Longtime Right Place leader reflects on 33 years of economic growth

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — At the start of the pandemic shutdown last March, The Right Place, Inc., President & CEO Birgit Klohs was working from home on a Saturday morning when she got a call from Spectrum Health.

The hospital system that is West Michigan’s largest employer was in need of medical swabs that had to be produced at an federally-approved facility. Klohs called the Right Place staffer who deals with medical devices.

“He said, ‘Yeah, there isn’t anybody making them, but I bet I can find somebody who can.’ And today, Keystone Solutions in Kalamazoo is making swabs,” Klohs said.

She said it’s just one example of the effectiveness of the relationships that the economic development organization has built.

More requests led other companies, with the help of the Right Place, to begin manufacturing critical personal protective equipment. A digital database to match companies and organizations that needed PPE to the companies making it was launched. It has helped the Right Place rise to the COVID-19 challenge.

“As hard as it was, and still continues to be, it was probably one of our proudest moments in 35 years,” Klohs said.

Klohs, the German-born economic development architect who helped steer West Michigan’s economy through good times and bad for more than three decades, is retiring.

“Thirty-three years is a good long time and I think the signs of a good leader is to know when to get off the stage,” Klohs said.

BUILDING WEST MICHIGAN’S ECONOMY AS WE KNOW IT

She came to Michigan in the 1970s and found her calling working in economic development in Southwest Michigan. She went on to join Grand Valley State University as a business advisor. Then in 1987, The Right Place came calling.

“Never looked back. Best thing that ever happened,” Klohs said.

She became a sort of ambassador for businesses recruitment in West Michigan, traveling the globe and convincing companies to relocate here.

“I think one of the keystones of that success was one of the very first companies, Behr Industries (now NBHX Trim Group) up on Alpine and 7 Mile, that we were able to land and really show the community what this organization is all about,” Klohs said.

That deal started the momentum. Since then, The Right Place has been credited with $5 billion in economic investment in the region and generated more than 50,000 jobs in manufacturing, food processing, the IT sector and, in what has become part of Grand Rapids’ identity, health care.
 
“What happened with the health services sector in 20-plus short years is mind-boggling,” Klohs said.

It began 21 years ago with the opening of the Van Andel Institute and the beginning of the Medical Mile. VAI was just the start.

“You have the (Spectrum Health) Lemmen-Holton (Cancer) Center. You have the Meijer Heart Center. You have (Grand Valley State University) building, what, their third building? You have Michigan State’s medical school building their third building,” Klohs listed.

It is a successful effort that has created jobs.

“And that improves the health care,” Klohs added. “That improves lives.”

She credited West Michigan’s culture for facilitating the rapid pace at which the Medical Mile and other developments became a reality.

“Thirty-three years is a long time. And yet in the life span of a city, it’s not that long,” Klohs said. “The desire of both the private sector, our public sector leaders and the philanthropy community to work together to common goals, I think does make this unique.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

There has also been an increased effort from The Right Place for more economic inclusion.

“In our strategic plan we’re working on, it’s one of our key pillars,” Klohs said.

In January 2020, The Right Place joined with others to announce a new venture fund to help minority-owned businesses. And later this month, The Right Place will announce the results of a Brookings Institute study on workforce development in communities of color. The study looked at barriers to employment in the minority community and how to overcome those barriers.

Klohs said that while the economy came roaring back after the Great Recession, many people in the minority community were left behind. As companies started to invest in automation and other technological advancements, many workers who had good-paying jobs before the changes lacked the skills they needed to keep working. Klohs sees the same scenario coming out of the pandemic.

“All of these things will make that company more successful and resilient,” she said. “But what about these people over here who worked in these businesses before and now need an education in this versus this?”

It’s two-sided dilemma: Employers will need skilled workers and people in minority communities need jobs.

“If we want to be successful in the future, we must engage our communities of color and those who need additional education and training, whether that’s at the community college or even starting much earlier in middle school and high school,” Klohs said.

Klohs is set to retire at the end of January.

She’ll be replaced by Randy Thelen, who most recently served as vice president of economic development at the Downtown Denver Partnership. Thelen is no stranger to West Michigan. He was the first president of Lakeshore Advantage, the economic development organization for Allegan and Ottawa counties.

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