Birgit Klohs: “We have to change to stay ahead of the game.”

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No. She is not moving back to Germany.

After three decades with The Right Place, it seemed President and CEO Birgit Klohs would forever be the face of the organization. Yet as retirement looms nigh, she forges ahead, committed to helping Grand Rapids and surrounding counties retain and expand businesses—knowing she'll continue working on boards and with those who strive to keep our community and the businesses at the forefront.

Birgit, West Germany born and raised, arrived in West Michigan over 40 years ago. Her economic development start—work she never knew existed—came through Berrien County Economic Development Corporation, when a Manpower summer job became a permanent placement. She began school a few weeks later.

A nontraditional student working full time, Birgit graduated from Western Michigan University with a B.B.A. in finance. Berrien County was where she really learned the economic development industry. When she began working for what became Michigan Department of Commerce, covering 17 counties from Oceana to the Indiana border, she moved to Grand Rapids.

Something new was happening.

birgit-klohs-webPhoto courtesy of Birgit Klohs.

Birgit was working as Assistant Director for Economic Development at Grand Valley State University under President Don Lubbers, doing small business consulting and developing, when she watched with great interest the creation of The Right Place.

In 1984, Jay Van Andel organized 13 area business leaders who felt strongly the community was missing opportunities in the job market. "They put their own money on the table first and were incredibly committed." Working through Battelle Memorial Institute, they convened the committee that would become The Right Place.

"It was a different way of delivering economic development. The board was mainly private sector business leaders, interested in driving investment." The Right Place launched in 1985. In summer 1987, The Right Place asked Lubbers if Birgit could be on loan as a community resource, for its first European foreign investment mission.

Birgit previously worked in marketing at Prince, where the chief purchasing officer sought her help communicating with Behr Industries, a German supplier. Birgit and the supplier became good friends; she asked him to consider West Michigan, offering to help when he was ready to build a plant in the states. Before she left for the first The Right Place foreign mission, the supplier called; she met with him in Germany. Two years later, Behr Industries broke ground on 7 Mile and Alpine. It's a highlight of her career.

When The Right Place opened a director/CEO position, Birgit didn't apply. Newer to town, she didn't think she could qualify for this new role. Birgit returned from a trade mission she led to Europe to a call from The Right Place, set into motion by Orville Hoxie who had helped The Right Place get off the ground and was a mentor to Birgit. He recommended her to Mr. Van Andel and she was offered the position by Milt Rohwer, her predecessor.

"Without even thinking about it, I said YES! I'd fallen in love with this work in Berrien County. My goal was always to lead an organization. The opportunity came sooner than I thought.

"I owe a huge debt to Orville. It's been an incredible opportunity and I loved every minute of it."

Birgit grew the organization from a few people serving Kent County to a team of 30-plus serving six counties. There are over 130 companies from foreign countries in West Michigan now, more than 50 being from Germany. The Manufacturers Council was created in 1989, becoming a model for the later development of Supply Chain Management, Information Technology and Medical Device councils. Hello West Michigan and The Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West became strategic partners of The Right Place, housed within the organization and providing the business community with added depth of talent services and manufacturing technical assistance.

As a result, well-paying jobs are being created in West Michigan, keeping people in the region and improving quality of life. "It's a simple internal motivator: Every night when I go to bed, I know someone's working because of the work we do. That's motivated me for all these years."

birgit-klohs-web3 Photo courtesy of Birgit Klohs.

While many people have done well in West Michigan, not everyone has participated equally. This prompted The Right Place to build economic inclusion into its strategic plan and look at ways to bolster business leaders of color. While there is much work yet to be done, The Right Place is already developing and launching programs to drive measurable change.

The best social service, Birgit notes, is a good job. This motivates The Right Place's team, especially amid COVID-19. "I am extremely proud of our team—we have some of the best folks in this business. They have risen to the challenges posed by the pandemic, quickly rethinking strategies, pivoting, and deploying brand new programs. We distributed over $10 million in small business grants through state of Michigan. We assisted manufacturers with making the transition to producing PPE—and we now have over 80 companies in the region providing these essential supplies. We were able to dig into this challenge and say, 'What can we do to get through this crisis?' It's been a tough but extremely rewarding seven months."

"This community is on the map. We made it into The Economist and Forbes—bringing positive notoriety to the area to bring and retain companies. There are always opportunities, even during these strange times. To really raise the profile of West Michigan has been an accomplishment to be proud of. You have to have passion for this work."

Today, there's transition of leadership in the community.

"I've had 33 years of fabulous relationships. This community is extremely relationship focused. When you talk to a company about economic development, you have to know all the relationships going into the process; all the resources. The things we get asked to do are legion and could fill a book! We know those resources. They trust us. That's what really enriches our experience in the community.

"Generationally speaking, a lot of those relationships are retiring. It's time for me to get off the stage and make room for the next generation."

Why now? "It had everything to do with wanting some runway for me and my private life and opening the door to the next person leading this organization. A friend said, 'You will know when you are ready.' It has to do with your emotions and yourself. You're getting off a stage. It evolved, and it was time."

Birgit gains energy from interaction. Her thought process is better when she can bounce something off of someone. Serving on boards is a joy—a way of staying connected; she'll be on nine when she retires.

"There is a private Birgit. I can be a homebody, versus a woman who runs around the world to various countries. I want a good balance of time between me, my husband, my family in Germany." She'll visit for a month, rather than a few days. She loves to be in her house, cook, hunker down with a good book, garden, travel. She'll stay engaged and busy.

Whoever sits in Birgit's chair next needs to get to know the community completely and quickly.

"There is a fantastic team here. Use it to get to know Grand Rapids and this community. There are community builders, dealmakers and gunslingers. A gunslinger comes in, makes a few deals, moves on. A dealmaker wants to make the big deals. I'm a community builder. Relationship capital is important to the community leaders here. The leader has to become very cognizant of the relationships he or she has to build—someone who wants to continue to be an economic development community builder. As the community continues to evolve and change, they need to embrace this."

Birgit mentions the words of retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki—"If you dislike change, you're going to dislike irrelevance even less"—adding, "We have to change to stay ahead of the game."

Birgit Klohs on Where the Community is Headed

When I moved to Grand Rapids 36 years ago, it was a good city but not very exciting. We all went home after work because there was not that much to do. How things have changed! The addition of so many amenities to our city have transformed Grand Rapids.

The Medical Mile has been a big part of that transformation. From a business standpoint, what's happened with the creation of the Van Andel Institute is phenomenal. It was the beginning of a transformation and diversification into an area where this community has not been before. It started the growth of our health and life science cluster; and that cluster continues to grow with the recent announcement of Perrigo moving its North American Corporate Headquarters to downtown Grand Rapids. The talent this cluster has attracted is fantastic. We had a two-legged stool with VAI and Spectrum Health; with the arrival of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, it became a three-legged stool. It's been 10 years already since MSU admitted its first students. Today we have a very rich health care system—with Spectrum, Mercy Health and Metro; and key institutions and organization that continue to grow this ecosystem.

birgit-klohs-web2Photo courtesy of Birgit Klohs.

Birgit serves on the Board of the Convention Arena Authority and attends many of the concerts hosted at Van Andel Arena. At one concert with Elton John, she had the privilege—along with Rich MacKeigan—to present Elton with a donation to his charity. "He was warm, approachable and very appreciative."

Written by Amy L Charles, Editorial Director for West Michigan Woman.

This article originally appeared in the Dec 2020/Jan 2021 issue of West Michigan Woman.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Braman Photography.


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