Just barely three months into John Walsh’s role as president of the Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA), the COVID-19 crisis hit the industry with a nearly complete shutdown of the state. MMA, which serves as the lobbying arm for the automotive industry and other manufacturing companies, has pivoted to communicate and advocate in Lansing for members while also connecting manufacturers that can address the shortage of medical supplies with the health systems that need them most. Walsh spoke with MiBiz about his vision for MMA and what the organization can do to help companies make it through the current crisis.
Why do you think you were chosen for this position?
I think it’s a combination of my background. Over the years, I’ve worked in the private sector as an attorney and worked closely with manufacturers primarily in transactional work, contract work between manufacturers and mergers and acquisitions. Four of my eight years in academia, I worked closely with training programs for manufacturers and other businesses. I’ve spent time in both the local and state-level government. I’ve always had a focus on manufacturing, and what the association was looking for was for somebody that could speak not only to members but to work with legislators and stakeholders. When you put it all together, I think I met their needs and they clearly met what I was hoping for in a position.
What were you hoping for?
I missed public policy work. The MMA has an operational aspect to be sure, but it also has a heavy impact on public policy. It certainly affects our manufacturers and their employees, but it can have a broader societal impact as well. I wanted that. I wanted an organization that had some history to it, and the MMA has over 100 years of history. Also, I wanted a good staff. I have a fantastic and very, very supportive board and a staff that knows what they’re doing and they’re willing to work hard. It’s all there.
You started in January, which was only a couple of months before the COVID-19 crisis that we’re facing now came to light. What has that experience been like?
We were well on the way to working with my board and my staff and how to move forward. We have those plans in place, but we’ve had to set them aside while we focus exclusively on the coronavirus and the state and federal response to it. We’ve pivoted because it is required. We filter through the information aggressively and then distill it into pieces that we think our members want, and from their response, I think we’re hitting the mark. We keep them up to date on the changes at the state level. It comes fast and furious, every single day, and we try to make it as simple as possible.
What role does advocacy play at this time?
The governor and her staff worked very closely with us in terms of helping define what impact an executive order might have. They give us a heads up. They ask us for our opinion. That’s not just the MMA — they’re asking the chamber and other business groups. What might this mean? How do we mitigate damages? How do we promote health and safety? It’s been a fantastic opportunity to work with the Whitmer administration and the legislative leadership moving forward.
Some of your members are rapidly shifting their operations to produce needed health care supplies. Describe what you’re seeing.
It’s dynamic, but we are making progress with matching manufacturers that are not in the health care space to provide personal protection equipment or even more sophisticated equipment like ventilators. For our largest members, they’re able to team up and work with manufacturers already there. Ford and GM, for instance, are working with manufacturers of ventilators. That makes the process go a little faster.
For the smaller members, it’s trying to match them with either the State Emergency Operations Center or the health care system so that they can directly provide these products. One of the most gratifying things in this position, just in general, is when you put a call out and ask for help in this country, people just respond. I don’t care who they are, they stand up. We asked our manufacturers if they thought they could do something to help, and 300 of them out of our 1,600 members wrote immediately. Some admitted that they make parts for the automotive industry and weren’t sure that anything they do can even come close to a medical device. But they have the manpower available. They have trucks and can deliver things. Just the overwhelming response was fantastic. I don’t care how big the company is, small and large.
It seems like manufacturers want to help and they also don’t want to stay idle during the shutdown. Is it good for business to quickly transition to the health care space right now?
The immediate response was really heartfelt, but certainly, there’s a business aspect to it. They have the capacity. They have people that are trained and there’s a need. When you put that all together, I think there’s an emotional and logical argument.