How Michigan Manufacturers are Boosting Communities

This article appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

At the heart of many communities throughout Michigan exists a manufacturing company that provides a vital economic backbone along with local support. Indeed, entire towns in Michigan have evolved due to a single manufacturing facility.

With manufacturing employment accounting for more than 14 percent of the state’s workforce, there are thousands of employers, large and small, that make a substantial positive impact on their local communities. These employers provide high-paying jobs which in turn supports other businesses, and they also provide support in the form of volunteerism, sponsorship and giving back to local charities.

And why is that? It’s because they also live and work in those communities and want to see a thriving future like everyone else.

Take Calumet Electronics, for example. The history of this printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturer largely follows the same trajectory of the Village of Calumet, which currently has a population of around 700 people. Calumet Electronics was incorporated in 1968, just after the famed Calumet and Hecla Copper Mines of the Keweenaw Peninsula closed and the population began to plummet. The company was founded by a local banker interested in semiconductors who inspired a group of community members who wanted to keep jobs in the area.

Fast forward more than 50 years later and Todd Brassard, Vice President and COO, is still working hard to retain jobs and bring more jobs to the area. Brassard has a full appreciation of that history and their responsibility to the community.

The benefit for Brassard and the company is clear: Helping to create a flourishing and inviting community will attract the best talent. Acquiring the right talent is imperative for Brassard and Calumet as they’ve placed themselves at the forefront of bringing semiconductor manufacturing back to the U.S. in the wake of massive supply chain disruptions during the pandemic.

The relationship that exists between Calumet Electronics and the local community is a powerful and mutually beneficial formula. Attracting talent is one thing and that certainly helps the company but it’s also the right thing to do, says Brassard.

“If we can help strengthen the community through our activities, including supporting the village, the downtown and the township and their goals and objectives, it makes a stronger foundation for all of us,” says Brassard.

Investing in the local community is so important to Calumet, they’ve identified it as one of the company’s long-term strategic business goals.

“One of our desired outcomes is that our surrounding community provides more opportunities for young people to stay in the area or people who have left to move back and to have competitive wages compared with anywhere in the country,” says Brassard. “What this comes down to is providing good, reliable jobs and generating revenue from outside our region to bring into our local communities.”

Labor market data points out that manufacturing jobs pay more than any other sector and has the largest multiplier effect for local economies. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, for every $1 spent in manufacturing, another $2.74 is added to the economy, which supports the local restaurants, grocery stores, hardware stores, florists and any other traditional Main Street business you can think of.

Like Calumet, the village of Hopkins is another small community with a population of more than 600 people. For a remote village in west Michigan, just south of Grand Rapids, they have a powerhouse manufacturer in Sebright Products, a global company that makes waste handling and recycling equipment. Sebright has helped designate Hopkins as the “compactor capital of the world.”

For brothers and founders Brent and Dave Sebright, President and CFO respectively, creating long-term and meaningful partnerships throughout the community was only natural. They were born and raised in Hopkins and, to this day, most of the employees are Hopkins residents. That sense of community engagement and local pride has been a driving force for Brent and Dave and that also extends to their employees.

“As the business has grown, our involvement with the community has grown as well,” says Brent. “Being the largest business here, we get asked to do a lot of different things and, to my knowledge, I don’t think we’ve turned any of them down.”

Employees are involved in everything from Little League coaching to sitting on the local school board to leading the high school robotics team. In fact, Brent was village mayor for a number of years until he decided he couldn’t pursue what amounted to two full-time jobs.

“We’re pretty deeply ingrained in Hopkins,” says Brent.

Not only does Sebright offer high-paying jobs and community support, they help generate commerce by focusing on local sourcing of raw materials and supporting local businesses.

“When we have big events and have our dealers in and people visiting, we have our local restaurants cater these visits, which helps them out,” says Brent. “We buy local when we can. Some of our steel comes from a facility literally 10 minutes away. The other steel comes from Grand Rapids. We source and make everything in the United States, preferably from Michigan or around the region.”

Sebright and his team also do a good job of being a community cheerleader when they visit international trade shows and other events.

“We have partners from all over the world, which means that, when our products are featured at a trade show in Germany, we’re exposing Hopkins,” says Dave Sebright. “We’ll have people from across the world come to Hopkins, which helps the other businesses in the community.”

Sparking Joy Through Community Support

Another Michigan company putting a priority on community is Enbridge — the multinational fuel transportation company that delivers raw product for the manufacturing of jet fuel, diesel, feedstock, plastics and more.

Bob Lehto, Operations Manager for the Northern Michigan Area, says the company supports a wide range of events and charitable causes through their grant program with a focus on three main areas: health and safety, the environment and community. In 2020, Enbridge donated more than $1.3 million into community-based initiatives.

Having grown up in a town of round 1,500 people in northern Michigan, Lehto has a good understanding of the relationship between employer and community. Having multiple facilities across the state affords the company to support many different causes but it also allows their employees to get involved locally and expand on that impact.

“We live here, and we work here, in these communities,” says Lehto. “A number of our employees live in small, rural communities and act as volunteer firefighters, paramedics and EMTs. So, when Enbridge financially supports initiatives in these communities, it’s a great source of pride for the employees who live there. They take pride in knowing that the company they work for cares about the community in which they live.”

Lehto says it is common practice among Enbridge employees to bring community engagement ideas to the table and then act on them.

“This is a good example of where our employees, because they’re so tied into these small communities, get involved and bring great ideas back through Enbridge. Enbridge leadership then determines ‘This is a great initiative for us to get behind and support,’” says Lehto.

A few examples of their charitable support includes a recent $6,000 gift to With Feathers, an avian rescue organization, and a $10,000 donation to Feeding America West Michigan to help fund mobile food pantries.

Calumet Electronics also donates to support community initiatives, specifically to youth and education programming within Calumet, as well as across the state. 

“We support local nonprofits like 31 Backpacks that provides meals and snacks for kids outside of the school day to make sure kids don’t go hungry. We want the children who grow up here to have the same opportunities that other children do in less impoverished communities,” says Meredith LaBeau, Chief Technology Officer for Calumet. “We also donate to some popular, family friendly events in the area.”

“The company has always supported important organizations that help prop up the community, but we used to do it much more behind the scenes, not seeking recognition,” says Brassard. “Now, we’re a little more willing to be visible. We are shifting because the benefits are twofold: people will see us supporting these events, and they may want to apply to work here. It drives talent attraction, while also showing that we are invested in this community. We want people to know we’re here and know what we’re doing.”

Passionate Community-Builders

The true reason Michigan manufacturers invest so heavily in their communities is because they care. They want to see these communities thrive and show all that Michigan has to offer the workforce of tomorrow.

“Calumet has had a tough time,” says Brassard. “It’s declined over the past 30 years, and we see an opportunity to bring it back and that’s important for the community and for our business. Our people need a great place to live and want to be in a great community that provides opportunities for their children. And we’re trying to figure out how to play a significant role in that growth through our business.”

“There’s a large, negative perception that small, rural communities in Michigan don’t have the ability to make significant contribution to industry,” says LaBeau. “I’m from Lansing. My mom’s friend visited me in September, and she said, ‘I can’t believe you have the technology up here.’ It blew her away. We are as advanced as Silicon Valley in some of what we are doing, maybe even more advanced. And we’re using the community to bolster us.”

For Brent and Dave Sebright, having the community support gives them the motivation to keep growing and innovating.

“Without the community support, it’d be hard to do what we do,” says Brent. “Like a lot of small communities, we’ve seen a decrease in population and business. We lost our grocery store. There used to be three or four gas stations, now there’s one. We try to do as much as we can to keep supporting local.”

 So, whether it’s providing high-paying jobs or supporting a local initiative, manufacturers play a vital role in the lives of many outside of their own walls.

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