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As Gov. Rick Snyder enters his final year in office, he remains optimistic about the state’s overall economic trajectory. The champion of “relentless positive action” continues to place heavy emphasis on better connecting the state’s resources for workforce development with employers in need of skilled talent. He’s also focusing on efforts needed to support the burgeoning autonomous vehicle sector. In a year-end interview with MiBiz, Snyder spoke about what he hopes to see in the state’s next governor.

Continental Dairy, a dairy processor in Coopersville, Mich., processes more than 300,000 pounds of nonfat dry milk per day and exports product to roughly 17 countries around the world. COO Steve Cooper reflects on why his sector of the agribusiness industry is facing some challenges currently.

Restaurateur Jeff Lobdell’s expanding enterprise includes Bagel Beanery, Beltline Bar, Sundance Grill, Grand Coney, The Omelette Shoppe, Rockwell Republic and more across West Michigan and the Traverse City area. While Lobdell remains optimistic for the future of his growing company, which this year acquired Pete’s Grill & Tavern and the 84th Street Market in Byron Center, he said the restaurant industry needs to adapt to new challenges from technology and a shortage of service workers.

While 480 square feet of space may not seem huge for a taproom, it offers The Peoples Cider Co. needed visibility along the burgeoning West Leonard Street corridor in Grand Rapids. Owner Jason Lummen opened his new taproom in late October on a strip with a distillery and a brewery, which he hopes will create new synergies. The proximity to the other producers has increased the company’s exposure, as well as freed space at his production facility on Maryland Avenue in the Oak Industrial Park. Lummen’s operation currently produces about 200 barrels per year and he hopes that separating his taproom from his production operation offers room for growth. He describes business at the new facility in one word:

As president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, Jim Byrum worries about trade, weather and talent — concerns shared by the farmers and food processors he talks to on a daily basis. Still, he remains optimistic for the sector’s growth next year.

One of the biggest issues Carl Bednarski expects to deal with in 2018 is the national Farm Bill, which will address agricultural concerns in infrastructure, crop insurance and exports. The president of the Michigan Farm Bureau discussed what legislation will affect the agricultural community the most.

The Burma Center is in the business of empowering people through advocacy, community engagement and education. One of its lines of service is Burmese-English language interpretation to serve the 2,500 Burmese residents who have immigrated to the area over the past 15 years. Burma Center advocates for equitable access to resources and services, but Executive Director Martha Thawnghmung says she thinks the pervasiveness of institutional racism and how immigrant groups are often pitted against one another are complicating efforts to unite various groups.

John Dillworth spent much of his career at Kellogg Co. in various positions, including sales, strategic planning, I.T., budget management, customer service, and others. Since 2000, he’s served as president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Southwest Michigan. He talked about the state of the nonprofit sector looking ahead to 2018.

Daniel Jones is entering into his sixth month at the helm of Haven of Rest Ministries in Battle Creek. His tenure followed a restructuring, the closure of one ministry, and staff reductions that decreased employment costs by 20 percent. Jones said these changes resulted in greater efficiencies and service delivery at a lower overall cost to the orgranization.

Decreases in funding from both governmental agencies and other funders who support the needs of the LGBTQ community are cause for concern as Outfront Kalamazoo goes into 2018. Executive Director Jay Maddock said his social justice organization relies on grant funding, individual giving and successful fundraising events, meaning that any hit to the economy will affect all areas of the group’s funding.

The potential effects of recently-passed federal tax reforms loom large on the minds of Michigan’s philanthropic leaders for 2018.

Michigan’s business climate has made great strides in recent years, but there’s still lots of work to do. That was the message delivered in late November by Doug Rothwell, the president and CEO of Detroit-based Business Leaders for Michigan, the state’s business roundtable. Released at the organization’s annual CEO Summit, the latest Economic Competitiveness Benchmarking Report shows the state continues to make improvements in terms of jobs, income and productivity, but it still lacks in college and career readiness and educational attainment, for example. And while incomes have improved, Michigan continues to lag other peer states, according to the data. 

Grand Valley State University will continue to grow its presence in and around downtown Grand Rapids in 2018. As well, the university also hopes to tap into the ever-changing world of technology and data as a means of improving the learning experience for students. President Tom Haas discussed these topics and more at the recent Business Leaders For Michigan CEO Summit in Detroit.

Charles Owens’ nearly 25 years as director of the Michigan office for the National Federation of Independent Businesses has coincided with four governors in Lansing: Jim Blanchard, John Engler, Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder. Since Gov. Snyder is term-limited, Michigan voters will elect a new governor in 2018, a year in which the NFIB will get involved to oppose two possible ballot proposals: One to require employers to provide paid sick leave to employees, and the other to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022. That’s on top of a minimum wage increase of 35 cents to $9.25 per hour on Jan. 1. The NFIB also plans to back a proposal to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law.

In 2018, Michigan voters will elect a new governor to succeed Rick Snyder — who’s term-limited and cannot run again — as well as a new Legislature. John Truscott, president of the public relations firm Truscott Rossman Group LLC and a veteran of the Lansing political scene, says Republicans who have been in charge for years in Lansing need to guard against complacency if they want to maintain control.

Craig Lubben and Robert Wolford become co-managing members on Jan. 1 at the Grand Rapids-based law firm Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey PLC, succeeding retiring managing member Craig Mutch. Wolford and Lubben will oversee management and strategy at the firm, serve on the five-member management committee and continue with their respective law practices. Wolford, based out of the firm’s Grand Rapids office, will lead client service strategies and marketplace development. From the Kalamazoo office, Lubben manages business functions that include chairing the management committee and overseeing long-term professional and operational interests.

Rather than focusing on massive corporate attraction projects, local economic developers should instead put their efforts behind homegrown entrepreneurial talent. That’s according to Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C. policy organization that tracks economic development deals around the country.

Jeff Mason took over in mid July as CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. after eight years of running the University Research Corridor, a coalition of the state’s top three research universities including Michigan State, Wayne State and the University of Michigan. According to Mason, talent remains the top issue for the MEDC, particularly as the state’s economy continues to grow.

Next year, Michigan voters will elect the person who will become the fifth governor that The Right Place CEO Birgit Klohs has worked with in her career in economic development. While her organization is “agnostic” when it comes to who wins the election, Klohs hopes to continue to have a strong working relationship with the new chief executive and that the new governor continues to support the efforts of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

GRAND RAPIDS — Employers continue to struggle to find people to fill open positions and drive growth in their business.

Private equity firm Concurrence Capital Holdings LLC made its first investment in September with the acquisition of Mission Design & Automation LLC, a 13-year-old producer of automation systems for the automotive, office furniture, medical and consumer goods industries. Formed earlier in the year by partners Jason Byrd and Michael Brom, Concurrence Capital looks to invest in more companies as the U.S. economy appears poised to remain in good shape throughout 2018.

The further the U.S. gets from the last downturn, the greater the likelihood that another challenge will eventually “rear its head again,” says Mercantile Bank Corp. President and CEO Robert Kaminski. Yet as 2018 approaches, Kaminski doesn’t see any warnings signs from the Grand Rapids-based bank’s clients that portend a downturn is imminent. Instead, he expects the U.S. economy to stay on track.

As the end of 2017 approached, Grand Rapids-based Independent Bank Corp. cut a deal to buy TCSB Bancorp Inc. in Traverse City, the parent company of Traverse City State Bank. The $63.2 million deal, which is expected to close in the first half of 2018 pending approval from regulators and TCSB Bancorp shareholders, would extend Independent Bank’s presence in northwestern Michigan, where Traverse City State Bank has five offices and assets of $346.9 million. Independent Bank, which opened lending offices in Traverse City and other markets this year, has 65 branches across the Lower Peninsula with total assets of $2.75 billion as of Sept. 30.

2017 was a busy year for Grand Rapids-based Lake Michigan Credit Union with the opening of new branches and mortgage offices, insurance agency acquisitions, and the pending deal for Encore Bank in Naples, Fla. Michigan’s largest credit union, LMCU has 42 branch locations, three of them in Florida, and total assets of $5.1 billion as of Sept. 30, up more than 9 percent from a year earlier. President and CEO Sandra Jelinski expects more growth in 2018 as the economy remains in good shape.

Grand Rapids private equity firm Auxo Investment Partners completed three acquisitions in the latter months of 2017, the most recent of which came in early December in a deal for M/G Transport Services, a New Orleans-based barge company. The firm previously acquired Atlas Die LLC of Elkhart, Ind. and Bernal LLC of Rochester Hills, Mich. in September. Formed in 2016 by partners Jeff Helminski, Fred Tedori and Jack Kolodny, Auxo Investment Partners looks toward 2018 with what Helminski calls “a tremendous amount of momentum.”

Tim Streit and McKeel Hagerty started venture capital fund Grand Ventures I LP in Grand Rapids last March and went on to make three investments during the year in companies in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Each of the deals were co-investments for Grand Ventures, which invests early-stage capital in technology startups in agriculture, manufacturing, mobility and transportation, as well as other industries in Michigan and the Midwest. A regulatory filing last spring indicated the venture capital fund planned to raise up to $50 million from investors.

Steve Starnes expects the bulls to continue their run on Wall Street in 2018, after a steady increase in 2017 that came with much volatility. The 2018 midterm congressional elections could contribute to generating renewed normal volatility in the stock market after investors enjoyed a “pretty calm market” in 2017, said Starnes, a certified financial planner and principal at Grand Rapids-based Grand Wealth Management.

Blackford Capital closed on three acquisitions in 2017 through its two private equity finds and sold two companies in what founder and Managing Director Martin Stein said were “phenomenal exits.” Blackford Capital owns 11 companies, nine through the Michigan Prosperity Fund and two through its National Growth Practice. Stein expects the U.S. economy in 2018 to remain in “pretty good” shape, driving growth in Blackford’s portfolio companies. He doesn’t see any downturn ahead for at least another two years.

Tom Welch thinks the U.S. economy in 2018 will perform much as it did in 2017 with steady growth and further tightening of the labor market, the latter of which rates as his biggest concern. He said that, mixed with high business confidence and a boost from the expected passage of federal tax reform, the economy should generate plenty of commercial lending opportunity for Cincinnati, Ohio-based Fifth Third, the deposit market leader in West Michigan. Welsh also believes the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates further in 2018, while inflation should remain relatively low.

Many of the forces that affected banks in 2017 — from rising interest rates and a good economy, to balancing digital technology investments with cybersecurity — remain the top issues bankers must manage in the year ahead.

Since merging into the University of Michigan Health System nearly a year ago, Metro Health has steadily bulked up its clinical services, growing the number of physicians that it employs from 150 to about 270. The opening of a gastroenterology subspecialty clinic that includes five faculty physicians from Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor who are in Wyoming once a week, the addition of five ICU intensivists, and the formation of a pulmonary division are a few examples of the clinical upgrades Metro Health made in 2017 under the affiliation. Metro Health also launched bariatric surgery at midyear in partnership with physicians at Grand Health Partners in Grand Rapids, and most recently expanded its stroke program with the addition of three specialty physicians. Much more will come in 2018 and in the years ahead, said Dr. Peter Hahn, Metro Health’s chief medical officer.

A good economy boosts business for Amy Ritsema’s clients, which in turn helps OnSite Wellness LLC. The Grand Rapids provider of workplace wellness services to employers launched a service crafted for small businesses with 100 or fewer employees this year. Co-owner Ritsema bases her optimism for 2018 on what she hears and sees these days from clients. Even if the economy were to slow and dip, Ritsema believes OnSite Wellness will remain on firm ground as employers invest in wellness to contain medical costs.

Annual increases in premiums for employee health coverage were mostly moderate in 2017. It’s a trend from the last few years that Shannon Enders, managing partner at Lakeshore Employee Benefits in Norton Shores, said largely continued for employers who renewed policies for 2018. Enders is also seeing more employers offering various options for employee health benefits, and some are even wondering whether they have gone too far in shifting the costs for health coverage onto employees.

Tasha Blackmon becomes CEO of Cherry Health on April 1, 2018, succeeding long-time chief executive Chris Shea, who retires on March 31. Blackmon will move into the CEO’s position of the largest federally qualified health center in Michigan — with 20 locations in Kent, Barry, Eaton, Montcalm, Muskegon and Wayne counties and some 70,000 patients annually — after serving as chief of operations.

In late 2017, Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine opened the $88.1 million Grand Rapids Research Center in the city’s downtown. As the medical school now looks to build a larger research base in Grand Rapids in 2018 and beyond, Dean Norman Beauchamp said the center opens opportunities for further partnerships with local care providers and companies not only in medical research but also with businesses that address the economic issues that affect health care.

As baby boomers get older, the demand grows for senior housing and services. In response, Holland Home recently opened a second 15-bed assisted living center at its Breton Woods Campus in Grand Rapids and has plans for an $18 million project at the Raybrook Campus. Holland Home also formed a venture in 2017 with Clark Retirement Community in Grand Rapids and Resthaven in Holland called Atrio Home Care. The Grand Rapids-based organization serves about 4,000 people annually and employs about 1,600 people. Talent is an issue for Holland Home as a good economy tightens the labor market.

The Affordable Care Act withstood repeal efforts in Congress in 2017 and remains law, which has industry watchers doubting we’ll see another full-scale push to repeal and replace the Obama-era health care policy.

As president and CEO of Ada-based construction management firm Dan Vos Construction Co. Inc., Dan Vos would like to continue to see the pro-business philosophy that’s been on display in Michigan for nearly the last decade. Vos generally thinks 2018 will continue the momentum of the past few years, although he harbors some concern over burnout from the firm’s lengthy pipeline of work.

Matt Jones anticipates another banner year for the buying and selling of apartment properties in Michigan and around the Midwest. Jones, the founder and president of Beacon Realty Group LLC, a boutique commercial real estate brokerage practice focused on the multifamily sector, largely foresees a period of continued slow growth with some potential pressure coming from rising interest rates.

With a backlog of construction projects extending out two years at Triangle Associates, Jim Conner feels “cautiously optimistic” heading into 2018. Conner says the company’s diversified clients ranging from education to health care to industrial work should keep it busy even in the event of a downturn.

As a development boom swept through the Grand Rapids area, municipalities have increasingly sought to engage in urban planning initiatives that help guide the investments. That’s translated into steady business for Lynee Wells through 2017 and into the next year. A principal and urban planner with Williams & Works Inc. in Grand Rapids, Wells works closely with municipalities like Caledonia Township and on large-scale redevelopments such as Plaza Roosevelt, a public-private project that will bring a host of new housing and services to the Roosevelt Park neighborhood of Grand Rapids. Wells thinks city and state policies could help fuel more and better development.

Executives at Integrated Architecture had thought 2017 would be a year of “stabilization” and maybe even some slowdown for the firm’s commercial architectural projects. But according to Executive Vice President Mike Corby, that’s not been the case. The Grand Rapids-based firm with a strong focus on mixed-use apartment and commercial buildings sees the momentum only continuing to gain steam.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) publishes the quarterly Architectural Billings Index (ABI), which is generally viewed as a leading indicator for the construction industry. While the data fluctuated throughout the year, architects’ billings have been largely positive, according to the Washington, D.C. trade association. Heading into 2018, AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker generally expects more of the same, albeit with some uncertainty surrounding national policy issues.

Sam Cummings will be the first to acknowledge that he’s got a lot of office and retail space to fill in downtown Grand Rapids next year, with redevelopment work underway at 50 Monroe Ave. NW and unspecified plans in the coming years for the downtown Fifth Third Bank campus, which has been dubbed Vandenberg Center. Cummings says CWD plans to work diligently over the next year to attract large corporate users, bring more activity to ground-floor spaces and focus on the fundamentals of real estate development.

The Great Recession might be years in the past, but commercial real estate executives haven’t forgotten the lessons learned from that time. Rick DeKam, principal with Midwest Realty Group, a Portage-based full-service real estate firm, has spent the last several years building up the company’s cash reserves to prepare for an eventual downturn. But beyond external factors such as “national and global issues related to the country’s presidency and the fact that our county continues to become more and more divided,” he believes the overall business climate continues to look positive.

Tower cranes constructing offices, hotels and apartments dot the skyline in and around downtown Grand Rapids.

The growth in West Michigan’s small business and entrepreneurial community needs to be more equitable.

The news footage in recent weeks about wildfires raging across Southern California showed an unlikely West Michigan connection: Wyoming-based HME Inc. made many of the fire trucks used to fight the blazes. President Jim Monterusso said the company, which recently finished the first of six custom fire trucks for the city of Detroit, has strong demand for its products, although many municipalities struggle to find the funding they need to upgrade their safety equipment.