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Sunday, 27 April 2014 22:00

Q&A: Jennifer Owens, Lakeshore Advantage

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Jennifer Owens, Lakeshore Advantage Jennifer Owens, Lakeshore Advantage COURTESY PHOTO


Jennifer Owens will take the reigns of Lakeshore Advantage on May 5, replacing former president Randy Thelen who led the organization for 10 years and left this year for a position in Nebraska. Owens comes to the economic development group from Kalamazoo-based counterpart Southwest Michigan First, where she served as a vice president. She was also principal of Consultant Connect, a firm that builds relationships with company site selectors. In her time in Kalamazoo, Owens led new business attraction efforts and helped usher in investments from General Mills, Hark Orchids and Newell Rubbermaid, work that garnered her recognition as one of the nation’s Top Economic Developers Under 40 in 2013. She spoke with MiBiz about her vision for economic development in the area.

Your new position is not unlike your previous role at SWMF. What led to you to pursue it?

This is very much my dream job having worked 13 years in economic development. It’s sad that Randy (Thelen) had to move on, but when he left, he came to me and said this was the job for me and that I needed to give it consideration. The community here (in Ottawa County) has a phenomenal business base and (Lakeshore Advantage) is an organization running on all cylinders with a great team I get to lead.

What will be your first steps as the new president of the organization?

I really want to spend the first 60 days listening and discovering. At the recent monthly chamber breakfast, I told many people that I’ll be spending a lot of time doing one-on-one interviews and learning about where they think the community needs to go and what actions they would like to see going forward.

You’ve held positions at Ann Arbor Spark and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. How does that experience play into your new role?

I’ve really spent my entire career in economic development. My first 10 years were with the state of Michigan running marketing and retention programs, and those contacts there are still valuable. At Ann Arbor Spark, I worked closely with Gov. Snyder and MEDC president Mike Finney. Working in a college town also taught me how a university can drive economic development, and I think (Hope College) and (Grand Valley State University) are two great resources we can take advantage of here. I can also apply the lessons learned and strong connections I have from the business attraction side at Southwest Michigan First.

What are the challenges you’re facing as you dive into a new community?

The worst thing any a new leader can do is start dictating new directions without taking the time to understand the dynamics of the community and its potentials. I’m really excited to focus on talent, which is one of rising challenges that all economic developers are facing. We need to be creating a plentiful workforce and make sure we have robust talent enhancement programs.

So far, where do you see opportunities emerging that you plan to follow up on?

I like the focus on research and data that Lakeshore Advantage is taking, and I love that the data (are) driving what the organization does. For now, I’m really going to rely on the business leaders in the community for focus and direction and digging into the business intelligence out there. I’ll be studying for some time, but won’t wait long to act. The first step is to study, discover and know.

What kinds of strategies and initiatives do you think are universally essential to economic development efforts in West Michigan?

I’m excited to collaborate with other partner organizations like The Right Place Inc. and establish a broader reach in connection with other economic development groups. I also want to make sure we are truly a countywide organization and we’re true to serving the county as a whole. Right now, the most important thing economic development agencies can do is retain companies, but we have to switch some of that focus to retaining skilled and talented people and not wasting our efforts chasing those outside the state but instead looking to our high schools and colleges and spending time exposing kids to the right path and the right choices.

Holland has a reputation as a tight-knit vacation community. How do you sell companies on the area as a place to grow significant business operations?

From a talent and business operations perspective, once individuals and companies come here, they won’t want to leave. We need to create more of that recognition and start to share that story on a more national level that Holland is something of treasure, which people outside of the community might not realize or even know about.

Interview conducted and condensed by Elijah Brumback. Courtesy photo.

Read 3793 times Last modified on Sunday, 27 April 2014 22:36

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