By Michael F. Carmichael
February 19, 2009
In 2006 Greenville, a small town northeast of Grand Rapids, Mich., first found itself ahead of the national economic downturn curve. It learned it was losing one automotive parts manufacturer, Tower Automotive; saw another, Federal Mogul, downsize; and then was stunned by the news that its largest employer, appliance manufacturer Electrolux, would be moving to Mexico.
George Bosanic, Greenville City Manager explained the bottom line consequences: “By 2008, 30 percent of the city’s tax base had left; more than 2,700 workers from the local area were out of work.” By 2009, however, Bosanic continues, “We’re now sort of ahead of the curve, if you will, on this economic rebound. When other companies heard about what we were doing as a result of losing so much of our tax base, they called and told us they would like to be a part of the rebirth of Greenville.” United Solar Ovonics was one of those companies.
A green industry comes to town
Uni-Solar, as it’s known, is a division of Energy Conversion Devices, a pioneer in the solar power generation industry. Unlike traditional solar collection techniques, Uni-Solar has developed “Amorphous silicon [known by its chemical notation of a-Si] alloy thin film technology [that provides] an interesting opportunity to reduce materials cost of the solar cells,” according to Tracey Rettig, a Uni-Solar spokesperson. “Because a-Si alloy absorbs light more efficiently than its crystalline counterpart, the solar cell thickness can be 100 times less than that of conventional cells, thereby significantly reducing materials cost. By utilizing a flexible, stainless steel substrate and polymer-based encapsulates, PV products utilizing our technology can be very lightweight, flexible and durable. The cell is deposited using a vapor-deposition process at low temperatures; the energy payback time is therefore much smaller than that for the conventional technology,” she explains.
The resultant solar collection film is produced in large rolls, rather than in smaller batches, further reducing its cost and increasing its usability, particularly in industrial roofing.
Persistence pays off
Initially, Uni-Solar’s “minds were pretty much made up that they were going to South Carolina,” explains Bosanic. “They had hired a consultant to do a 27 state search for a manufacturing plant - and Michigan wasn’t one of them. But the consultant was the same one that Federal Mogul had hired to negotiate with us. When they went to South Carolina to review the package that had been prepared for them, the consultant said that there was a city in Michigan that might be able to offer you the same, if not more. So they came up and I toured them around, we set up a conference call with the governor and one thing led to another and they ended up locating - instead of two states away, just two-and-a-half hours away [from their headquarters on the other side of the state].”
The old Electrolux plant had been leveled, leaving a large piece of Greenville’s industrial park vacant. Uni-Solar “now has two buildings, has expanded each of them, and they have room for three more on their site. If it were all built out it would be over a billion dollars of investment,” continues City Manager Bosanic. “They are building another plant in Battle Creek, which makes sense from a business standpoint so that all their eggs aren’t in one basket. They were very up front with us and let us know they were going to do that long before it was made public. But, they fully intend to grow here as well,” he said.
Cooperation for the local community college
Training the initial Uni-Solar workforce, comprised primarily of former refrigerator builders from Electrolux, proved to be relatively easy. “We went through Montcalm Community College,” says Bosanic. “It’s a very flexible program which is good because there was no curriculum for what needed to be done.”
“One of the people from MCC went to United Solar in Auburn Hills,” chimes in Kathy Jo VanderLaan, co-executive director of the Greenville Area Chamber, “she did some ‘job shadowing’ research for about three weeks and in about 10 weeks total had a workable curriculum in place for all those former Electrolux folks. It’s unfortunate,” she says, “that for so long as a nation we’ve downplayed the role of community colleges, but they can do so many things for a community. We’ve got to get kids to understand that they will spend the rest of their lives learning because technology changes so fast. And one of the best places to do that is in a community college.”
Success comes when everyone works together
Uni-Solar isn’t the only bright spot in Greenville. Bosanic amplifies, “We have, ironically enough considering our experience with Electrolux, a very high-end refrigerator company. Northland and Marvel are members of the Aga Rangemaster Group which is headquartered in Britain. Northland has actually been here for more than a hundred years, and their building was almost that old. When they were bought they had a choice of moving to a plant in Indiana that was owned by the parent company and had room for expansion, or talking to us,” he explains.
“We offered them the package that Electrolux should have taken, but didn’t,” he continues. “I invited people from the governor’s staff, all our area legislators - since the workers come from a five-county area - union representatives, suppliers, the media and got them all in our community room and said everybody’s got to give on this and they did. We offered free land and said we’d build them a building - I had no idea how we were going to do that. A construction company from Grand Rapids came up and said they’d design it and build it and then lease it back to Northland-Marvel and save them a whole lot of money. They could only hire 2,100 of the old Electrolux workforce and I said the union would never go for that - but the union said it was better to keep the 2,100 than to lose the whole 2,700, so with some additional concessions from the union Northland-Marvel was able to save some $74-million a year in operating costs.”
Northland-Marvel has now closed their production facility in Indiana and everything will be manufactured in Greenville’s industrial park, next to United Solar.
“We are delighted to be in our new facility,” said Brad Stauffer, senior vice president of operations at Northland-Marvel. “The new center is certain to enhance our position in the premium appliance market-in the United States, and in Europe. This new facility will increase our ability to offer the latest technological advances that consumers are demanding.”
The world is watching
“We’ve got a great success story,” says Bosanic, “it’s been covered by television crews from around the world and the major networks - including a major story on the NBC Nightly News just a couple of weeks ago. It shows what you can do if you don’t le things get you down, you just roll up your sleeves and say ‘what can we do next?’ The governor was really impressed with the way we’ve come together to say “let’s do it!”
Bosanic continues, “The governor was on ‘Morning Joe’ on MSNBC a few weeks ago and they were hammering her about the auto industry and she pointed out that the state was much more than Detroit and cars. They said ‘name a city that’s working right in Michigan’ and, without hesitating, she said Greenville. She even invited them to come to Michigan and see what we’re up to and they accepted. I don’t know when - or if - it will happen. But that’s the kind of support we’re getting.”
Don’t ignore a community’s culture
Asked about whether the ‘work ethic’ in Michigan is a part of Greenville’s pitch to prospective companies, Bosanic responded “Electrolux announced they were closing two years before it happened, and you’d think that near the end the workers would say ‘the heck with this, I’m not going to do any more than I have to’. When they closed that facility the workers set records for production, both quantity and quality. I can guarantee you that that’s not happening where they’re producing now.”
Taking an individual approach
When talking to prospective employers who are interested in coming to Greenville, Bosanic says, “I discover that each one is really different in what they need. I talk to them about what they do, how they do it, who they do it for and who they do it with and it’s fascinating how different they are. Some are driven by taxes, or transportation, some have other priorities. Then when I say, ‘gosh, we could help you out here, or there’ they respond that ‘the other communities we are talking to, we’ve not heard that from them.’ We try to figure out what can make them successful here in Greenville. We don’t want them to come here and not be successful. When we have successful companies that help diversify and sustain our manufacturing base then we prove that manufacturing is not dead in this state. It’s very much alive, it’s just a matter of taking advantage of whatever opportunities come your way.”
Being green can make a difference, in more than a name
“I sometimes wonder,” Bosanic muses, “if there is a reason behind why we’re named ‘Greenville’. There are times when I’d like to go add quotation marks to the Green in the Greenville city limit signs. We’re making a concentrated effort to go after green companies - such as United Solar - to come here.”
City fathers recognize that the whole idea of sustainability can be a business recruiting tool. Toward that end, Bosanic says, “We’re also doing our part as a city to become a greener place to live and work. We’ve modified our building ordinances to make them greener. We’ve just built a brand new airport terminal that has United Solar’s product on its roof and it completely powers the facility. We expanding our wastewater treatment plant for growth because we’re not just growing commercially, but residentially as well. We’ll be capturing methane gas for power as well as solar and try to make the entire plant self-sufficient.”
According to Bosanic, “there are more companies that are seriously looking at coming to Greenville and I feel very comfortable that we will be able to create as many or more jobs in 2009 than we did in 2008. I can’t tell you who, or even in what category they are, because it’s such a competitive environment.”
A cautionary reminder
“From a Chamber perspective,” says VanderLaan, “while we’re delighted to have companies such as United Solar join us, we can’t afford to neglect our local members who’ve been here for years. Greenville Tool and Die, for instance. Software companies who make software for the tool and die industry come to them from all over the country to try it out and make sure it works. Northland-Marvel has been here since the mid-1800’s and we’re delighted they stayed and expanded. Meijer [the giant food and merchandise retailer] started here.”
“You could say we grow entrepreneurs here,” she concludes.