Dutch titans left their mark on West Michigan

Rich DeVos and the late Jay Van Andel were known as the "gold dust twins" as they built Amway, the direct-selling consumer products giant they founded in 1959 near Grand Rapids.

They spread a lot of that gold around West Michigan to support the construction of hospitals, sports and entertainment facilities, research institutions and many other community institutions.

Drive around Grand Rapids and you’ll see the DeVos, Van Andel and Amway names on any number of buildings, including the Van Andel Arena, the DeVos Place convention center and the Amway Grand Plaza hotel.

Amway is one of two things outsiders likely think of when someone mentions Grand Rapids, even though the company was founded -- and still operates -- in nearby Ada.

The other is its office furniture industry, which expanded home furnishings manufacturing largely relocated to the South decades ago.

Dutch settlers were already making furniture when Grand Rapids was incorporated in 1850, as the booming lumber industry in Michigan provided a bounty of wood for tables, seating, cabinetry and other furnishings.

Grand Rapids soon became known as "The Furniture City," a nickname that was a popular description of the city for nearly a century.

Today Grand Rapids is a world leader in the production of office furniture with West Michigan companies Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth leading the industry.

"These and other major employers are the backbone of our economy and they continue to invest and reinvest in our community," said Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc., a local economic development agency.

"Without them we wouldn’t be who we are," she said.

But Klohs bristles at the notion that Grand Rapids is a one- or two-horse town, economically.

"It’s not a company town," she said. "It’s a successful, diverse base of businesses that play well in the sandbox."

Grand Rapids’ largest employer is neither Amway nor a furniture firm.

Spectrum Health, with 18,000 employees in West Michigan, has more workers than Amway, Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth combined. (Meijer, founded in Greenville, is the second-largest employer in West Michigan, says The Right Place Inc., with 7,725 workers.)

Spectrum, with an annual payroll of $1 billion, dates back to the 1843 founding of the Female Union Charitable Organization, which was formed to help ease human suffering in the then-village of Grand Rapids.

Today, Spectrum is part of a huge health-care complex in downtown Grand Rapids dubbed the "Medical Mile."

The complex includes Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, Grand Valley State University’s Cook DeVos Center for Health Sciences and the Van Andel Institute, a medical research center.

Those institutions and others have invested about $1 billion in the area over the past decade.

"We’re attracting physicians and other talent from all over the globe," Klohs said.

For all of its business and economic success, Grand Rapids used to be viewed as dull. Some derisively referred the city and its conservative Dutch heritage, as "Bland Rapids."

That’s changing, in part because of activities like ArtPrize, which calls itself the world’s largest art competition. It offers nearly $600,000 in prize money and blankets Grand Rapids with artwork each fall.

You might know the name of the man who came up with the idea:

Rick DeVos, grandson of Amway co-founder Rich DeVos.

Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.

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Thu, 09/06/2012 - 7:11pm
The reason why Spectrum Health surpasses the furniture industry in employees, is those manufacturing jobs are no longer here, in GR. So we hold the title but not the positions, a facade of success. If you read the GR Press or look at the area politically, it is a one horse town if not a one horse thought. It's cultural and religious roots have segregated the city economically, racially and educationally. The Rockford and Forest Hills school districts are 96% white. Most residents have less tolerance for interracial marriage, drug decriminalization, universal health care, a living wage or employee representation. The hate for our president bridges on insanity. There is a reason housing is cheap in GR; young people are seeking more progressive pastures. How many times can you stomach the Sound of Music?