Manufacturing groups share ideas, resources

GT REGION – A quick glance around the Traverse region and the scenery showcases a setting for agricultural and recreational pursuits. Tucked behind the trees, however, a thriving, though challenged, manufacturing industry exists.

Recent headlines have reported several plant closings and loss of more than 1,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000 in northern Michigan. The Michigan automotive and its support industries have fallen on hard times adding to the misfortune of supplier operations here in the north.

In fact, manufacturing on a whole in the United States has been challenged in recent years by the global market forces, yet northern Michigan finds itself sustaining and taking innovative approaches to remain competitive.

One reason may be three organizations that offer support for the region's manufacturing industry. The Traverse City Industrial Council, a private, invitation-only group, the Northwest Michigan Tooling Coalition, an initiative of the Traverse Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Northwest Michigan Industrial Association, a seven-county organization offering a variety of support programs to 98 manufacturing companies.

The Northwest Michigan Tooling Coalition (NMTC):

The NMTC is comprised of 12 member firms that collaborate and network to increase sales, preserve contracts and keep tooling jobs here in the region by remaining competitive in the global marketplace.

Jim Donaldson, director of Business and Community Development for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, oversees the coalition.

"The NMTC member firms individually have strengths, but in the global marketplace buyers are looking for one-stop shopping," said Donaldson. "This coalition allows for sharing of resources so equipment doesn't have to be duplicated. This enables contracts to remain in the area, it also expands the opportunities for additional contracts. We are able to compete with full-service tooling companies overseas."

Donaldson and NMTC members recently attended the Center for Automotive Research Center Management Briefings seminar at the Grand Traverse Resort and met with Dr. Jay Baron, a leading authority on the tooling coalition approach.

"Jay Baron is the father of the coalition approach to tooling. He has traveled the world and observed tooling operations and is the leading authority on this subject," said Donaldson. "He did not offer a lot of encouraging words for the American manufacturing industry. He did emphasize that success in the future is dependent on these coalitions. The NMTC is one of 22 such coalitions in Michigan."

While the NMTC does not work to recruit new tooling firms to the area, they serve as a valuable resource in the Chamber's efforts to do so.

"This group is very cooperative in sharing information and resources when we (TC Chamber) are meeting with potential manufacturing operations looking to locate here," said Donaldson. "One thing that surprises everyone is the manufacturing infrastructure the area has. There are 8,000 jobs and more than 400 manufacturing firms."

Additional information about the Northwest Michigan Tooling Council may be found at northwestmichigantooling.com or by contacting Jim Donaldson at the Traverse City Area Chamber at 995-7116.

Northwest Michigan Industrial Association (NWMIA):

Established in 1974 the NWMIA has 98 companies in seven counties (Emmet, Charlevoix, Antrim, Otsego, Grand Traverse, Cheboygan and Kalkaska) that collectively employ more than 8,000 with a combined payroll of $200 million annually. The organization's mission is "to serve any need a manufacturer may have in conducting business in northern Michigan."

This year the group elected its first female president: Deb Knutson, manufacturing/procurement manager at Industrial Magnetics, Inc. (IMI) of Boyne City. Knutson found her way on the board a few years ago after she inquired about what exactly the organization did.

"I was aware of the workers comp insurance program, but outside of that I had questions as to exactly what IMI was getting for our dues," said Knutson. "I went to a meeting and the next thing I know, I'm on the board. What I found was a very strong organization that offered a variety of services and support to the northern Michigan manufacturing industry."

Knutson points to the areas of safety and "lean manufacturing" as among the most important.

"We focus a lot of our attention on the latest methods in lean manufacturing, which is so crucial to anyone in manufacturing," said Knutson. "Our members are all over the board in what they manufacture, but there are similar manufacturing principals that benefit us all. In fact, we are currently working on having a lean accounting workshop for sometime this fall."

Because of the diversity of the membership, the NWMIA is not able to take a coalition approach, but they are able to share resources.

"We focus on the education companies need to stay in business. We share supplier information," said Knutson. "There are so many resources out there that our members may not be aware of and the NWMIA is a central resource. It is a place to start when you need information."

Knutson is proud at how NWMIA pulls together to help displaced workers when manufacturing facilities in the region close.

"We have lost three of four members in the past couple of years because of plant closings and we serve as a network to help get these employees who have lost their jobs placed with our other member companies," said Knutson. The NWMIA also surveys its members on what salary and benefits they offer. Recently it added an Employment Law Hotline that allows members to call to get answer to employment issues.

"Applying the ever-changing employment laws to the fluid workplace challenges employers and leaves employers with the cost of compliance," said Steve Fishman, whose company, The Fishman Group, provides the service. "Employers must stay informed to avoid the expense of incorrect employment decisions."

In addition to the upcoming Lean Accounting workshop, the NWMIA will host their annual Business Expo at Castle Farms on Oct. 11.

Additional information on the NWMIA may be found at nwmia.org.

Traverse City Industrial Council:

Comprised of manufacturing firms in the Traverse City area the TC Industrial Council is a peer support group established to addresses industry issues.

According to Chairman Chris Gladieux, the Industrial Council offers an environment "to share information and professional enrichment and mutual problem solving on issues that effect local manufacturers." Members are either owners or general managers of local manufacturing firms.

"We don't have dues or a board. Our group is by invitation only and your company has to manufacture something that goes into a box and is shipped," said Gladieux. "We are not affiliated with any other organization and remain independent without associate memberships. This allows us to stay focused on our needs and not the needs of others."

The TC Industrial Council's focus is on existing manufacturing operations and the group does not involve itself in recruitment of new industrial or manufacturing businesses. Gladieux points out that there are plenty of challenges for the area's existing operations to keep their organization busy.

"Some manufacturers in the region are thriving but many others are struggling, especially any dependent on the Michigan economy or the Big Three (automobile)," said Gladieux. "Northern Michigan has a huge freight disadvantage and all raw products have to be shipped in and finished products have basically only one way out that is south as we have water on three sides of us. So this adds expense and time."

Despite challenges, Gladieux sees several positives to manufacturing in northern Michigan.

"Several area manufacturers who have diversified and sell to the world market or to prosperous areas like energy, health care, high tech are doing very well," said Gladieux. "Northern Michigan can be a great place to manufacture if you have a clean process and a relatively freight insensitive product."

The TC Industrial Council meets monthly. To inquire about the group, contact Gladieux at 929-4923.

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