GRAND RAPIDS — Gentex Corp.’s recently announced plan for a satellite production facility in the city of Grand Rapids is the Tier 1 auto supplier’s latest phase of a multi-pronged effort at attracting talent.
Officials with Gentex, Ottawa County’s largest employer, earlier this month announced the facility in a southside Grand Rapids neighborhood to essentially be closer to the talent it needs to support growth. Gentex is headquartered in Zeeland and employs 5,500 people in Ottawa County.
The announcement follows the company’s plan late last year for an onsite child care facility in Zeeland that will break ground this spring, as well as a Spanish-speaking assembly line that launched in 2021. The child care facility will accommodate up to 250 children per shift for first and second-shift workers, and the company employs nearly 190 Spanish-speaking workers on various production lines.
The new Grand Rapids production facility will employ 50 people.
“We’re looking to strategically address what we consider to be the biggest barriers to employment, especially coming out of COVID,” Gentex Spokesperson Craig Piersma told MiBiz. “We’ve had to get creative and strategically address those barriers. We’ve addressed language, and the next big thing was child care. Then it’s transportation. Given gas prices and the cost to own and operate a vehicle today, we needed to be somewhere in a more urban area with bus routes and more access to employees.”
The 30,700-square-foot facility at 355 Cottage Grove St. SE in Grand Rapids’ Madison Square neighborhood is owned by an affiliate of Rockford Construction Co. Inc. and was “almost perfectly ready for the assembly operations we’ll do there,” Piersma said. He also noted the site is “relatively easy” to get to from Zeeland.
The company also worked to secure the site with nonprofit Amplify GR, which is also a partner on a large mixed-use development in the nearby Boston Square neighborhood.
“One of our goals is to help ensure neighbors and communities benefit from economic expansion, specifically through job opportunities and wealth creation,” Amplify GR Executive Director Jon Ippel said in a statement. “We are passionate about this work — our staff works collaboratively with companies like Gentex to create innovative ways to maximize their investments in the Madison Square and Boston Square areas and throughout the community.”
Mike Wall, executive director of automotive analysis at S&P Global Mobility in Grand Rapids, called Gentex’s move to Grand Rapids “incredibly creative” and “a little bit of a sign of the times.”
“It addresses exactly what we’ve been hearing about suppliers of all types: Labor is very difficult to come by,” Wall said.
Large automotive suppliers traditionally have expanded to other regions, such as the southeastern U.S., to achieve some geographic diversification or to move closer to customers. In other cases, they have moved operations abroad where labor might be cheaper.
“Here, there really does seem to be much more focus on the labor side of the equation. In times now when there’s still a tight labor market, you want to remove as many of those barriers as possible,” said Wall, who includes Gentex as a client.
The Grand Rapids facility, which was built in 1997 and is undergoing renovations, also may free up production space in Zeeland, Wall added.
The Rockford Construction affiliate owned by CEO Mike VanGessel purchased the property in 2015 for a little more than $1 million. Gentex expects production to start in late May.
The site will produce sub-assembly components for Gentex’s HomeLink product, which is used for operating garage doors and other home automation devices. HomeLink is a legacy product Gentex acquired from Johnson Controls Inc. for $700 million in 2013. HomeLink traces its roots back to the former Prince Corp., which Johnson Controls acquired in 1996.
Once fully operational, the plant will operate two shifts and employ 50 people in light assembly, warehousing and logistics.
When announcing the expansion this month, Gentex President and CEO Steve Downing said transportation costs are making commuting “increasingly difficult” for workers.
“So if Gentex wants to recruit employees from Grand Rapids, we need to be here,” Downing said in the announcement. “And by locating a satellite plant and creating jobs in a neighborhood near (the) city center, our goal is to strengthen not only Gentex, but also the surrounding community, and we look forward to future opportunities to do so.”