Birgit Klohs plans to retire Jan. 31, 2021 after more than three decades of leading The Right Place Inc. Klohs, whose tenure at The Right Place started in 1987 and covered the terms of five Michigan governors, has been at the table for several major economic development initiatives and projects in the Grand Rapids area, often working to drive collaboration and partnerships among various parties that included private and public interests. As she prepares to depart and as The Right Place searches for a new leader, Klohs spoke with MiBiz about her role and how economic development has changed.
What makes this the right point in time for a transition?
It feels right for me. My husband and I talked about this a long time, starting many months ago. ‘When is a good time?’ And somebody said to me, ‘You will know it. Don’t force it.’ I was not ready a year ago. I surely wasn’t ready two years ago. I do want to enjoy life without the responsibility of this very complex organization, and so this is the right time for me to get off of the stage knowing that the organization is in great shape, the staff is fabulous, and I’m leaving behind a thriving organization.
What has been the biggest change in economic development over the years?
The pace of change, the pace at which we do business today, has accelerated with the pace of change in technology. It’s been an amazing change. Site consultants know about your community long before you even know they’re looking, so your marketing techniques had to change, but you also had to really, really speed up your response time to companies. It used to be you had some time to think about it. You don’t have that anymore with all of the technology we have now. You get a question or you get a request, they want answers today.
That has all changed, which also required that we change the way we do business and become much more sophisticated. Your website today and all of your social media is really how you present yourself. It’s a lot less than it used to be in terms of the written documents you have. It’s a much more sophisticated profession than it was when I started.
What has not changed?
It’s a relationship business, and even more in West Michigan. Obviously, you want the transaction and we want the deal, and we will fight for the deal. But to get that deal, you have to have the relationships in the community. In other words, this is a team sport, and while I’m leading the economic development organization, we don’t do this work alone. We need our municipal partners. We need our business partners. We need our attorneys and accountants and all of our energy companies. All of these resources need to be coordinated and that requires a relationship of trust with all of those resources. That, in my opinion, has not changed, to be able to pick up the phone and say, ‘I need your help with this.’ They know who we are, they know we don’t ask frivolously.
What’s the next frontier in economic development?
The frontier is really how do economic development organizations much more robustly embrace diversity and inclusive growth strategies. That’s where economic development needs to play a much more robust role in the kind of projects we do, the kind of talent we help find, the kind of connections that we make. We need to play a much more central role in economic diversity and inclusion.
What’s the biggest project you ever worked on?
The most impactful one that I didn’t lead but was part of the collaborative was all of what happened in our health and life sciences (industry) and to bring Michigan State’s medical school here. That impact of health and life sciences on this community, the talent that it’s drawing, the footprint that it has, the power that it brings in a totally new industry, was one of the most impactful things that happened in the community in a long, long time.
If you ask an economic developer what do you want to do, everybody will often say, ‘Well, we need to diversify.’ Diversifying is very difficult, unless you have the seedling of some kind. In Austin (Texas) it was Dell Computers, but that was all it was. Here it was the creation of Van Andel Institute that brought on all of this other growth. To be part of all of that thinking process and see all of it come to fruition, and seeing health sciences and life sciences grow into a real robust cluster here, to me is the most positive forward trajectory for the community.
What project was the most fun?
The most fun one was my first one because it was my first. That was the German company Behr that we located here very early in my tenure. It was the first big win and everybody said, ‘Oh, we can do this. Leave her alone.’
What advice do you have for whoever is chosen as The Right Place’s next leader?
You need to get to know this community. This is a community that is incredibly collaborative. And you have to be a collaborator in the business to be successful. As I said, it’s a team sport. Get to know as many people as you can very quickly to establish your credentials and the team that you have will back you up.