In speaking with hundreds of business executives over the last couple of months, we heard plenty of different phrases to describe their overall bullishness:
All-time record year.
While their vernacular was varied when it came to describing their positive outlook for 2017, virtually all of them used a single word to describe the potential downside risk of the coming months.
Despite traditional indicators pointing to 2017 being a good year for the economy in Michigan and nationwide, most executives say they just can’t overcome this nagging sense of uncertainty when it comes to President-elect Donald Trump and the still sharply partisan atmosphere in Washington, DC.
At JSJ Corp. in Grand Haven, Chairman, President and CEO Nelson Jacobson said he expects the incoming administration to set a pro-business tone for the federal government that ratchets back on regulation and invests in job-creating infrastructure programs. But as a “real strong believer in global trade” whose business has benefited from NAFTA and manufacturing in China, he’s also very concerned about the anti-globalization rhetoric and unpredictable behavior coming from the nation’s incoming chief executive.
“It’s the uncertainty,” he said when asked about his main concern for 2017. “I’m looking out for thousands of employees and families globally and (wondering) how does that affect them. Is it rhetoric or is it real? How will it affect us?”
R. Kevin Clay, vice president of business development at Pridgeon & Clay Inc., a family-owned automotive supplier in Grand Rapids, has a similar dichotomy in his outlook.
“Reducing taxation and regulation, if that’s the true business environment, then my colleagues — the manufacturing business owners — we’re pretty excited about that,” Clay said during a roundtable discussion of middle-market executives. “But there’s been this anti-globalization rhetoric out there, and that’s foolish. Globalization and the free trade agreements have been a huge net benefit to America since World War II. … If we eliminate these things, it’s reckless and it hurts nobody worse than the very poorest people. I think this rhetoric against globalization is at best intellectually dishonest, at worst it’s dangerous.”
For Open Systems Technologies Inc. CEO Meredith Bronk, the clash of potential business opportunities resulting from the new administration and the “unnerving” political environment has led to “a little bit of a bifurcation for me.”
Any significant changes to the Affordable Care Act — or an outright repeal — will likely translate into additional client opportunities for OST, a Grand Rapids-based technology services firm that’s developed a specialty in health care. Any reduction in business taxes and regulation also would be beneficial, if not for OST then for the company’s clients.
But as a “female leader with three young daughters,” Bronk said she feels especially compelled to live out her beliefs about corporate responsibility, community and inclusion.
Her outlook for the next year is simple: “Uncertainty is the name of the game.”
And so it goes.
Executives across West Michigan believe in the traditional indicators demonstrating the health of their businesses and the economy, but they’ve tempered their outlook because of the unpredictability brought about by an unconventional leader who’ll soon be occupying the White House.
Jacobson at JSJ likened the current situation to an athlete coping with pre-game jitters as game day approaches.
“It’s a little bit anxious,” he said. “We need to be flexible. How are we going to make sure we can understand, assess and deploy our people and our capital effectively? When is this really going to start and what’s it going to really look like? … As things will change pretty dramatically, (we want to) be able to take advantage of them.”
Here’s hoping we’re all flexible and nimble enough to take advantage of whatever opportunities come our way in the new year.
Brian Edwards, Publisher
Joe Boomgaard, Editor