Think of Ann Arbor’s Rick Snyder as that bar in “The Blues Brothers.” You know, the one that plays “both kinds” of music: Country and Western. If he’s elected to the governor’s office, you can bet that his administration would be friendly to “both kinds” of his supporters: big business and small business.
In the week of July 20, Snyder’s camp says, expect an announcement on how that business-friendly theme might be used in a gubernatorial campaign for the Republican.
And by business, he means the “C-Level” manager, the entrepreneur, the startup team. Make them happy by creating an atmosphere in Michigan that allows them to be successful. That means stop taxing them so much, stop regulating them so much, train them in how to be successful entrepreneurs – then the rest of the state’s economic puzzle will fall into place.
It’s what Snyder calls “helping the demand side” of Michigan’s unemployment problem. Help businesses find executives from Michigan’s rich talent supply, help create a business climate that favors them, then watch them succeed and dip into Michigan’s waves of unemployed.
“I would argue you’re helping the demand side even more by placing someone in a successful startup team, and letting them have an opportunity to be successful,” Snyder said in a recent interview with The Ann Arbor Chronicle. “Those are the people that are going to go hire the five and 10 other people.”
This is the formula that has worked so far for Snyder the businessman, so why not for Snyder the politician?
The Small Business Tune: Who’s Your Customer?
To understand how Snyder came to those conclusions, first look at both the early and the latter part of his career – when the music he played was “small business.”
Snyder was born in Battle Creek, but it was at the University of Michigan where he shined as a wunderkind in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He earned his bachelor’s, his MBA and his law degree all before he turned 23. From there, he used his newly-minted credentials for business at the Detroit office of the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers), where he rose quickly and was eventually put in charge of mergers and acquisitions in the firm’s Chicago office.
It was there, handling M&As for “30 to 50 different companies from various backgrounds every year,” Snyder said, that he began to form his lifelong opinions on how to make businesses more competitive. He saw them from “what the customer side looks like.”
Now, when Snyder thinks of “customers” in a political context, he is talking about the people trying to do business in Michigan. Government needs to treat Michigan businesspeople as customers.
“Michigan needs to change our attitude more, to be treating our citizens and businesses like customers and take a customer-centric approach to things, to say our goal is to create a more competitive playing field for our companies to thrive in and to do well,” Snyder said.
And that means, in general, the “customers” are always right. Or, if not, at least assume they are honest.
“Our tax system, our regulatory system should assume that most people are good and honest people, then deal with the exceptions,” Snyder said.
A story Snyder likes to tell is about a canoe rental company in Michigan that needs five separate licenses to do business.
The solution, however, is not to make special exceptions for some companies, he says.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, he said, is too focused on coming up with specialized incentives for companies to do business in Michigan – the governor’s lithium-ion battery initiative, for example, which offers tax abatements – but not addressing what he called “the fundamental issue, which is making us more competitive by fixing our overall business tax environment and our regulatory environment.”
So, if governor, Snyder would be a friend to startups. But what about the “other” kind of music – big business?
Bridging to Big Business
Well, he did help run a Fortune 500 company from 1991 to 1997. During his tenure at Gateway, the PC firm grew from a private $600 million business to $6 billion-plus publicly traded company.
But when it comes to his vision for running the big business of Michigan government, the solution can be found on the smaller, local level. The economic climate in Michigan is improving, Snyder said, no thanks to government, but rather due to local groups doing economic development work – groups like Ann Arbor SPARK, Southwest Michigan First, Techtown and Automation Alley. They’re working, he said, because they’re connecting C-Level talent with companies.
SPARK does receive local government support in the form of tax-increment financing through the Local Development Finance Authority – nearly $1 million in the next year. And last month Ann Arbor’s city council authorized supporting SPARK with $75,000 from its general fund after writing a check for $50,000 the previous year. The Washtenaw County board of commissioners is also considering a tax that would raise $250,000 annually for SPARK and SPARK East, its Ypsilanti satellite office.
For some of its programs, though, SPARK is paid for its services directly by the people who use them – as in a program Snyder helped institute at SPARK called Shifting Gears. It’s a training program geared to help unemployed and underemployed middle-level managerial technical people, mainly from the auto industry. They have good resumes, but they need to learn how to switch from a large company to a small company – how to become involved in a startup. Snyder was a mentor to one of the Shifting Gears clients.
“The last time I met with him, just last week, he was leaning forward, bouncing, smiling, talking about how he was excited to get out there and try to find a job even though his underlying company had gone bankrupt and his situation was worse financially,” Snyder said.
These are the kinds of programs, Snyder says, that should be implemented statewide.
The Business of Governing
OK, but what has Snyder done for Michigan? Well, in 1997, Snyder decided to return to the Great Lakes State. He had a specific mission in mind – to use his expertise to launch startups – first with Avalon Investments Inc. and then with Ardesta LLC. Avalon invested in traditional tech companies, while Ardesta invests in, and helps launch, nanotechnology and microsystems companies.
Between the two, Snyder says, he has created 420 jobs in Michigan and 1,253 nationwide. The figures are based on the number of jobs at companies in which Avalon and Ardesta have made investments.
Still, Snyder’s potential candidacy suffers from lack of name recognition outside the business community. Snyder said, however, he’s not worried.
“I’m excited. I think we’re well-positioned,” he insisted. “We’re starting with strong fundamentals.
“All there is is fear and frustration that everyone has today. I don’t know of anyone happy about how Michigan is, so the starting point is that you’ve got to have a vision that will get people excited about the future.”
About the author: Veteran journalist Howard Lovy has focused his writing the last several years on science, technology and business. He was news editor at Small Times, a magazine focusing on nanotechnology and microsystems, when it first launched in Ann Arbor in 2001 as the media arm of Ardesta. His freelance work has appeared in Wired News, Salon.com, X-OLOGY Magazine and The Michigan Messenger. His current research focus includes the future of the auto industry and the U.S. criminal justice system.