The 2021 TCBN Local Manufacturing Survey

What do laser components, automation robotics, screen protectors, medical devices, and aerospace parts have in common? They’re all on the list of the many products that are manufactured right here in northern Michigan.

The service industry may be the most visible driver of the northern Michigan economy, but manufacturing is the hidden engine. According to data from the Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council (GTAMC), manufacturing jobs account for 16.7% of the workforce in Grand Traverse County. For the five-county region of Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Kalkaska counties, it’s 13.3%.

Statistically, those jobs are also some of the area’s top-paying positions: GTAMC reports that the average annual salary for manufacturing professionals in the region is $61,285 – 40% higher than the overall average regional wage of $43,420.

Despite these numbers, the manufacturing sector has not been immune to the challenges that have hit other employers in the region over the past several years. From labor shortages to COVID-19 effects, local manufacturers are largely working through the same challenges as other local employers.

The TCBN surveyed local manufacturers to get a better sense of what’s made here, how far and wide locally manufactured projects reach, what the major challenges are right now, and how supportive northern Michigan is to its manufacturing sector.

Ryan Kennedy, Britten, Inc.

Products manufactured: Britten, Inc. manufactures wide format print solutions, including banners, marketing and advertising signage, event signage, and building wraps. Britten also manufactures custom woodworking, aluminum framing systems, three-dimensional foam displays, and customized steel shipping containers.

Industries served: Our customer base is diverse, much like our product portfolio. Major industries served include retail, sports, event venues, architectural firms, cannabis dispensaries, restaurants, and entertainment.

Export countries: Britten’s customer base is primarily within the continental United States. However, we have exported to Canada, Mexico, and European and Caribbean countries.

Projected 2022 revenue growth: We project 15% in revenue growth for 2022. There are a lot of factors that influence this projection, including COVID and its effect on the events industry.

Biggest challenge: Our single biggest challenge as a company is finding and hiring additional manufacturing employees. We have an outstanding team, but we need more people to support our company’s growth.

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: The Grand Traverse area has become more business-friendly the past couple of years, and organizations like Traverse Connect and the GTAMC have provided tools and resources that support manufacturing growth within our community.

The Grand Traverse region’s biggest need to grow manufacturing: In order to grow manufacturing in the region, the Grand Traverse area needs to continue to support the development of skilled trades education, as well as provide affordable housing options within the area.

Don Howe, Century Inc.

Products manufactured: There are two sides of our business. We have a machining division and a thermal processing division. In the machining division, we do parts for aerospace, oil and gas, mining, nuclear, and a lot of the energy-types of business.

We also make the main rotor transmission shaft for the Bell 407 helicopter and the Bell 429 helicopter. And we make a lot of tooling. So if you think about the sheet metal on the front of your refrigerator or your dishwasher, we make the giant rolls that those are made from. We also do copper reducing tooling, which is what we started on back in 1974 when we moved up here. And our latest endeavor is with Parker Hannifin, where we do the actuating pistons for the hydraulic cylinders for the for the wings (of aircraft).

The heat-treat side is our thermal processing and we have many different processes. We have conduction, ion, atmosphere, and vacuum. Probably our biggest competitive advantage is our deep salt line. We have one of the deepest salt lines in North America, which allows us to thermally process really long parts. We do a lot of tooling (in that salt line) for the automotive industry and for aerospace.

Industries served: Aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, mining, energy and more.

Export countries: We have Canada, Mexico, Europe, some of Asia and Taiwan. We’re pretty global.

Projected 2022 revenue growth: Our goal is 10-15% growth next year. We’ve gone through an ownership change, so our expectations are changing. We’ve been pretty stagnant for a while, and COVID obviously hurt a lot of people. But to put us in the position where we want to be, 10-15% growth is what we’re targeting.

Biggest challenge: Labor. It’s getting the orders and then being able to service the orders with people. We unfortunately had to do about a 20% labor reduction (due to COVID). During that initial downturn, we lost over 30% of our revenue. We pushed it out as long as we could (trying to hold onto our staff), but it was just too much for us to sustain.

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: Business-wise, I would say yes. Manufacturing, I would say probably not. I’m the vice chair of GTAMC, but if you ask anybody what Traverse City is all about, it’s about wine tours, tourism, beaches and bays. We don’t talk much the contribution that is made (to this area) from a manufacturing perspective. It feels like our posture is more focused toward the service side of things rather than manufacturing. When you think about something like Creative Coast, or about a lot of our marketing, our resources are more focused towards those things than they are the manufacturing sector.

The Grand Traverse region’s biggest need to grow manufacturing: I think we need exposure to the manufacturing happening in the area and the value that it brings. As business leaders or commerce leaders in our area, we need to be able to not only tout the amazing resources this area has from a service perspective, but also the deep impact that our manufacturing community has. From Clark Manufacturing to SMI to National Vacuum, there are so many great manufacturers up here, that have a ton of employees, and that are pumping taxpayer dollars into the community. And those businesses, I think, are often forgotten or not recognized for what they are doing here.

So, we are just trying to get more of a voice for the manufacturing sector. I’ve just joined the Traverse Connect board, so we’re trying to influence from that side of it. And GTAMC is growing and always looking for new members.

Once we get to that point (of exposure), I think we need resources from our local governments to help us invest in manufacturing more: things like tax abatements or access to capital. We need to ask how well we are supporting manufacturing through those kinds of avenues.

Roni Hazelton, Cherry Republic

Products manufactured: We manufacture a large variety of gourmet cherry food products, including salsa, barbecue sauce, jams, cookies, cakes, granolas, ice cream, pies, grilling rub, baking mixes, and nut and snack mixes.

Industries served: We have six retail locations within the state of Michigan as well as a large mail order and internet business, a corporate gifting segment, and wholesale accounts, mostly within the state of Michigan.

Export countries: N/A

Projected 2022 revenue growth: We’ve been blessed with growth through a challenging 18 months with the pandemic, and we look to continuing that momentum.

Biggest challenge: Finding enough staff to fulfill our needs within all the areas of our company. This challenge is a very common theme within the state of Michigan, and seems to hit northern Michigan especially hard.

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: Yes, I believe it has, as companies have continued to diversify and pivot considering numerous supply chain and staffing issues. But affordable housing, child care, and living wages continue to plague the manufacturing industry, especially in this area.

The Grand Traverse region’s biggest need to grow manufacturing: Certainly, affordable housing, child care, and living wages would all help support growth and diversification. Traverse City and surrounding areas are very dynamic and are desirable places to live. In addition, we need more programs to attract kids in high school settings, to help them understand manufacturing and the long-term growth opportunities that are available – including apprenticeships, internships, and continued partnership with our local learning institutions.

Ben Nelson, Coherent

Products manufactured: We manufacture components for companies that make laser systems. Specifically, we make optical isolators, fiber terminations, and photodetectors.

Industries served: Defense, medical, instrumentation, and materials processing.

Export countries: Countries throughout Europe and Asia.

Projected 2022 revenue growth: 15% growth.

Biggest challenge: Increasing costs. We’re seeing a cost increase across the board (for our operations).  Materials, labor, insurance, healthcare, utilities, supplied items. We’ve seen significant changes over the past year (in these categories).

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: Traverse City has a strong manufacturing core. I feel it is largely supported by the community.

The Grand Traverse region’s biggest need to grow manufacturing: Possibly a free trade zone to move materials in and out of. An expanded University Center (at Northwestern Michigan College) for engineering degrees. And a research center for an applications lab and an R&D incubator.

Michael DeBruyn, Great Lakes Stainless

Products manufactured: We specialize in stainless steel cabinets for surgical and medical procedure rooms, as well as stainless cabinets for high-end residential projects.  Additionally, we fabricate decorative metalwork – including brass, bronze, copper, zinc, and more – for installations around the country. Another significant market is fabrications for airports and airlines, with installations of our products from New York to San Diego – and most places in between.

Industries served: We serve the medical market, the commercial construction market (typically hospitality-related decorative metal fabrications), and the airport/airline market, as well as fabricating mainly stainless parts and components for other companies across Michigan and the Midwest.

Export countries: Our market is largely domestic, with our dealer network exporting some of our medical cabinets to Canada and the Middle East.

Projected 2022 revenue growth: Although there is ample potential to expand revenue in 2022, labor market struggles are currently preventing us from fully taking advantage of the market opportunities before us, so we are forecasting flat to 10% revenue growth in 2022.

Biggest challenge: The single biggest issue facing us is recruiting and retaining labor. Our turnover has historically been very low, and in the past, Traverse City was an asset in recruiting talent (to the area). Currently, while the appeal of the area is still strong, the lack of anything resembling affordable housing has cost us potential hires and caused three highly-valued employees to leave the company in the past few months and move out of state. Even with very competitive wage structures that can easily exceed twice the current minimum wage, the rental rates and housing costs are simply untenable for those without an established residence. We’ve had excellent candidates from outside the area apply and get excited about working here that ultimately had to decline employment because they could not find nearby housing that was affordable.

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: There are two sides to the answer to that question. On the one hand, NMC and the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (MMTC) have been very strong advocates and unifying forces in the area, and we do feel that there is great community and institutional support for manufacturing operations. Additionally, as manufacturing has grown a bit in the area, the infrastructure – including logistics – has been slowly improving as well.

The other side of the answer is outlined by the challenges we face retaining and recruiting talent, due to rapidly escalating housing costs or just plain housing availability.

The Grand Traverse region’s biggest need to grow manufacturing: Currently, our greatest need is more affordable housing so we can continue to draw talent to our area and bring in revenue from across the country to benefit our northern Michigan community.

Mandy Peterson, Photodon

Products manufactured: Photodon creates screen protectors of all shapes and sizes for digital screens used by businesses, consumers, device manufacturers, and more. Our customers have the choice of nine different screen protector films and three different privacy filter types. We can etch names or part numbers right on our protectors.

We manufacture indoor-outdoor and professional office-type hoods as well, which are used for both shading and privacy. We also sell microfiber cloths and cleaners, and have the capability to put logos or promotional info on our cloths.

Industries served: Photodon serves all industries, with an emphasis in industrial, manufacturing, and information technology.

Export countries: Photodon ships products to countries all over the world. The countries that we sell to the most are Canada, Great Britain and Australia.

Projected 2022 revenue growth: We project a 20% revenue growth for 2022.

Biggest challenge: Learning SEO marketing strategies and Amazon marketing listing strategies.

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: It has. We have had great support from the MMTC, the GTAMC, Networks Northwest, and Michigan Works!. There are many great programs out there that benefit small businesses such as ours.

The Grand Traverse region’s biggest need to grow manufacturing: More publicity. As a community I would like to see us all support one another’s businesses by seeing if we can source our needs locally before going elsewhere. If there is not one already, a list of all the manufacturers in the Grand Traverse area – as well as what they produce – would be helpful for awareness.

Bill Myers, Promethient

Products manufactured: We make technology that is installed in a seat and that provides for conductive cooling and heating of the seat surface. We don’t make the seats – we’re a Tier Two manufacturer, if you will, in automotive parlance. But we sell to those companies that make seats, and then they in turn sell the seats to original equipment manufacturers in different industries. We are focusing on these transportation-related applications for now, but other opportunities for conductive cooling and heating – such as clothing – are on are drawing board.

Industries served: As far as the major industries or the market verticals go, the first one for Promethient is powersports, and that’s where we launched (our technology) with Polaris. Last summer, we were introduced in their Slingshot, which is a motor vehicle with three wheels; and then also in a few different models of their Indian Motorcycles. We have other powersports programs in development that will launch next year.

The second area is marine applications. There’s been great interest from the boating industry (in our technology). People that manufacture premium kinds of recreational boats of all types are looking for a seat that can help someone stay more comfortable even though they’re in an outdoor environment exposed to the elements.

Other markets would include off-highway equipment, which would encompass construction equipment, agricultural equipment, commercial lawn mowers; mass transit, which would include aviation, bus, and rail seating; child seats; and stadium and arena seating.

Export countries: In addition to serving the United States here domestically, we export to Canada and to Spain.

Projected 2022 revenue growth: We are planning on 100% revenue growth in 2022.

Biggest challenge: I think the first one, by far, is supply chain. The electronics industry has really been decimated by COVID, and so some of the key electronics that we need to have in our system – especially in our control board – are very difficult to come by and have very, very long lead times.

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: I think it’s a mixed answer. There are some very encouraging things happening. Traverse Connect has become more cognizant of the importance of manufacturing in our economy, and I think they’re doing more to engage with manufacturers. For instance, the president of GTAMC, Don Howe, is now on the board of Traverse Connect, which gives manufacturing a seat at the table. That’s important, because manufacturers employ year-round employees and they tend to pay them fairly well – likely better than what you would earn in the hospitality industry. Recognizing that is important.

I think where we’ve gone backwards as a region is more attributable to COVID, and the fact that many people have moved here and are driving up home prices and housing costs. If a manufacturer is trying to recruit people to Traverse City to help scale their business, it becomes much more difficult to do because of the availability of housing, especially affordable housing. That’s definitely a challenge, and unfortunately, it may be getting worse before it gets better. But for us, it means if we want to attract talent to our city, we somehow have to figure out how to compensate that employee in a way that they can afford housing without having to drive 40 miles from a fairly remote area to get to work every day.

The Grand Traverse region’s biggest need to grow manufacturing: When we’re trying to recruit talent to Traverse City, quite often talent is married to talent. A career path for a trailing spouse is important. There’s a good chance that an engineer is married to a scientist, or vice versa, or to a physician. Having jobs for both spouses available in the area is important.

Jason Warren, Shoreline Fruit

Products manufactured: The Shoreline Fruit group of companies is a vertically integrated group of growers and processors that manufactures and markets premium frozen fruits, dried fruits, fruit concentrates, fruit juices, fruit pastes, fruit powders, and maraschino cherries. Shoreline offers a broad selection of bulk products in these categories and markets its own retail line under the Cherry Bay Orchards brand name to retail outlets and distributors across the country.

Major industries served: Packaged foods, beverages, baked goods, food ingredients, retail (including e-commerce), export, health, and nutraceutical.

Export countries: Canada, Mexico, various countries in South America, Korea, Israel, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, India, Vietnam and New Zealand.

Projected 2022 revenue growth: Fifteen percent, in spite of a short cherry crop (in 2021).

Biggest challenge: As we own and farm over 4,800 acres of land in southern Michigan and in Antrim, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau counties – and as we depend on various fruit crops from all over the world to support our operations and products – understanding and dealing with the impacts of climate change is top of the list. But like many other businesses, we also face significant challenges with maintaining an adequate, motivated, trained workforce in the face of the changing political, demographic, and social forces in the area and the country at large.

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: The answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the development of information resources, business resources, professional and support services, and other support infrastructures needed to support and grow companies. Yes, in promoting the area and making it attractive to professionals.

No, in creating a community that supports a working class with affordable living, housing, childcare, and other resources that are necessary to support them.

The Grand Traverse region’s biggest need to grow manufacturing: The issues noted above need to be addressed if manufacturing businesses are going to thrive in the area. The continued influx of an upper-income (and oftentimes older) population that increasingly demands only service industry and tourism related growth drains the available labor pool for production-related endeavors and continues to drive the cost of everything up for the working-class people needed to supply and support a vibrant, diverse workforce and community. This situation is not sustainable and is fueling resentment and eroding the sense of community in this area. There needs to be a balance, and an investment in the infrastructure needed to support it.

Dodd Russell, Skilled Manufacturing, Inc.

Products manufactured: Automotive drivetrain components, aerospace engine components and medical device components.

Industries served: Automotive, aerospace, and medical.

Export countries: Canada and Mexico.

Projected 2022 revenue growth: We don’t disclose that type of information.

Biggest challenge: Labor shortages in very specific areas, such as controls engineering.

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: This area has always been manufacturing-friendly. We have a great support from NMC, from the Northwest Education Services school system (formerly Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District), and from GTAMC.

Jon Lejeune, TNI Engineered Manufacturing Solutions

Products manufactured: TNI produces engineered special automated machines and machine integration, including robotics.

Industries served: Our customers are typically in the automotive, industrial diesel, locomotive, and power generation markets.

Export countries: Historically, Mexico, China and Great Britain.

Projected 2022 revenue growth: With the COVID crisis, we look to have incremental growth in 2022.

Biggest challenge: Supply chain, followed closely by finding skilled labor.

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: I can’t say it has become more or less friendly over the past two to three years. I can say that, currently, there is not nearly the level of manufacturing still in our community as there has been in the past.

The Grand Traverse region’s biggest need to grow manufacturing: That’s hard to put a thumb on in the current climate. Currently, we do not have the focus on skilled labor in our community (that we need to thrive) in both our community college or at the MMTC. Many parts manufacturers have left our area, although I am not certain that is based on resource availability. Certainly, the service industry alone will not support our community. Incentives for manufacturing businesses to start or move here could be a start.