Northern Lights: What it takes to recruit professionals here – and for natives to return

A driving economic development focus for Traverse City over the past several years has been centered on recruitment.

While organizations like Traverse Connect and Networks Northwest are using programming, job boards and grants, subtler factors like old-fashioned networking are often just as important for enticing individuals or enterprises to uproot their lives and businesses and set a course for northern Michigan.

The boomerang effect

Clint Martin says he and his wife had already committed to moving to Traverse City before any job was on his radar.

Clint Martin

“We just made the decision (to come home to Traverse City),” said Martin, a Traverse City native who moved back home from Grand Rapids in October. “Literally, my wife brought it up on a Saturday, and by Monday we were getting rid of furniture on Craigslist. I think two days after that, I applied for this job.”

“This job” was a design engineer position at TentCraft, a Traverse City-based custom pop up tent manufacturer on Cass Road.

Familiar with TentCraft’s reputation as both a business and an employer – and in possession of an intimate sense of the company’s culture and operations, thanks to a friend who used to work there – Martin decided to apply only for that one job and to invest in becoming the best candidate he could be.

His commitment, he says, was mirrored by the company’s own meticulous hiring process.

“I picked this job and I just focused all my energy onto this one, instead of sending out 100 cover letters,” he said. “I appreciated how extensive the interview process was. I did a lot of interviews, talked to a lot of people, and spent, in total, probably five or six hours (just interviewing). That gave me a really good indication of how picky they were about who they wanted to hire.

“My presumption from there was, ‘If they’re this picky about all of their hires, they probably have a pretty awesome company.’”

Just like most communities large and small, Traverse City employers are always seeking applicants from far and wide.

According to Rob Hanel, people manager for TentCraft, hiring from a wide talent pool has always been one of the company’s keys to snagging good hires. For many jobs, TentCraft opens up a nationwide candidate search, regularly interviewing applicants from Oregon, California, Texas and beyond. Those far-flung candidates mix into the same applicant pool that includes job prospects from Traverse City and Michigan as a whole – typically giving Hanel and his hiring managers 100-200 applicants for higher-level positions.

Hanel credits much of the success of the company’s recruitment process to how thorough and deliberate the team is about every piece of that puzzle. Hanel says it’s typical for 90-100 days to elapse from opening to offer. Some of that time goes into “scrubbing” job applications, or writing new and original content every time a job posting goes out.

This process, Hanel says, allows TentCraft to adapt its postings based on what has or hasn’t worked in the past, as well as to shifting industry trends or changing needs within the company. In turn, he feels the uniqueness of TentCraft’s job descriptions helps attract eyeballs and inspire unique, engaged candidate cover letters.

TentCraft typically screens 20-30 candidates, narrowing down the pool further. Most are Zoom interviews, though Hanel says TentCraft is incorporating one visit to the Traverse City office for local and out-of-town candidates alike. Part of the utility of that in-person visit – and one reason it’s still in place – is that it allows top candidates to engage with everyone they would be working with.

“You meet with the hiring manager, but you also meet with your would-be peers in the organization and with your subordinates, or the people who would be reporting to you,” Hanel said.

The hiring managers then work with these would-be peers and subordinates for a group-driven “scorecard process,” where everyone gets a voice in who gets hired.

For two recent positions at TentCraft – supply chain manager and design engineer – the company executed nationwide candidate searches only to find their hires close to home.

Wendy VanderMeulen, who took the supply chain manager role in November, relocated to Traverse City from Kalamazoo, where she had been working for Western Michigan University.

Both Vandermeulen and Martin are examples of Traverse City natives who had moved away but have now “boomeranged” their way back home.

Hanel is a boomerang himself: Matt Bulloch, TentCraft’s president, says Hanel was living in Newport Beach, California working for larger firm until 2016, when Bulloch convinced him to come back to Traverse City and take over TentCraft’s human resources department.

Despite that, and despite Hanel’s confessed fondness for helping Traverse City natives get back to the area with good-paying jobs, he says TentCraft never prioritizes boomerangs in its hiring.

“Of course we want to bring people back to the area,” Hanel said. “But we’re also committed to hiring the best talent, and that’s why we open up a nationwide search.”

In the cases of both VanderMeulen and Martin, the best talent just happened to come in the form of boomerangs. Both employees say they had been looking for ways to get back to Traverse City for years; with TentCraft, everything lined up – from the timing to the salaries to the jobs themselves – to make those relocations worthwhile.

“My husband and I have been talking about wanting to move to Traverse City for several years now, but started seriously discussing the possibility within the last couple years as he transitioned to a remote/travel position,” VanderMeulen said. “I grew up here and have a lot of great memories of my childhood. Now that we have children, we wanted to be able to provide them with a similar experience.”

VanderMeulen adds that Traverse City’s proximity to water, wealth of outdoor activities, and preponderance of great restaurants all factored into a desire to get back to the region, as did family ties.

“My parents still live here, so my children are able to spend more time with their grandparents,” she said.

Ultimately, those factors outweighed some of the cons, such as the short supply of quality daycare and preschool options, the competitive real estate market, and the higher cost of living.

Why not Traverse City?

The promise of a simpler northern Michigan lifestyle seems to lure back those who grew up here.

But business owners who have established their enterprises elsewhere or for high-level executives, relocating to a place like Traverse City isn’t as easy as quitting one job and finding another.

In recent years, local economic development players have encouraged existing businesses to uproot their entire operations and move them to Traverse City. Casey Cowell, founder of Boomerang Catapult, famously got ATLAS Space Operations to move its headquarters from California to Traverse City in exchange for a sizable investment.

Traverse Connect, meanwhile, has an entire page of resources on its website targeted at businesses owners looking to move their companies to Traverse City.

For Warner Queeny, Edith Elliott and Jason Saarm, these precedents, resources, and economic development advocates helped pave the way for business relocations that may have seemed out of reach even a few years ago.

Warren Queeny

Queeny is the chief financial officer for Dunzo, an India-based company that he describes as being “like Uber, but for anything.” His wife, Elliott, is the founder and CEO of Noora Health, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving healthcare outcomes at hospitals in India. Saarm is the founder of Bluewater Insurance, a specialty insurance provider geared toward collectors of art and other high-value assets.

All three have ties to the Traverse City area and have (somewhat unexpectedly) found their way back to the region in the past three years.

While neither Queeny nor Elliott ever called Traverse City home until recently, Elliott said she and her family were among the many people who used to flock to the area as a summer getaway.

Six years ago, when her parents relocated to Traverse City full time, northern Michigan became a “home base” – the place where family got together in the summer or at holidays.

At the time, a move to the Grand Traverse region wasn’t in the cards for the couple. He was working for an e-commerce startup in Boston; she was running Noora Health from afar.

“I was going back and forth, and I was spending about half the year in India,” Elliott said. “And at a certain point, it just got to be too much. We decided to relocate to Bangalore full time, and India became home. I continued running my nonprofit, and Warner started working for Dunzo.”

Edith Elliott

Those jobs were difficult to separate from Bangalore itself. Elliott has a team of roughly 170 people on the ground in India, working face-to-face with hospital patients and their families to provide training on aftercare protocols. That training, which covers everything from medication adherence to wound care, helps ensure patients recover safely and fully once discharged from the hospital. Queeny, meanwhile, is one of the key cogs in the executive leadership of Dunzo, an enterprise whose entire business model relies on a network of gig economy workers throughout India.

“We have about 100,000 guys on the ground across the country that have smartphones, credit cards, and motorcycles,” Queeny said of Dunzo’s “Uber-like” model. “They’ll go out and do anything that you want – anything that’s legal – for about $1, and get it done in under an hour.” From grocery runs to filling prescriptions, Dunzo has become a fixture of modern-day life for many in India – raising over $150 million in investment capital along the way, with its largest investor being Google.

Despite these ties to India, Queeny and Elliott ultimately decided to head back stateside in 2017 when they were expecting their first child. Their ties to northern Michigan, combined with a well-timed connection to Casey Cowell, led the couple to ask, “Why not Traverse City?”

“I had heard about Casey and Boomerang Catapult,” Queeny said. “So I just shot Casey an email and said, ‘Hey, I’ve heard a lot of good things; if you have time, I’d love to meet up and of hear what you think about opportunities in the area.’”

The two sat down and talked for two hours, acclimating Queeny to the idea of moving to Traverse City.

“That conversation got me not only comfortable with the idea of moving to Traverse, but also excited about it,” he said. “There seemed to be a lot of the fundamentals in place for this to be a good high-growth sort of place to raise a family and build a business.”

That connection also led to Queeny’s first job after moving back to Michigan: the CFO role with a Cowell-owned business venture called GeoTix. Queeny also served briefly as that business’s CEO up until about six months ago, when he and Cowell sold GeoTix to a new owner.

Now Queeny is back with Dunzo, working remotely as the company’s CFO. Elliott, meanwhile, is once again managing her Noora Health team from afar.

Eventually, both Queeny and Elliott say they expect they’ll establish office presences and small teams of employees locally. In the meantime, both are enjoying the relative peace that pandemic precautions have afforded them.

Less travel, a worldwide embrace of remote work, and an urge to stay isolated in household “bubbles” are factors that, collectively, have given the two more time to focus on parenthood.

“We’re so privileged that we got to spend so much time with this new roommate of ours,” Elliott laughed, noting that working on India time – which is 10 and a half hours ahead of Traverse City time – typically means busy mornings but open afternoons. “When our workday wraps up, we go for walks by the lake with our daughter and watch the sunset. It’s beyond ideal.”

For Jason Saarm of Bluewater Insurance, it was also the ties he had to the area that led him to relocate his business to Traverse City in 2020. A Thompsonville native, Saarm started his career in specialty insurance working for Hagerty in 2005. That job was actually the thing that took him out of northern Michigan, demanding relocations to Charlotte, Kansas City, and Los Angeles over the years.

In 2017, he established Bluewater in California. By 2020, with the company’s West Coast presence “pretty solidified,” Saarm was looking to push growth in the Midwest and on the East Coast. The first spot that came to mind was Traverse City.

“(This area) has a lot of opportunity when it comes to entrepreneurialism,” Saarm said. “I think I can really build this company here. There’s a good, strong network. There are a lot of skilled workers. There’s a talent pool that doesn’t get enough credit.”

Saarm says that he learned a lot during his time at Hagerty, lessons he brought over to Bluewater.

“They’re such a wonderful organization and the talent pool there is very wide,” he said. “My thought process was, ‘Well, if they can do it (in northern Michigan), and they have a blueprint, Bluewater should be able to do that, too.’”

Saarm also says he had an ally for his relocation in Warren Call, president and CEO of Traverse Connect. Call and his team helped Saarm navigate the legal and compliance factors involved in relocating an insurance business to a new state.

That assistance, Saarm says, doesn’t exist in every community, but has been helpful in setting his business up for success.

“Moving a company from California to Michigan isn’t easy,” Saarm said. “But Traverse Connect provided the information and assistance that helped to make it easy, which is great. To have them there, just helping out a small specialty insurance startup like mine feel comfortable and welcomed – and to know that they’re here for support, to make sure we’re successful – that feels really good.”