A tale of Two cities and the businesses that mold them

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Bo Burlingham, the Editor of Inc. Magazine, once said that “great companies don't always focus on supporting the community, instead they build a company that is so awesome that the community molds itself around the company.” This is true but it’s only one side of the coin. A business can’t help but be affected and altered by the community in which it’s located. 

A business is made up of people, those people come from and live in a community, the culture of the business can’t help but be altered based on that community. The nature of a business, the business model, and the values of the leadership of the business, in turn, can’t help but affect the employees and the people of their community.

This combination of business and community is similar to marriage because in marriage your lives are never fully separated from each other. I’m not sure how valid it is but there are all those stories and pictures of married people beginning to look like each other after many years. It’s the same thing with business and the community.

For a number of years (96-04), I lived just outside of the twin cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph (St. Joe). These cities are situated on either side of a river just as it empties into Lake Michigan. In St. Joe, the city is located on a bluff with amazing sunset views over the lake. St, Joe was a truly happening place in the early part of the 20th century. It’s surprising as you look at some of the histories of that time; the small town of St. Joseph nationally broadcast boxing matches of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsy, as well as being a destination for the wealthy and influential of Chicago. St. Joe was one nicknamed “Al Capone’s Playground” because of all the time he and his lieutenant spent there. This rich history is all evident as you look at all the large buildings that popped up between 1910 and 1950. But in the time I lived there, it was a very different place, old mansions and stone buildings boarded up and abandoned. There was never any reason to go downtown, the shopping area was on the edge of town near the interstate. The only real reason I would go to St. Joe was to get to the beach. The city had amazing potential because of the river and lakeshore, and close proximity to Chicago, but here it was, a place that you really wouldn’t be that excited about living.

During this time I took a trip out to Seattle and I noticed that so many buildings, wings of museums and events were funded by Microsoft, they seemed to take an interest in the life of their local city. Coming back to the St. Joe area, I started looking around for the same thing but couldn’t see any evidence that any local large companies were interested in the life of the local city. St. Joe is headquarters for Whirlpool Corporation-- you can see their name on a number of buildings around the city and their HQ location on the lakeshore, but no real evidence of their awareness of their home city.

I didn’t think much more about it because there are so many reasons why a city like Seattle flourishes and a city like St. Joe stagnates and decays, I didn’t really put that much thought into the connection between businesses and communities.

Then I moved up the Lake Michigan coastline to the city of Holland which was also at a river mouth leading into Lake Michigan and roughly the same size as the twin cities area. Both had a mixture of industry, tourism, and farming for their economy. But Holland was flourishing, the downtown was beautiful with many reasons to visit and most of the buildings were occupied and in great shape. So while I could see the parallels, I didn’t think that much about it because as I said before, there are many reasons why a city flourishes or decays. But the more I was in Holland the more I heard stories about a man named Edgar Prince the founder of Prince Corporations.

Prince began his career as an engineer at a company that made tool and die equipment, but in 1965 he opened his own shop and started not only creating machines but new products as well, his company invented the lighted mirror on the visor that is ubiquitous now and became a large manufacturer of interior auto parts. They built it up into the largest business in the Holland area employing thousands. In 1996, Prince then sold the company to JCI for $1.35 billion.

Along the way, Prince showed himself to be a person who cared a great deal about his employees by creating a work that was ahead of its time. Employees held access to a health and fitness program where they encouraged exercise and fitness with financial rewards and even built an impressive exercise room in their facilities to allow employees to exercise. Prince realized that the community people lived in was a significant factor in their quality of life and therefore their quality of work, so he set out to improve the city. He did the usual sponsorship of community events but he went much further than just giving money when asked for it.

He looked at the core downtown area of the city built up in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with beautiful architecture but in the 1980’s was a hollowed out worn out and crumbling city center. Everyone began moving their businesses to where the mall and all the new chain stores and franchises were located, leaving the city center to crumble and waste away. He started with one iconic old bank building that was about to be torn down, he bought it, rehabbed it and leased it out on extremely favorable terms to the businesses Prince thought would be attractive and spark interest back into the area. He did this to building after building, amassing for himself what is now a very valuable set of properties. But Prince never ran his properties in a way to extract the maximum dollar value out of them. He had a bigger vision, one of a thriving community that would have those local businesses in the city center that give each town their unique style and flavor. He knew that to both attract and retain the best employees, he would need to have an attractive community with good educational options where they could live and raise their families. Today, Architectural Digest has named the Holland Downtown to be the most beautiful in Michigan.

As he was revitalizing this downtown corridor he used his engineering brain and his Dutch roots of efficiency and not wasting anything to come up with a novel idea at the time of installing a snowmelt system of hot water pipes underneath the pavers on the sidewalks and the asphalt of the street throughout the downtown area. So that through the long winter and the lake effect snow our downtown is completely snow free, meaning no plowing, no salt, no shoveling, no slips and falls, no ugly snow drifts where the snow is piled up. This made it into a wintertime downtown shopping experience and a wintertime runners paradise. His engineering and dutch frugality came into play because he pointed out that there was a city-owned power plant close to the edge of this corridor and that power plant produced hot water as a by-product that they had to vent into the air after it helped them turn their turbines. His suggestion was to use that leftover energy in the form of hot water and pump it through the downtown to melt the snow, making the ongoing cost of the snowmelt, not an issue.

After thinking it through and designing it he gave his plans over to the city along with a 250K check asking them to look into it. They did and after raising more funds from him and others they set out on this aggressive rebuild of tearing up all the streets and sidewalks, dramatically improving the aesthetics at the same time as they built this snow melt network.

The snowmelt network proved to be an amazing hit and generated lots of positive attention for the downtown area, it became a Christmas shopping destination partly because of this unique feature. In the years since, they have expanded the snowmelt system so that today the little town of Holland, Michigan has the largest snowmelt system in North America. Other cities come and check out what the city has been doing for the last 20 years because of things like the snowmelt system that traces back to Edgar Prince and Prince Corp.

After Prince sold the company, he did something unusual. Each of the 1000’s of employees received a check from Prince Corp. based on a formula of years worked and contribution. These were not small checks, they started out around 50K and went up into the millions for some. They had no obligation for this and the employees had no expectation of these checks. It was just Prince Corps way of saying thank you for what you have done.

What happened next seems obvious in retrospect. Those employees who had been used to working in a very creative and open culture were now working for JCI corporation with a very different culture, but something was different from other corporate mergers. These employees held a large check in their hands. Soon new engineering and design companies started up, new small specialty manufacturing companies launched and various other support businesses put out their shingles. High-quality employees + Prince culture + Sale to JCI + Large bonus checks = a wave of new small businesses starting in Holland forming the backbone of the economic resurgence that we have enjoyed for the last 15 years.

I realize I have over-simplified the success of these two similar cities down to the effect of one significant business, but I believe that these two corporations through their involvement and non-involvement greatly altered the outcomes of these two communities.

But some good news for St. Joseph. Whirlpool Corp., realizing they could not hold the best young talent in their city, began taking an interest in their community. They have gotten behind a number of initiatives to revitalize and improve the downtown ecosystem, their success is evident in the number of new businesses occupying buildings on the main strip that once sat idle. If they just look north along the lake shore they could see a good example of how Edgar Prince and his company did it.


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