After 25 years representing manufacturers in Lansing through the Michigan Manufacturers Association, President and CEO Chuck Hadden is retiring at the end of 2019. He took over leadership of MMA at a nadir for manufacturers, when the fate of the auto industry and its supply chain was a big question mark looming over the state. As their fortunes improved, he also helped champion sweeping tax reform that put Michigan’s manufacturers on a more competitive footing with companies in other states, a move Hadden counts as one of his proudest achievements. He sat down with MiBiz to talk about what’s next for the MMA and its 2,000 members.
As you dig into your last year at the MMA, is there anything still keeping you up at night?
I wanted to put the association and the board of directors in the best shape possible to make the best pick they can. I can’t control that pick, but I think they’ve gone through a good set of candidates as they’re trying to reach a decision of where they want to go with the association. I still worry about them making the right decision, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
What qualities do you think the next CEO needs to have?
I think you have to understand the state Legislature and be involved in that. You have to understand the association business. The nonprofit side of the business is important to understand. You have to have a creative mind to come up with and be on the lookout for new services and understand what could help manufacturers. I don’t think you necessarily have to know everything about manufacturing, but you have to want to learn about manufacturing and what’s keeping them up at night so you can be an effective advocate for them. You also have to take on the persona of the face of the association. You have to have an outgoing personality, be in front of people and be willing to speak, be involved, and be interviewed.
Is there anything from your background that made the job a little easier for you?
What it made it easier for me was that I was around manufacturing for so long that I could speak the lingo. I knew what was going on in their shops. I knew when the things were good. I knew when things were bad. And I felt that they felt comfortable opening up to me and telling me what was going on and how they were growing or what they needed to grow. That gave me an opportunity to be successful in what I’m doing here.
When people look back on your 25 years, what do you think that they’ll remember?
Oh, wow. I hope they remember some of the legislative victories that we helped put together. Tax reform was probably the biggest victory we had for a long time, until we got the personal property tax exemption on the ballot, and then won a successful campaign for that. It’s probably the biggest accomplishment this association has ever done. It was a half a billion dollar savings every year for manufacturers. I hope they remember that.
I hope they remember that I was an honest guy, a fair broker. I wasn’t one side or the other politically. I was looking out for manufacturers and helping manufacturers, and that was the only party I belonged to. I also hope that they remember that the association is still going strong. In these times, associations and country clubs and nonprofits are having trouble maintaining that. We’re going strong and hope to go another hundred years or so.
How did your perceptions about the CEO role match with reality?
When I took the job as CEO, I knew the association, I knew the politics, I knew many of the people. I had that advantage. What I didn’t have (to my advantage) is starting in ’07 and at the bottom of the recession, when two of my biggest members were about to go bankrupt, and I had other members coming in to me saying if they go bankrupt, then the supplier base is going to go bankrupt. If the supplier goes bankrupt, then they’re also the supplier base for the furniture companies, and they could go bankrupt. It was a scary time. Most any plans that I had went out the window as we hunkered down and tried to save the association and make sure we saved as many members as we can.
Some people are predicting that we’re heading into another recession.
We’re looking for something in the near future. I think we’re going to have a slowdown in the auto growth. I also think that slowdown is going to be around people switching from their car now to electric or autonomous vehicles. That’s going to shake up a lot of things. … There’s a lot of questions that are going to come up. That’s going to be discussed and decided during the recession.
How do you ensure those discussions are productive?
The state has to be involved in helping those discussions go along. At the same time, if they’re going to fix the roads, let’s fix them for autonomous vehicles so that the right paint is being used on the roads so the cars can follow it properly, the right signage is being used so the cars can read it. All of that is very important in the next couple years. Maybe during that slow time, we can make sure some of that happens in the state.
What do you think is the opportunity for manufacturers here in Michigan?
The opportunity is to be on the forefront of this new coming trend. Going to your suppliers and saying, ‘Hey, we are now doing this. Does that help you get where you need to go? Or, tell us what you need to be part of this so that you survive and we survive.’ We play a role in it. We want to be part of that solution. That’s what really needs to happen right now.
In other words, companies need to be proactive instead of reactive.
You can’t sit back and just say, ‘I’m making this tool.’ That tool may go out of fashion. It may not be able to be made. We’re going to have a major disruption here. As that happens, it happens possibly in the middle of a recession or a slowdown, if nothing else. That’s the scary part. You want to be intuitive enough to be meeting with your customers and finding out what their needs are beyond just this year. What are their needs in the future?
Interview conducted and condensed by Jessica Young.