Print this page
Sunday, 03 August 2014 22:00

Design Catalyst: Newell Rubbermaid Design Center could spur broader investment in SW Michigan

Written by 
Rate this item
(2 votes)
Bo Roe, Director of Innovation Programs, Sharon Oleniczak, Manager of Innovation Program Design, Wendy Martin, Design Executive Assistant and Nate Young, Vice President of Innovation Design. Bo Roe, Director of Innovation Programs, Sharon Oleniczak, Manager of Innovation Program Design, Wendy Martin, Design Executive Assistant and Nate Young, Vice President of Innovation Design. COURTESY PHOTO

The move by a global consumer products firm to open its corporate design center in Kalamazoo has Southwest Michigan business leaders anticipating a wave of ancillary investment that should be a boon to the region’s economy.

In deciding where to build its Design Center, executives at Atlanta-based Newell Rubbermaid Inc. (NYSE: NWL) said they were swayed by the sheer number of designers in the West Michigan area to locate the facility at Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research (BTR) Park in Kalamazoo.

With the third highest concentration of graphic designers and industrial designers in the country — approximately 1,800 people — the Kalamazoo area was a natural fit for the company’s myriad global research and development and design needs, said Chuck Jones, chief design and research and development officer at Newell Rubbermaid.

“You would have had to go to Manhattan, the greater New York area or San Francisco to find that large of a concentration of designers in one region,” Jones told MiBiz. “The fact that we were able to recruit and relocate 70 new designers in roughly eight or nine months is an incredible feat. I honestly don’t know where we could have gone to staff up the team that quickly and that efficiently.”

A diversified consumer goods company serving a range of industries from writing instruments to storage solutions and power tools, Newell Rubbermaid’s Kalamazoo-based team will perform research and development and design functions for the global company’s multiple brands such as Rubbermaid, Sharpie pens and Graco baby and parenting products.

Newell Rubbermaid’s Design Center opened in early May. Its 100 employees in Kalamazoo are a “highly accomplished group,” Jones said, noting the staff has 223 patents and more than 300 design awards combined. The team members hail from 16 countries, and about a dozen languages are spoken in the office, he added. The company intends for the space to accommodate up to 130 employees, Jones said.

Included on the team is Vice President of Global Innovation Nate Young, formerly the director of the NewNorth Center for Design in Business in Holland, a design executive at Johnson Controls Inc. and the co-founder of technology design firm Twisthink LLC.

While Newell Rubbermaid is still in the very early stages of building its operations in Kalamazoo, sources expect the investment could be a boon for the broader design community and the West Michigan economy.

“I think we will see a design culture that already exists but begins to permeate other companies,” Southwest Michigan First CEO Ron Kitchens said of the company’s investment. “We are going to see small companies that design locally but can begin to distribute globally.”

For example, Kitchens pointed to the recent growth of online clothing company Handmade Kalamazoo LLC, a group of artists that designs T-shirts related to Kalamazoo and Michigan that is selling items across the country.

The kind of design work at Newell Rubbermaid is crucial to the West Michigan economy and something business leaders need to be sure they are attracting and fostering, said one West Michigan economist.

“If you ask me, ‘Do you think a designer is more important than an engineer?’ the answer is yes,” George Erickcek, senior regional analyst at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said in a recent MiBiz report. “I see designers as a means to keep manufacturing here.”

The presence of Newell Rubbermaid in Kalamazoo will lead to just that, Jones said. Forty percent of the company’s Kalamazoo workers are legacy employees who relocated to the region. The remainder of the 100 employees are made up of new hires, with many being existing West Michigan residents.

The company has also leveraged its reputation for design capabilities and lured talent away from some of the world’s biggest brands. One new hire relocated to Kalamazoo from Portland, Ore. after previously working as a designer at Nike.

When selecting a location for its Design Center, the company felt strongly that it wanted to be in a developing, mid-size city, rather than in a major metro like New York, Chicago or other cities on the West Coast.

“The key to the success of having a design studio not in a major city center … is to find designers who are incredibly talented and incredibly capable,” Jones said. “They are at the right life stage where a town like Kalamazoo or Grand Rapids (offers what) they are looking for. … I’ve had so many conversations with designers that like their locations but they are frustrated because they know they will never be able to afford a house.”

Throughout the process of getting the Design Center up and running, Newell Rubbermaid worked closely with economic development agency Southwest Michigan First. In fact, the agency was actually tasked with the build-out of the facility and received $6 million in state incentives to support the project, as MiBiz has previously reported.

Southwest Michigan First now leases the space to Newell Rubbermaid.

Kitchens sees a number of ways in which the whole region will benefit from Newell Rubbermaid’s selection of West Michigan for a base of operations, a decision he says is “really a validation” of the region’s strengths.

“We are an important area for design, but we are not known for just one thing,” Kitchens said. “We are not just about auto design or IT or clothing. We really spread the gamut, everything from packaging to refrigerators to the deck shoes I wear on the weekends — they are all designed by West Michigan companies.”

Based at the BTR Park on WMU’s engineering campus, Newell Rubbermaid’s Design Center will also have a close relationship with the university. Students from a number of different fields of study will immerse themselves in roles within the operation, sources said.

Students will have the opportunity for internships as well as involvement in the company’s proprietary prototyping processes, said Bob Miller, vice president for community outreach at WMU.

“(Newell Rubbermaid) is just the kind of partner we want,” Miller said. “It’s helping with job creation but it also really advances the university’s core mission for its students.”

Jones added that Newell Rubbermaid would like to work with one of the local universities to bring a formalized industrial design program to the region, adding that not having one “could be one of the things holding the region back” from earning the reputation it deserves for its design cluster.

Like Kitchens, Newell Rubbermaid’s Jones also believes the company’s investment will have positive impacts for the rest of the region. In the next five years, he hopes the Design Center will be viewed as a catalyst that helped spur a large contribution to West Michigan.

“I hope that we can contribute to bringing the creative class to Kalamazoo,” he said. “When you have this many designers move into an area, designers can’t help but make a positive impact in the area in which they live.”

SIDEBAR: Newell Rubbermaid Inc.

  • Headquarters: Atlanta, Ga.
  • Net sales: $5.7 billion in 2013
  • Ticker symbol: NWL, traded on the NYSE
  • Market segments: Writing ($1.7 billion), Home Solutions ($1.6 billion), Baby and Parenting ($818 million), Tools ($789 million), Commercial Products ($786 million)
  • Brands: Rubbermaid, Sharpie, Graco, Calphalon, Irwin, Lenox, Levolor, Paper Mate, Dymo, Waterman, Parker, Goody, Rubbermaid Commercial Products and Aprica
Read 19216 times Last modified on Sunday, 03 August 2014 15:32