Traverse City’s Quiet But Mighty Manufacturing Sector Speaks

By Craig Manning August 28, 2021
Crew works on the factory floor of Ticker Manufacturing.

Photo by Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

What do laser components, automation robotics, screen protectors, medical devices, and aerospace parts have in common? They’re all manufactured right here in northern Michigan.

According to data from the Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council (GTAMC), manufacturing jobs account for 16.7 percent of the workforce in Grand Traverse County, and pay salaries 40 percent higher than the average regional wage. Despite these stats, the manufacturing sector hasn’t been immune to the challenges that have hit other employers in the region.

The Traverse City Business News, sister publication of The Ticker, surveyed 10 local manufacturers to get a better sense of what’s made here, what major challenges are facing the industry, and how supportive northern Michigan is to its manufacturing sector.

Ryan Kennedy, Britten, Inc.

Products manufactured: Wide format printing, custom woodworking, aluminum framing, displays, and customized shipping containers.

Biggest challenge: Finding and hiring additional manufacturing employees. We have an outstanding team, but we need more people to support our company’s growth.

Whether the region is becoming more business and manufacturing friendly: The Grand Traverse area has become more business-friendly the past couple years, and organizations like Traverse Connect and the GTAMC have provided tools and resources that support manufacturing growth within our community.

The Grand Traverse region’s biggest need to grow manufacturing: In order to grow manufacturing in the region, the Grand Traverse area needs to continue to support the development of skilled trades education, as well as provide affordable housing options within the area.

Don Howe, Century Inc.

Products manufactured: Parts for aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, mining, nuclear, and energy.

Biggest challenge: Labor. It’s getting the orders and then being able to service the orders with people. We unfortunately had to do about a 20 percent labor reduction (due to COVID). During that initial downturn, we lost over 30 percent of our revenue. We pushed it out as long as we could, but it was just too much for us to sustain.

Whether the region is becoming more friendly: Business-wise, I would say yes. Manufacturing, I would say probably not. I’m the vice chair of GTAMC, but if you ask anybody what Traverse City is all about, it’s about wine tours, tourism, beaches and bays. We don’t talk much the contribution that is made (to this area) from a manufacturing perspective. It feels like our posture is more focused toward the service side of things rather than manufacturing. When you think about something like Creative Coast, or about a lot of our marketing, our resources are more focused towards those things than they are the manufacturing sector.

Biggest need to grow manufacturing: We need exposure to the manufacturing happening in the area and the value it brings. As business leaders or commerce leaders in our area, we need to be able to not only tout the amazing resources this area has from a service perspective, but also the deep impact that our manufacturing community has. From Clark Manufacturing to SMI to National Vacuum, there are so many great manufacturers up here, that have a ton of employees, and that are pumping taxpayer dollars into the community. And those businesses, I think, are often forgotten or not recognized for what they are doing here.

Roni Hazelton, Cherry Republic

Products manufactured: Gourmet cherry food products.

Biggest challenge: Finding enough staff to fulfill our needs within all the areas of our company.
Whether the region is becoming more friendly: I believe it has, as companies have continued to diversify and pivot considering numerous supply chain and staffing issues.

Biggest need to grow manufacturing: Certainly, affordable housing, child care, and living wages would all help support growth and diversification. Traverse City and surrounding areas are very dynamic and are desirable places to live. In addition, we need more programs to attract kids in high school settings, to help them understand manufacturing and the long-term growth opportunities that are available – including apprenticeships, internships, and continued partnership with our local learning institutions.

Ben Nelson, Coherent

Products manufactured: Components for companies that make laser systems.

Biggest challenge: Increasing costs. We’re seeing a cost increase across the board (for our operations). Materials, labor, insurance, healthcare, utilities, supplied items. We’ve seen significant changes over the past year (in these categories).

Whether the region is becoming more friendly: Traverse City has a strong manufacturing core. I feel it is largely supported by the community.

Biggest need to grow manufacturing: Possibly a free trade zone to move materials in and out of. An expanded University Center (at Northwestern Michigan College) for engineering degrees. And a research center for an applications lab and an R&D incubator.

Michael DeBruyn, Great Lakes Stainless

Products manufactured: Stainless steel cabinets for surgical and medical procedure rooms and high-end residential.

Biggest challenge: Recruiting and retaining labor. Our turnover has historically been very low, and in the past, Traverse City was an asset in recruiting talent (to the area). Currently, while the appeal of the area is still strong, the lack of anything resembling affordable housing has cost us potential hires and caused three highly-valued employees to leave the company in the past few months and move out of state. Even with very competitive wage structures that can easily exceed twice the current minimum wage, the rental rates and housing costs are simply untenable for those without an established residence.

Whether the region is becoming friendly: On the one hand, NMC and the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (MMTC) have been very strong advocates and unifying forces in the area, and we do feel that there is great community and institutional support for manufacturing operations. Additionally, as manufacturing has grown a bit in the area, the infrastructure – including logistics – has been slowly improving as well. The other side of the answer is outlined by the challenges we face retaining and recruiting talent, due to rapidly escalating housing costs or just plain housing availability.

Biggest need to grow manufacturing: Currently, our greatest need is more affordable housing so we can continue to draw talent to our area and bring in revenue from across the country to benefit our northern Michigan community.

Mandy Peterson, Photodon

Products manufactured: Screen protectors for digital screens.

Biggest challenge: Learning SEO marketing strategies and Amazon marketing listing strategies.

Whether the region is becoming more friendly: It has. We have had great support from the MMTC, the GTAMC, Networks Northwest, and Michigan Works!. There are many great programs out there that benefit small businesses such as ours.

Biggest need to grow manufacturing: More publicity. As a community I would like to see us all support one another’s businesses by seeing if we can source our needs locally before going elsewhere. If there is not one already, a list of all the manufacturers in the Grand Traverse area – as well as what they produce – would be helpful for awareness.

Bill Myers, Promethient

Products manufactured: Technology installed in a seat for conductive cooling and heating of the seat surface.

Biggest challenge: Supply chain. The electronics industry has been decimated by COVID, and some of the key electronics that we need to have in our system – especially in our control board – are very difficult to come by and have very long lead times.

Whether the region is becoming more friendly: There are some very encouraging things happening. Traverse Connect has become more cognizant of the importance of manufacturing in our economy, and I think they’re doing more to engage with manufacturers. Where we’ve gone backwards as a region is more attributable to COVID, and the fact that many people have moved here and are driving up home prices and housing costs. If a manufacturer is trying to recruit people to Traverse City to help scale their business, it becomes much more difficult to do because of the availability of housing, especially affordable housing.

Biggest need to grow manufacturing: When we’re trying to recruit talent to Traverse City, quite often talent is married to talent. A career path for a trailing spouse is important. There’s a good chance that an engineer is married to a scientist, or vice versa, or to a physician. Having jobs for both spouses available in the area is important.

Jason Warren, Shoreline Fruit

Products manufactured: Premium frozen fruits, dried fruits, fruit concentrates, fruit juices, fruit pastes, fruit powders, and maraschino cherries.

Biggest challenge: As we own and farm over 4,800 acres of land in southern Michigan and in Antrim, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau counties – and as we depend on various fruit crops from all over the world to support our operations and products – understanding and dealing with the impacts of climate change is top of the list.

Whether the region is becoming more friendly: Yes, in the development of information resources, business resources, professional and support services, and other support infrastructures needed to support and grow companies. Yes, in promoting the area and making it attractive to professionals. No, in creating a community that supports a working class with affordable living, housing, childcare, and other resources that are necessary to support them.

Biggest need to grow manufacturing: The issues noted above need to be addressed if manufacturing businesses are going to thrive in the area. The continued influx of an upper-income (and oftentimes older) population that increasingly demands only service industry and tourism related growth drains the available labor pool for production-related endeavors and continues to drive the cost of everything up for the working-class people needed to supply and support a vibrant, diverse workforce and community. This situation is not sustainable and is fueling resentment and eroding the sense of community in this area. There needs to be a balance, and an investment in the infrastructure needed to support it.

Dodd Russell, Skilled Manufacturing, Inc.

Products manufactured: Automotive drivetrain components, aerospace engine components and medical device components.

Biggest challenge: Labor shortages in very specific areas, such as controls engineering.

Whether the region is becoming more friendly: This area has always been manufacturing-friendly. We have a great support from NMC, from the Northwest Education Services school system (formerly Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District), and from GTAMC.

Jon Lejeune, TNI Engineered Manufacturing Solutions

Products manufactured: Engineered special automated machines and machine integration, including robotics.

Biggest challenge: Supply chain, followed closely by finding skilled labor.

Whether the region is becoming more friendly: I can’t say it has become more or less friendly over the past two to three years. I can say that, currently, there is not nearly the level of manufacturing still in our community as there has been in the past.

Biggest need to grow manufacturing: That’s hard to put a thumb on in the current climate. Currently, we do not have the focus on skilled labor in our community (that we need to thrive) in both our community college or at the MMTC. Many parts manufacturers have left our area, although I am not certain that is based on resource availability. Certainly, the service industry alone will not support our community. Incentives for manufacturing businesses to start or move here could be a start.