigger than Detroit alone, where a very positive story is playing out.

And while much of Michigan’s economy is tied to automotive manufacturing, there is a much wider diversity of companies making and doing other things. Michigan is the home of such prominent names as Whirlpool, Steelcase, Domino’s Pizza, Stryker Corp., Dow Chemical, Quicken Loans, and La-Z-Boy. And Google has initiated a growing tech cluster in downtown Ann Arbor.

In Harmony

Ann Arbor is also the home of what is ostensibly a pretty off-the-wall company called Zingerman’s, a multi-faceted $56 million, 700-employee food service business.

I had the pleasure, along with some fellow site selection consultants, to sit in a meeting where staff members reported on what was happening in their particular parts of the company. I remember one staffer saying that miniature-sized goats provided an inordinate amount of milk based on their size, which was certainly news to me.

I don’t know how I will ever be able to use that information, but it is nonetheless burnt in my brain as being exceptional. So, too, was hearing co-founder Ari Weinzberg, dressed in black jeans and a black t-shirt with rolled-up sleeves, explain how he wanted his company to “operate in harmony with nature.”

I just knew this was a fella who could tell a good story, but I had to leave before hearing one. At least I have one of his books – “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business.”

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

If you liked what you saw here, invite me to speak at your next meeting.

© Unauthorized use is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used with permission.

  1. I wonder if we’re seeing the beginning of a turnaround in the Midwest region as a whole. St. Louis companies received $400 million in funding last year as an example.

    It won’t be long before Texas cities, Atlanta and Florida become really overcrowded. Perhaps we’re starting to see the beginning of a 20-30 year trend. A
    s we’ve discussed, the Midwest has a very well-educated and talented pool of workers. If they become more innovation-focused, look out…

  2. Dean – Thanks for the nice recap about your trip to Michigan, it was great spending a few days with you in the Ann Arbor Region. Common sense reforms put in place over the past few years have redefined our business climate and made Michigan the nation’s comeback state. For your blog readers interested in learning more about doing business in Michigan, they can visit: or contact me at

    All the Best,

    Robert Wilson
    Senior Project Manager, Site Consultant Services
    Michigan Economic Development Corporation

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