Meet 28 Impressive Business Leaders Who Just Chose Traverse City

By Craig Manning January 31, 2023
Crowd gathers outside in summer in downtown Traverse City

A corporate executive who now leads a global brand from Traverse City. A University of Michigan grad who moved her sports startup from Ann Arbor to northern Michigan. A local native finding her way home after a successful real estate career in Chicago. They’re just a few of the stories of Traverse City’s newest movers and shakers – with an emphasis on “movers.” The pandemic gave professionals unprecedented freedom to live and work where they wanted and for many, that freedom led to Traverse City.

This month’s Traverse City Business News profiles 28 professionals who have uprooted their lives and moved heaven and earth to make northern Michigan their new home base. We’re presenting abbreviated profiles here.

A Traverse City native, T.J. Berden spent years working in Los Angeles as a film producer and marketing/distribution consultant for studios like Sony, Netflix and Fox Searchlight. He’s the founder of Big Sur Pictures, which has had a hand in producing titles like “The Two Popes” and “A Hidden Life.” These days, Berden is taking advantage of the opportunity the pandemic gave him to spend an unprecedented amount of time with family, most of whom live in Traverse City. He splits his time between T.C., L.A., and Milwaukee, largely handling his duties as a producer remotely.

Berden’s next project? A PBS documentary called “Unguarded,” about the Brazilian prison system and how it focuses on recovery rather than punishment. But this Hollywood maven is also focused on becoming a bigger part of this community, whether that means figuring out a way to make a movie in Traverse City, or working with local businesses and nonprofits to help them harness the power of story to engage their customer through film or audio.

Kelsey Duda, president and lead designer, Fernhaus
Jamie Kirby, VP of marketing, Fernhaus
Ryan Murphy, director of food and beverage, Fernhaus 
It all started with an Airbnb. Six years ago, Kelsey Duda bought a property in Elk Rapids and used it to design and build a vacation rental from the ground up. Her goal was to break into the field of hospitality design, and this property – which she dubbed Fernhaus – was her proof of concept: a small hotel concept with every detail deliberately chosen with guest experience and comfort in mind.

That project did what it was supposed to do, not only making Duda an acclaimed Airbnb host but also netting coverage in Domino and Better Homes & Gardens. The success inspired Duda to leave her interior design job in Grand Rapids, move up north, and launch her own firm, Fernhaus Studio.
Fernhaus Studio is renovating the historic gristmill in Glen Arbor, which will soon consist of boutique lodging, a café, a cocktail bar and a 30-seat restaurant. A handful of other hospitality projects are in process throughout the region.

Duda’s vision of bringing the ideas and craft of big-city hospitality design to small-town northern Michigan meant she had to bring a team with her. That team includes V.P. of Marketing Jamie Kirby and Director of Food & Beverage Ryan Murphy, both long-time Grand Rapids residents.
All three made the move to Traverse City in 2021; it’s a new adventure the trio are excited to be taking together.

“I’ve never been anywhere else that instantly felt like home,” Duda says. “I love everything the area has to offer. The bottom line is, I never see myself leaving.”

Morgan Ulseth, content manager, Britten Inc.
Though she grew up in Grand Blanc and went to college in Midland, Ulseth always knew she wanted to move to Traverse City someday. Familiar with the northern Michigan area thanks to childhood vacations at a nearby family cottage, Ulseth yearned to live somewhere with a bounty of outdoor opportunities.

The pandemic provided the chance she’d been looking for, allowing Ulseth to move her Chicago-based job as an internal communications and marketing communications specialist at Bosch to Traverse City on a temporary basis. But as Bosch began rolling out its return-to-the-office plan, Ulseth decided she wanted to find a way to stay up north permanently. Thanks to Traverse Connect, and to a Michigan’s Creative Coast Reconnect event held in September, she was able to link up with Britten, Inc., ultimately getting recruited to be the company’s content manager.

Eric Roberts, executive director, 20Fathoms
Roberts was no stranger to the Midwest when he and his family moved to Traverse City last summer. He and his wife are both Michigan natives, and from 1995 to 2013 he was a Chicago man. Roberts spent the next eight years amidst the sunny San Jose tech scene, but was drawn back by Traverse City’s burgeoning tech community. Before long, he found a job that matched perfectly with his educational and professional background. That job, as the third executive director of Traverse City tech incubator 20Fathoms, “popped up a bit unexpectedly” according to Roberts, but provided “an amazing opportunity to have a positive impact on Traverse City’s economic growth and development.”

Sarahbeth Ramsey, founder and owner, The Boho Business Co.
It only took two visits to Traverse City to turn Ramsey from tourist to resident. Prior to last summer, Ramsey had never set foot here. Given she’s an avid stand-up paddleboarder, though, it was only a matter of time before the area landed on Ramsey’s radar. Her first pilgrimage came in June 2021, when she participated in the Paddle45 event in Suttons Bay. Wowed by the beauty of the area, Ramsey quickly planned another trip. By the time she went back home to Baltimore, she’d made up her mind to move here.

In September, Ramsey officially relocated for good. Her company, called The Boho Business Co., works with small businesses on everything from business development to brand strategy to marketing to social media. Though she kept clients in Baltimore and elsewhere, Ramsey also hit the ground running to integrate herself into the local business community. That process was made easier, she says, by Traverse Connect’s Northern Navigators program, which has helped her build a local network; and by 20Fathoms, where she is a member.

Kevin Main, founder and owner, NavigationHR
Main is no stranger to changing the course of his career. In 2014, after spending more than 20 years practicing law, Main launched NavigationHR, which seeks “to provide small and medium-sized businesses with the same HR expertise as larger companies.” So when the pandemic hit and Main realized how easy it was to do the majority of his work remotely, he pivoted – this time by relocating from Monmouth County, New Jersey to Traverse City. He describes the move as “a great opportunity to expand the business in a locale that offers such beauty and suits my active lifestyle.”

Lydia Wiley Smith, real estate agent, RE/MAX Bayshore Properties, Brick & Corbett Team
Lydia Wiley Smith’s story is a classic boomerang tale. A Traverse City native, Smith moved to Chicago after college and launched a successful real estate career. When March 2020 rolled around and the world shut down, Smith moved back to Traverse City, drawn by the pull of family and the desire to raise her two sons in the same place where she grew up.

Smith says the skills she gained in Chicago’s fast-paced real estate industry – where she was involved in nearly $100 million worth of properties each year – allowed her to hit the ground running in Traverse City’s real estate market. Since joining Brick & Corbett, she’s helped many clients just like her: native Traverse Citians boomeranging back after years away. Others are putting down roots for the first time.

Smith is hopeful that this trend – of professionals seeing big opportunities for work and quality of life in northern Michigan – will eventually reshape the way people who grow up here view the region, even if it means that the boomerang archetype she epitomizes starts to fade away.

“Historically, Traverse City didn’t offer many opportunities for career development, so most of my peers (from high school) moved to cities like Chicago and Detroit for entry-level positions after college,” Smith says.

Ann Ralston, president, Ralston Consulting
Like many others, Ralston’s first exposure to northern Michigan was as a summertime vacation destination. Starting when she was six months old, Ralston’s parents would bring her from their home in Muskegon.

Those memories were top-of-mind last January when, after living in Columbus for more than 30 years, Ralston and her husband, Gary made the decision to spend a trial winter in northern Michigan. Ann and Gary had already been working remotely prior to COVID: The business they started together 24 years ago coaches CEOs and leadership teams on growth and scalability.

They knew moving the business would be easy; they didn’t know whether a snowy northern Michigan winter would match the charms of the area’s warm summers. The two fell in love with the winter experience, their trial move to Suttons Bay soon becoming a permanent one.

“When we coach our clients, we encourage lots of experiments to learn and de-risk decisions,” Ralston says of the trial move. “So, why not try it here?”

Dr. Olivia Juntila, anesthesiologist, Munson Healthcare
Alex Prasad, COO, V1 Sports
Meet Dr. Olivia Juntila and Alex Prasad, a married couple who, in July of 2021, traded a life in Ann Arbor for one in Traverse City. She’s a University of Michigan med school grad now working as an anesthesiologist for Traverse Anesthesia Associates (TAA). He’s a fellow U of M grad – and a Notre Dame Law School alum – who has spent the past several years remotely maintaining a legal practice with a St. Louis-based firm called AEGIS Law.

When Juntila finished her residency at U of M and was offered a job at TAA, Prasad embraced the role of “trailing spouse.” In addition to bringing his law firm work with him, Prasad is the chief operations officer of V1 Sports, a Novi-based software company that makes golf swing analysis software – and which recently landed Michael Jordan as an investor.

Halle Simpson, professional certified coach, Halle Simpson Inc.
Halle Simpson didn’t make the physical move to Traverse City until last May, but her heart was here long before that. When she was four years old, Simpson’s grandmother purchased a family cottage on Old Mission.

“My summers were spent swimming, water skiing, sailing and enjoying bonfires on the beach,” she says.

Those memories were always Simpson’s true north, pulling her back like a magnet. For years, she thought she’d retire here. Then, she started asking, “Why wait?” She’s a professional certified coach who says she works with business leaders to help them find more peace, joy and balance. That work could be done from anywhere. And so, Simpson left behind her old home base in Speedway, Indiana and realized her retirement dream of living in Traverse City – 20 years ahead of schedule.

Ainsley McCallister, founder and CEO, Uru Sports (pictured)
A small percentage of high school athletes play college sports, and a tiny percentage of those athletes go pro. Ainsley McCallister founded her business, called Uru Sports, after realizing there were more opportunities for college athletes to continue their sporting careers than she ever realized. That business is now rooted here in northern Michigan, thanks to McCallister’s mid-pandemic decision to make Leland her home.

McCallister studied movement science at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology and was also a captain and All-American on the women’s field hockey team.

When she graduated in 2014, she knew she wanted to continue her athletic career. And so, over the course of four years, McCallister played professional field hockey throughout Europe, Australia, and South America. Those experiences led to the establishment of Uru Sports.

At the time, there was no platform for athletes looking to find opportunities to play overseas. With Uru, McCallister created a networking platform to help.

Today, Uru is a venture-backed entity that has placed more than 600 athletes to professional teams overseas and a base of investors and collaborators that includes a board member of the Los Angeles Olympics; former executives from Netflix, Apple, Pac12, The North Face, and the WNBA; and more.
Uru’s list of supporters is also growing to include local names. Since relocating from Denver in spring 2020, McCallister has connected with local investors like Casey Cowell and Turner Booth. Last month, Cowell’s Boomerang Catapult announced a “significant investment” in Uru.

Philip Parker, independent musician and record producer
Jessica Kooiman Parker, media and member liaison, Northwest Michigan Arts & Culture Network; visual arts curator, Commongrounds
Philip and Jessica Parker spent more than a decade in Boulder, Colorado, but they’ve collectively seen many parts of the world. Jessica grew up in a small Minnesota town, but has lived “as close to home as Minneapolis and as far away as India.”

Philip, meanwhile, is a Traverse City native whose musical chops took him to the University of Colorado for a degree in cello performance – and subsequently, all over the contiguous United States on tour. They’re both sure they’ve never found anything that compares to northern Michigan. Jessica says that, when Philip first brought her to Traverse City in 2008, she was “mesmerized.” Then in June 2021, the couple and their three sons finally relocated here. She’s bringing her multifaceted arts background for both the Northwest Michigan Arts & Culture Network and Commongrounds. He’s building a new music studio, called The Old Mission, in hopes of lending his experience as both a performer and producer (most notably with Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov) to the already-rich musical community that exists here.

Adam Weinrich, founder and general manager, Anavery Fine Foods
Dandan Zhu, founder and CEO, Coastal Stay Property Management
The deluge of professionals relocating to Traverse City started in earnest after the pandemic struck, but the area has always been a desirable one – especially for young families. Case-in-point are Adam Weinrich and Dandan Zhu, who moved their family of five here in July 2019. Weinrich is a Michigan native, having grown up in Big Rapids and Holland. Zhu grew up in Beijing, but was educated in The Netherlands and the United States, and even lived in Traverse City years ago. Most recently, the two shared a life together in Hong Kong – Weinrich working for Segantii Capital and Zhu putting her PhD in financial services toward a career in banking.

In 2019, the couple purchased 78 acres of farmland in Traverse City and made the move. According to Weinrich, he and Zhu “co-founded and work together” on their two businesses, a livestock farm and a real estate investment firm. The two are motivated to make the area a better place to live and work, both by providing “healthy, ethically raised meat” to local residents and by offering “reasonably priced residences for locals and thoughtful alternatives for visitors.”

“We are taking the skills and capital from our first careers in financial services and investing them in northern Michigan,” Weinrich explains.

Jamie Gallagher, president and CEO, Faber-Castell USA
You might not recognize Jamie Gallagher’s name, but you certainly know some of the brands he’s worked for throughout his 40-year corporate career. After earning his bachelor’s of business administration from Notre Dame in 1981, Gallagher served as director of sales and marketing at LEGO and then as general manager of USA operations for Playmobil. Since 2003, he’s been the president and CEO of Faber-Castell USA, known for making pens, pencils, and other art supplies.
For 18 years, Gallagher led Faber-Castell USA from its headquarters in Cleveland. Since June 2020, though, he’s been doing the work from his new home in Traverse City.

That move almost didn’t happen. Before the pandemic, Gallagher and his wife had their eyes on eventually retiring to Lake George, New York. But Gallagher says the price of real estate there – a product of its proximity to Boston –made it less appealing.

Rather than abandon their plans of finding an idyllic place to retire, Gallagher and his wife set their minds to finding a place like Lake George that was more affordable.

“(Traverse City) just completely knocks out Lake George,” Gallagher laughs. “Before moving here, it was a combination of outdoor feel, beauty and vibe, not too small, balance of life, people, seasons, and Midwest location (that attracted us). Later, I have learned that there is such an interesting opportunity to connect the area’s appreciation of creativity with talent and passion as a means of impacting the community and providing great futures for generations to come.”

Gallagher splits his time between northern Michigan and Cleveland, and is thinking about ways he can play a role in shaping Traverse City’s future. To start, he’s been tapped by Traverse Connect to be a part of a new leadership program, launching in February.

Brittany VanderBeek, manager of impact, Hagerty
When Brittany VanderBeek moved from Detroit to Traverse City in February 2020 to take a position at Hagerty, the start of the pandemic was just weeks away. As a result, VanderBeek’s career introduction to Traverse City “has been mainly over Zoom.” Nevertheless, this young-but-seasoned millennial has made a quick impact on the region, not only leading Hagerty’s corporate giving and volunteer programs, as well as its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, but also acting as the organization’s liaison to Traverse Connect and the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation Community Development Coalition; serving as a board member for the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Center; volunteering as a Northern Navigator for Michigan’s Creative Coast; joining 20Fathoms and Traverse City Young Professionals; and becoming an active part of the local fitness community.

“Traverse City is the essence of Michigan: crystal clear freshwater everywhere you look; trails for hiking, biking, and skiing; rolling hills of wine country; fresh farm-to-table foods; and Midwestern hospitality. Living through almost two years of a pandemic has only emphasized the importance of living near natural beauty,” she says.

Kelly Weldon, senior experience designer, Adobe
Nikolai Wasielewski, director of global trade management solutions, Livingston International
The first time this wife-and-husband duo ever took a vacation together, it was to northern Michigan. The magic of that trip – and its foundational place in their relationship – gave the pair a deep “emotional attachment to Traverse City” and got them dreaming of building a home and a life here. That dream will become a reality soon: Weldon says the two are building a house in Glen Arbor and will permanently relocate from Detroit this summer.

Weldon, a Los Angeles native, brings a background in art, digital marketing, startups, and design for social impact. Wasielewski, a Michigan State University grad who hails from Toledo, helped build the mobile marketing consultancy Incipia – a platform that went on to support major brands such as Walmart, Coinbase, and Peloton.

Now working remotely in roles for Adobe and Livingston International, respectively, the two can live or work anywhere – and they’ve chosen Traverse City. Weldon says the couple hopes to contribute to and facilitate the development of a more circular economy in northern Michigan, as well as get involved in efforts to expand Traverse City’s cultural diversity and show people of color that they can move and thrive here.

Jack Rutkowski, independent producer and creative consultant
Alicia Radabaugh, vice president of client success,
Even before the pandemic struck, Jack Rutkowski and fiancée Alicia Radabaugh were outgrowing their one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica. Rutkowski had a budding side gig as a voice-over artist for audiobooks, videogames, and Pandora Radio, but the only place he could set up a recording booth was in a closet.

“The idea of moving to a bigger and much more expensive rental situation wasn’t the most attractive one,” he says.

Enter COVID-19, which quickly forced the issue. Suddenly, both Rutkowski and Radabaugh were trying to do their jobs from the cramped apartment – he as a “Jack-of-all-trades” in the video production and voice-over audio space; she as a leader in the e-commerce industry. Tired of being cooped up, the two rented an SUV and road-tripped “at breakneck speed” to visit Rutkowski’s family in northern Michigan. That visit evolved from a chance to spend “a few prime summer weeks” in Traverse City into a decision to put down roots here.

“We want to raise a family in an easy-going and natural – but still cool and thriving – environment,” Rutkowski explains. “We can do the vast majority of our work remotely, and there is a super easy airport 15 minutes away for needed trips.”

Jill Fiebelkorn, CEO, Modernistic
Rachel Shaw, COO and director of sales & marketing, Modernistic
Growing up, Jill Fiebelkorn and Rachel Shaw were best friends. But they never actually shared a hometown – at least, not until now.

They are the leaders of Modernistic, a cleaning and restoration company. For nearly 30 years, that business was rooted downstate. As of fall 2020, it’s officially based in Traverse City.

For as long as either can remember, both Fiebelkorn and Shaw wanted to call Traverse City home. They spent every summer here as kids, their families taking up residence in a pair of cabins on Long Lake just steps away from one another. Fiebelkorn’s dad had founded Modernistic in Troy in 1973, and his college pal – Shaw’s father – had established the first franchise in Plainwell in 1985.
But it wasn’t until the daughters got involved that the original Troy business and the Plainwell franchise merged as one – and set their sights on opening an office in Traverse City.

The pandemic changed everything. Fiebelkorn and Shaw saw how feasibly they could lead Modernistic from TC. Soon, the satellite office was the headquarters, and these two childhood friends were living in the same town.

“I had always dreamt that, one day, I would retire in Traverse City,” Fiebelkorn says. “That was the goal. So, the silver lining of the pandemic was that I ended up here a lot sooner than I anticipated. And so did Rachel.”

“We envision having our headquarters here and having our administrative staff all under one roof, if things will allow us to go back to normal,” Fiebelkorn explains. “And so far, we’ve had a lot of employees, in every area of our company, who are interested in relocating to Traverse City, too.”

Tim Kemp, director of culinary innovation, Blue Apron
Sarah Hesterman, founder and executive producer, Render & Rise
Traverse City has grown into a bona fide foodie town over the years, so it’s no surprise that some of the young professionals gravitating here happen to work in the culinary space. For an example, meet Tim Kemp and Sarah Hesterman, a pair of native Michiganders who spent two decades in New York, only to boomerang back to the Mitten and build lives in Leelanau County once COVID struck.

Kemp is an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America and a seasoned chef who worked in New York City kitchens and even served a stint as a private chef for “a famous billionaire;” he continues to put those culinary skills to good use, coming up with the recipes for meal kit company Blue Apron. Hesterman, meanwhile, is an NYU film school grad who recently launched Render & Rise, a business that produces commercials and documentary-style film content for food-related businesses and nonprofits. Unsurprisingly, now that they’re here, the two also want to get more involved with the local food and wine scene: Kemp even said they’re mulling over ideas to plant a “micro-vineyard” on their property in Leelanau.

This article was originally published in The Ticker