To Grow Up Here Doesn’t Have to Mean to Leave Here

This is my first column for Traverse City Business News. I’m honored and excited. My goal is to share some of the thoughts and insights I’ve developed during a lifetime of doing business in Traverse City, traveling the globe and meeting some of the world’s most successful people. I have been very fortunate to learn a lot about what it takes to make businesses flourish. I hope you find some of these insights valuable.
In my early pieces, I hope to frame some thoughts about what success looks like in our beautiful corner of the planet. More importantly, I will ask who exactly we are hoping to benefit with the success we create. Is it long-term residents? Is it tourists? Or is it future generations?  I know I have my answer.

About a year ago I had the chance to meet with Gov. Rick Snyder (as I did Gov. Granholm before him). When I asked him what success looks like for him, he said he’s always focused on mindset. Michigan faces real and complicated problems, he said. Focusing only on the problems won’t fix them. Instead, he emphasizes “relentless positive action” (RPA), challenging his team to relentlessly focus on solutions, regardless of political cause or outcome. They all wear RPA pins and have RPA signs at their desks. Since hearing this, I have taken this same solution-oriented approach with my own leadership at Hagerty and it has helped us tremendously.

When I asked him what surprised him during his travels around the state the past eight years, he said it was brewpubs. Yes, brewpubs. Very often, he said, they were among the first signs that a town was turning itself around, in that they were often built by younger people rehabbing older buildings and turning them into gathering places. It makes perfect sense. I remember the same effect in Traverse City when North Peak and Mackinaw Brewing Company opened. They were something new and something old at the same time … and fun.

What does that have to do with a community’s future? Plenty. Whenever people ask me what the all-important millennial generation (which will comprise 75 percent of the workforce in just seven short years) wants in a place to work and live, I often use the Little Fleet as part of the answer. Little Fleet (in case you’re not familiar) has a funky-cool collection of food trucks, a bar and indoor/outdoor seating. It’s a top year-round gathering place for people of all ages, but especially millennials. They love the downtown location, the emphasis on food, often ethnic, made with local ingredients and the hip urban feel of the place. That’s what millennials want. They want to work for companies with a purpose beyond making money. They want the freedom to shape their careers and personal time. And they want to live in cool cities like Traverse City with walkable, bikable places like Little Fleet.

More and more these days, cities and vibrant, growing towns are where opportunity is created and where people want to go. Dealing with the challenges of greater density is every community’s single biggest opportunity to shape its future. Figure out how to create and sustain density and all other issues will fall in line.

Traverse City is no exception. When I grew up here and graduated from Traverse City Senior High (now Central) in 1986, to graduate meant to leave — not just to go to college but because there were very few jobs in Traverse City. Traverse City was and is a beautiful place, but it was not a place of plentiful opportunity. Year after year, most of our children grew up, graduated and left. They took their talents, their Midwestern values and work ethics and built opportunity elsewhere.

Things are better now, of course. We have seen a sort of renaissance take hold around here. Our downtown is no longer failing against the onslaught of sprawl. We are recognized nationally as a great place to live. We did “better” than much of the state during the recession. For those of us who stayed more closely connected to the area or figured out a way to return, none of this is a surprise. This is truly a special place. But by some measures it can be even better.

We need to evolve our narrative of what success looks like. We need some new measures against which to measure ourselves. We need to do more than just preserve what we have in hopes that our sons and daughters might be able to afford to return home after they made their fortunes elsewhere. This needs to be a place of opportunity. This needs to be a place that the best and brightest think of making home because of the possibilities here. We need a narrative more purposeful than “a beautiful place with small town charm.”

No matter where you travel in the world, people often say that their children and family are the most precious things in their life. We say it here, too. And we are blessed to have great schools that prepare our kids for college and trade schools, which in turn prepare them for great careers. But maybe the new measure needs to be how well we prepare our area for our kids to return and stay. Maybe we need a new key performance indicator – or KPI – for our local success. To put it in business parlance, one of our top KPIs as a community and as business leaders should be the percentage of our top graduating seniors who return home to live and work. Another should be the number of young people we attract who didn’t grow up here. Another should be the percentage of young A-level talent that is already here that companies retain.

For any of that to happen, businesses, including mine, need to ask themselves on a regular basis some tough questions: Are we paying people enough? Are we helping employees grow and learn? Is our workplace designed to meet the needs of the next generations? Are we working with elected officials and decision-makers to create the kind of business environment that helps companies build and maintain scaleable businesses that will make real investments here?

I believe that a “relentlessly positive” mindset coupled with forward-looking action will help us answer these questions and others.

Let’s make it happen, Traverse City. Together, our future is bright. Onward and upward!

McKeel Hagerty is the CEO of Hagerty.