27 February 2012

Amway Makes Record-Breaking Sales

First appeared in Detroit Free Press
Worldwide sales of Amway products jumped $17% to $10.9 billion in 2011, an all-time record, corporate parent Alticor reported today.

Doug DeVos, president of the manufacturer and marketer of Nutrilite dietary supplements, cosmetics and other products, told the Free Press that emerging markets such as China, India, Turkey and Vietnam grew the fastest last year. Japan was flat, while sales in the United States were characterized as “strong,” but apparently below the double-digit gains of the hottest markets. The privately-owned firm does not publicly report profits or other detailed financial data. Other Michigan companies create options to Get Rid of Ringworm.

Overall global growth fueled steady investment and job creation in the company’s home state of Michigan. Amway, founded and owned by the DeVos and Van Andel families, is based in Ada, near Grand Rapids, and employs about 4,000 on corporate, research and development, manufacturing and marketing operations in that area.

Here is an edited transcript of my conversation with DeVos this morning:

Q.: How does Amway’s success in foreign markets translate to more prosperity in Michigan?

A. This is our headquarters. Many markets around the world are supported by our headquarters and functions here, whether it’s marketing, sales, manufacturing, R&D as well. That’s a tremendous infrastructure that we have here. We have 700 R&D professionals that are focused on our products. So we have a lot of operations that support our global growth. None of those products are a Ringworm Cure.

Q. What impact, both global and locally, has sales growth had on jobs?

A: We are just in the process of opening a new $24-million plant here in Ada. We’ve consolidated some Nutrilite protein production here in Michigan (from a plant being phased out in California), there’s about 50 people who are going to hired here. It will have the best in technology, including a $1 million quality assurance lab. Quality is important for us and we really need to invest in these sorts of things, so it’s not just the 50 jobs of people working the plant everyday, there’s a lot of jobs that they support.

We’re disproportionately heavy here at headquarters (in terms of employment-to-sales volume). We’ve got about 4,000 folks here at Ada headquarters – and if you include the (Amway-affiliated) hotels and other operations, about 4,500 total in the Michigan area — and that remains very consistent and solid.

Q. Last year Amway and Nutrilite signed up to be the presenting sponsor for Detroit Red Wings games and broadcasts. That was pretty good timing, in light of the Wings’ recent success, eh?

A. I’d rather be lucky than good — and it’s not just luck. The Red Wings have been such a great organization for so long, I love the Michigan connection, the Ilitch family. So it’s not only been a really, really good business decision, but I think an enjoyable run to be a part of, so that’s been fun.

Q. Have you talked to the Ilitches at all about participating in a new stadium project in Detroit?

A. No, we haven’t gotten much further than the presenting sponsor. That’s their team, they’ll have to make all those decisions.

Q. Any thoughts of selling stock to the public, or do you plan to keep ownership in in private hands?

A. We love being private. We have no plans at all to go (public). We’ve been disclosing the sales figures for years, partly because our distributors, the sales force, want to know, “hey, how’d we do?” So the best way to communicate with an organization that big is to be transparent about it.

We think that being a private company, a family company, is a really good way to be in business. We think it gives us some strategic advantages, allows us to think a little longer term and make some commitments that put your heart into it, beyond just the numbers.  This is much like the makers of a Ringworm Treatment.

Chicago Changes Look to Ford’s New Police Vehicles

First appeared in USA Today
Get used to searching your rear-view mirror for the telltale headlights of a 2013 Ford Taurus: The first Police Interceptor is being delivered today as more departments order them.

The latest police agency to choose the Taurus over the Chevrolet Caprice or Dodge Charger is the Chicago Police Department, which is taking a mix of the Taurus version and Ford Explorer SUV version. It ordered 500 total; the mix is yet to be disclosed.

No surprise that Chicago would pick Ford: The plant that makes the Taurus version of the Police Interceptor is in the Windy City. Another 1,200 smaller police agencies have placed orders for cars as well, and the first one went out the door today.

"We are pleased and proud Chicago has decided to purchase Ford's Police Interceptor vehicles," said Ken Czubay, a Ford vice president. "Ford has been the police pursuit vehicle market leader for 15 years, and we know these all-new vehicles can handle the rigors of police work."

The Police Interceptor sedan and utility vehicles started production at the company's Chicago Assembly Plant last month. It added 230 jobs at the Torrence Avenue plant.

Ford's new police car replaces the venerable Crown Victoria, which stopped production last year. The Crown Victoria was loved as a big, heavy, rear-wheel drive. Taurus has gas-saving turbocharging in the police version, but is front-wheel drive, which some departments may resist compared with the rear-drive Chevrolet Caprice, which is imported from Australia.

Interview With Fred Meijer’s Sons

First appeared in MLive
When your last name is Meijer, there's no such thing as a quick trip to the grocery store.

It's something Hank and Doug Meijer learned at a young age by watching their father and retail magnate Fred Meijer work a crowd. Over the years, the unassuming billionaire with Greenville roots had elevated glad-handing to an art form.

A wide smile. A firm handshake. A few genuinely kind words. And, inevitably, he would draw his trademark free coupon for a Meijer Purple Cow ice cream cone from his pocket and press it graciously in someone's hand, whether he was in one of his own stores or a black-tie gala.

And while the younger Meijers do follow in their late father's personable footsteps -- forays into the family's stores can sometimes take hours after all the stop-and-chats -- the brothers who hold the reigns of the Midwest's largest family-run grocery chain remain very private about some aspects of their lives, and the operation.

In their first interview since the death of their iconic father last year, the Meijer Inc. co-chairmen shared what Fred Meijer did to ensure the business will continue to flourish under family ownership.

Fred Meijer was younger than his sons are today when he began planning for his death four decades ago by placing the company stock in a family trust so it wouldn’t be vulnerable to estate taxes. The trade-off was he no longer directly owned the company he'd built with his father, Hendrik.

Meijer isn't for sale

“Our dad was very careful planning so there wouldn’t be reasons for his estate to force the sale of the business,” said Hank Meijer, 60, who is the eldest of the three sons that includes Mark, 54, along with Doug, 58.

Selling the company has never been a consideration in its nearly 78-year history.

“We have made that so clear for so long to people who might be interested that it’s been a decade, I think, since we’ve had anyone even try to talk to us seriously (about purchasing the chain)," said Hank Meijer.

The most famous interested buyer was Walmart founder Sam Walton, who copied the supercenter concept Fred Meijer pioneered in the 1962 with the opening of Meijer Thrifty Acres in Grand Rapids.

Even though Fred Meijer didn’t have direct ownership, he was still the company’s leader for decades until turning over the reins to his sons in 1990, and taking on the role of chairman emeritus.

“When he walked in (a meeting) and made a comment, there was no question that people would listen to him,” Doug Meijer said.

“Higher Standards, Lower Prices”, the tagline in the company’s advertisement, probably best reflected Fred Meijer’s approach to the grocery business.

“He was fanatical about low prices,” Doug Meijer said of his Dutch father.

That commitment isn’t easy when your competition is Walmart, the biggest retailer in the world, and a force that commands the lowest prices in the supply chain network. The stakes are hefty in this high-volume, low-margin business.

“If we get in a price war over paper towels and toilet paper, it can be extremely expensive because of our commitment to be price competitive,” said Hank Meijer, who became chief executive officer in 2002.

Competing in national arena

Meijer often competes in the national retail arena although its chain of nearly 200 stores cover only a five-state footprint. The Walker-based company landed in the sixth spot in a recent Consumer Reports reader survey ranking of national retailers.

Hank Meijer doubts the company will become a national retailer in his lifetime. The retailer’s growth will continue to be slow and steady. He expects to see Meijer expand into additional states, but they will be contiguous to the company’s current footprint of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky.

“We really like to grow organically,” Hank Meijer said.

There are no plans to leapfrog to highly populated states like Florida or grow by acquisition. Both strategies have fueled the growth of neighboring Gordon Food Service, another private, family-owned West Michigan company in the food retail business.

One area where Meijer is quickly gaining a national – and even an international – presence is online. More than half of Meijer.com sales come from outside its regional market.

The company’s steady growth made Fred Meijer one of the richest men in the state, with his name and company showing up on various Forbes' lists. Putting a number to the Meijer wealth is mere speculation -- the company is extremely private when it comes to any kind of sales numbers.

It doesn’t release annual revenue figures like other private, family-owned West Michigan companies such as Ada-based direct selling giant Amway Corp. or Holland-based office furniture maker Haworth Inc.

Supermarket News pegs Meijer sales at $14.4 billion a year.

Hank Meijer will only say that trade publication estimates are more in the ballpark than Forbes’.

“I think they sometimes build formulas based on public company returns and similar sales, and ours are often lower,” Hank Meijer said. “And so there tends to be more room for miscalculation and exaggeration and speculation than Supermarket News would have,” he said.

The family has long said that being private means it can afford to turn a smaller profit than public companies, which have to satisfy Wall Street.

Meijer in next 50 years

Without that pressure, Meijer has more flexibility to experiment with new ideas. Which is why, the company was one of the first retailers to introduce grocery carts, 24-hour format and self-scan checkouts. The big question is whether Meijer can be as relevant in the everchanging retail landscape over the next 50 years, as it has been in the last half century.

Meijer is positioned well for the future because it is a very progressive, well-managed company that puts a lot of thought into how its customers like to shop, said Mark Hamstra, retail editor at Supermarket News, which ranks Meijer No. 16 on its list of the Top 75 North American Food Retailers.

“The company has been at the vanguard of food retailing on many fronts, including its efforts around things like health and wellness, natural and organic products, and digital communications,” Hamstra said. “Its approach to providing a positive customer experience and a one-stop shopping environment should give it some legs for the long haul.”

The brothers acknowledge their father left big shoes to fill.

“We are expecting whenever we do something people don’t like, they’ll say, 'If your dad was still here, he wouldn’t approve,' " said Hank Meijer.

Hank Meijer remembers his dad hearing the same thing about his father.

“When we opened our first store in Jenison on Sunday, my dad got calls from people who said if Hendrik was still alive, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “We all know that isn’t the case. He would have taken care of customers' shopping when they want to shop, and we can operate with that same confidence if we are making the right decision.”

As they talk, the brothers are sitting around their grandmother Gezina’s dining room table. Her sturdy dark oak furniture now fills a room at the company’s Walker headquarters. Family photos of ancestors and oil paintings brought over from the Netherlands hang on the walls.

“You have to understand she was beyond frugal,” said Hank Meijer of his grandmother, who immigrated to America in the early 1900s with her husband, Hendrik. “That’s where my dad got it from, more than my grandfather. So the thought of not putting (the furniture) to use wouldn’t have been pleasing to (my grandmother).”

What they won't talk about

The brothers made a video early this year for their 60,000 employees to convey the message that their company will remain a family business.

Related: Fred Meijer's sons send video message to employees.

But when they're asked about the future role of the family's fourth generation -- their children and their nieces and nephews -- they get uncomfortable. The three brothers are parents to a brood of seven children who are in their 20s or younger.

“I don’t want to put any kind of burden of expectations on them,” said Hank Meijer. “I would rather not talk about it. I wouldn’t have wanted our dad to talk about that when I was a little kid or even a college kid.”

As his sons reached adulthood, Fred Meijer didn’t know if they would join the family business, although what spending money they earned during their teens came from working jobs at Meijer.

Hank Meijer began his career as a journalist, including a stint at The Grand Rapids Press writing sports while his youngest brother Mark Meijer co-founded Life EMS, a successful ambulance company. Middle son Doug Meijer went to work full time for the company after earning his business degree from University of Michigan.

Hank describes Doug as the “natural born retailer” in the family.

“Our dad was very careful to say 'I want you to do what you want to do' in career terms, all the time feeling tremendous hope and pressure on his part that we would come into the business,” Hank Meijer said.

The retailer will survive even if their children don’t go into the family business. The company’s day-to-day operation has been and continues to be run by a non-family leadership team.

“I think we have the strongest leadership we have ever had,” said Hank Meijer. “We feel very good about the future because we have a lot of great, great people.”

Leading that team is Mark Murray, whose impressive resume includes president of Grand Valley State University and state treasurer under former Gov. John Engler.

He is the fifth non-family president for the company. The tradition began in 1975, when Fred Meijer appointed Harvey Lemmen to the post.

The Meijer board – which includes the three brothers and their mother Lena - also has outside directors such as David Brandon, University of Michigan regent and athletic director, and former chief executive of Domino’s Pizza.

Hank and Doug Meijer are involved in all major decisions of the company. Their work week begins with Monday meetings with Murray and the senior management team.

While they often hear from customers and employees, they usually just pass along those comments. Their dad taught them not to micromanage.

“You never want be perceived as someone throwing your weight around,” said Hank Meijer.

That’s why their regular visits to Meijer stores don’t stir panic among the ranks.

“If there is a piece of paper on the floor, you pick it up,” said Doug Meijer, remembering another Fred Meijer lesson to his sons. “You don’t need to call a store manager.”

20 February 2012

Possible Funding Boost for Michigan’s Colleges

First appeared on Detroit News
After what university leaders have sometimes called a "decade of disinvestment," Michigan's public universities are poised to get a rare increase in state funding next fiscal year — and it could bring some tuition relief for students.

The proposed additional state money — 3 percent on average — comes with strings attached, and some universities would fare better than others under the recommendations this month from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Universities would be expected to keep their tuition increases at or below 4 percent to get some extra money for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Students working on the MAT Degree are troubled by some increases and hope for changes.

Smaller tuition increases would be welcomed by Michigan university students, who have faced significantly higher bills in large part because state government reduced taxpayer assistance for general operations over the past decade.

The average, enrollment-weighted listed price of tuition and fees at a public university in Michigan climbed from $6,294 in 2004-5 to $10,837 this academic year for in-state residents, according to The College Board. There's a wide range of tuition costs among the state's 15 public universities, but the general trend has been higher costs. Those pursuing a Nursing Degree are concerned.

"It would be wonderful to see tuition not raised so much," said Justin Brugman of Marquette, the president of Northern Michigan University's student government association. "It feels like it's always on the backs of students to come up with the difference that the state is no longer funding. Students are taking on second jobs and trying to take out more loans to pay for it."

University leaders welcome increase

The Legislature is just starting to review Snyder's budget proposal, so it's difficult to gauge how the university funding model will look when a final plan is passed later this year. But a possible 3 percent increase would be a significant improvement for higher education funding compared to most of the past decade. State aid for university operations was cut about 15 percent during the current fiscal year and the reductions would have been steeper if universities hadn't agreed to keep tuition increases limited to roughly 7 percent or less.

Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon described the proposed budget as a "significant change in direction from the last decade of cuts." Grand Valley State University President Thomas Haas said "it's great news to be discussing an increase" connected to the budget proposal.

About $36 million would be set aside in performance funding, which includes about $9 million for universities limiting tuition increases. The rest of the incentive money would be split up based on the growth in the number of undergraduate degree completions, particularly in critical skill areas such as science and technology, and the number of undergraduate Pell Grant recipients on campus. That includes those pursuing a Healthcare Degree.

The schools that fare the worst under that model would be the state's main research universities — Wayne State, which would get a 0.9 percent increase not counting the possible tuition incentive, and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and Michigan State University, which would get 1.4 percent increases. Western Michigan University would get a 1.5 percent boost. That's partially because the Snyder formula doesn't factor in postgraduate or advanced degrees and also may tend to hurt universities already performing at top levels in some areas.

Grand Valley State University, which has significantly increased its number of graduates over the past decade, would get a 7.6 percent funding boost under the Snyder plan, not counting the possible tuition incentive. Ferris State University would get a 6.2 percent increase and Saginaw Valley State University would get a 4.8 percent increase.

Complicating factors

Business Leaders for Michigan, which includes leaders of some of the state's most prominent companies, is urging policymakers to invest more in higher education as part of a strategy to improve the state's economy. The executives' organization supports using a broader range of performance measures such as graduation and retention rates, along with consideration of advanced degrees. The organization also says Michigan universities should be measured against their national peers rather than against in-state schools that have different missions and student populations. Those in the Teacher as Leader program agree.

It's too soon to know if the Snyder proposal would offer enough increased state aid to keep tuition levels at or below 4 percent, said Mike Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council — a Lansing-based organization representing the 15 universities. Complicating factors are the differences in proposed funding increases and the fact universities still are dealing with the 15 percent cut on the books for this fiscal year.

"It's going to be hard, because our costs of operation have gone up," said Haas, the Grand Valley State president. "We're going to do the best we can to always keep our tuition as low as we can."

State aid for Michigan universities

Tuition trouble: State support to Michigan’s 15 public universities has dwindled over the past decade during an economic downturn that contributed to government budget problems. Universities often raise tuition as part of their strategy to deal with decreased state aid.  Those studying for doctorates like the Doctorate in Community College Leadership definitely feel the pinch.

Possible boost: Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed a 3 percent funding increase for universities in the fiscal year that starts in October. The extra money would be based on performance incentives that include keeping tuition increases at 4 percent or less.

Next steps: The Legislature is reviewing the Snyder plan. A final budget isn’t expected until later this year.

5 Hour Energy CEO Makes Sense

First appeared in the Detroit Free Press
Who needs a PhD when a double dose of common sense will do?

That question has been kicking around in my head ever since the hour I spent last week with Manoj Bhargava, listening to some of most plain-spoken unconventional wisdom I'd heard in a long time.

As I wrote a couple days ago in another article, Bhargava, 58, of Farmington Hills, is the largely unknown founder and CEO of a growing business empire anchored by the 5-Hour Energy brand of dietary supplements.

He's no dummy, that's for sure, but the Princeton dropout also has a healthy distrust of so-called experts.

What follows are several Bhargava anecdotes that stuck with me:

Hire salespeople older than 50: He has a core sales staff of 20 who peddle most of the 9 million bottles of 5-Hour Energy shots the company produces per week. "All but one guy," he said, "are over 50 years old. I don't hire kids for sales."

And why not? "You've got to train them, teach them, it takes too much time, and they don't work as hard most of the time," Bhargava said. The older folks "hit the ground running, they know what they're doing, they work their tails off. Yeah, they get a little more money but so what? They're cheaper by half than the kids. And they're also not valued by large companies, which is amazing. So we take the opposite approach.

"I tell people we don't hire executives. We hire staff sergeants and master sergeants. The military without officers can run for months -- but without sergeants, not even one day. So we hire people who actually do stuff."

Why sell 16 ounces when two will do?: When he first sampled an energy drink at a trade show in 2003 that gave him the idea for the 5-Hour Energy shots, Bhargava couldn't fathom why it was packaged in 16-ounce bottles. "It didn't make any sense. It would be like selling Tylenol in 16-ounce bottles. I thought, you have to drink this whole thing? I just want to drink a couple swallows and go.

"So I reduced it down to two ounces -- actually we tried to reduce it down to one ounce, but you couldn't see the label it was so small." Today the brand is valued at about $4 billion.

Why make the stuff in Wabash, Ind.? "Anybody can build a plant; that doesn't take brains. Running one does," Bhargava said. So when 5-Hour Energy needed a production plant, he called Ed Snyder, a former partner in an Indiana plastics firm, and tapped him to run it.

"He's a very smart guy," Bhargava said, "the best plant operator I've ever met. So I said, 'Look, if you're not moving, I'm putting the plant next to your house.' "

Ask where the wife's family is from: "I'm here in Detroit for the same reason most guys are where they live," he said, "because it's where the wife's family is. In fact one of my questions in the interview process, if it's a guy, is, 'Where's your wife's family from?' Because if they're from Louisiana, he's leaving at some point." Then Bhargava smiled: "I know I'm going to get a lot of flak about that remark," he said.

16 February 2012

“Motown Mitt”

First appeared in Wall Street Journal
Michigan's Feb. 28 Republican presidential primary is almost a must-win for Mitt Romney. But to his credit the candidate is renewing his attack on the federal bailout of two of the state's giant employers. In a Detroit News op-ed this week, Mr. Romney calls the Obama administration's 2009 bailout of General Motors and Chrysler "crony capitalism on a grand scale."

The stakes for Mr. Romney in Michigan could hardly be higher. As the candidate reminds voters in a new television advertisement, he grew up in the state and is the son of the late George Romney, who served as Michigan's governor in the 1960s. Born in Detroit, Mr. Romney parlayed his "favorite son" status into a victory in the 2008 Michigan GOP primary, even though he ended up losing the nomination to John McCain. Losing Michigan in 2012 would represent a significant setback for the candidate viewed by many as the inevitable Republican nominee.

The Obama bailouts, which followed initial bailouts by President George W. Bush in 2008, have been unpopular with conservative voters, even in Michigan. But the political risk for Mr. Romney is that Democrats and independents, who might favor the sweet deals for union workers included in the Obama rescues, can vote in the GOP primary. Mr. Romney's chief opponent, Rick Santorum, also opposed the auto bailouts, but Mr. Romney has chosen to highlight the issue in Michigan. It is an encouraging sign, similar to Mr. Romney's laudable decision last year to tell Nevadans, suffering through one of the country's worst housing busts, that federal intervention was not the solution.

What's still missing from the Romney message -- and from this week's op-ed -- is a bold plan to create jobs. GOP voters are happy to see a candidate oppose Obama economic policy but are still waiting for Mr. Romney to promote a muscular policy of his own. They have a sense of what Mr. Romney is against. Now what is he for?

06 February 2012

How to Get Unemployment Aid

First appeared in Record-Eagle
The state offers various ways to file for or obtain information on jobless benefit claims, though officials acknowledge some options are more difficult to access than others during peak-use periods.

Chawn Greene-Farmer of the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs said the best way to communicate with the Unemployment Insurance Agency is to set up an online account by going to the state's website at www.michigan.gov/uia and then linking to "UIA Online Services for Unemployed Workers."

The agency has about 100 employees who work as "Virtual Problem Resolution Agents" who can help clients with their claim history, account balances and related information from Mondays through Saturdays.

The state also offers several webcast tutorials on its site to walk clients through the claim application process.
Claimants can also telephone the Michigan Automated Response Voice Network — known as MARVIN — at 1-866-638-3993 to check claim balances and get information. While the MARVIN system was swamped with calls in recent weeks and many clients weren't able to get through, Greene-Farmer said the agency is adjusting its customer service staff to deal with high call volumes.

For face-to-face assistance, claimants can visit a Problem Resolution Office that is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The northern Michigan office is in Gaylord at 400 W. Main St. in Suite 102.

The state offers another toll-free help line at 1-866-644-3577 that has pre-recorded messages about unemployment insurance and extended benefit programs. No live staff is available through that service.

If all else fails, residents can contact their state lawmakers for assistance. Eric Dean, chief of staff for state Sen. Howard Walker, of Traverse City, said more offices welcome calls from constituents needing help with state agencies.

Large Call Volume Makes for Frustrating Unemployment Claims

First appeared in Record-Eagle
Henry Kroesing takes a voluntary layoff from his job at the local Sara Lee plant each December so younger employees with families and mortgages can work their full schedules.

State unemployment benefits help Kroesing, 71, make ends meet during the down time. But not this year.
In January, the state Unemployment Insurance Agency's automated computer system told the Traverse City resident he wasn't certified to receive jobless benefits, though he'd followed the same routine for years.

Kroesing turned to state officials to resolve the glitch, and that's when his frustration mounted. Hours turned into days as he tried to reach a live voice on the state's telephone help line.

Kroesing repeatedly called, to no avail.

"For the first two weeks of January, I couldn't get through," Kroesing said.

He wasn't alone. Residents across northern Michigan shared his frustration as they ran into bureaucratic brick walls while trying to obtain unemployment benefits.

State officials came up with two excuses: a glut of inquiries created by new claims from seasonal layoffs in the retail and auto industries, and a federal unemployment benefit extension approved over the holidays.

"All those factors played into the large volume of calls we received," said Chawn Greene-Farmer, spokeswoman for Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, the agency that oversees the unemployment insurance group.

On one morning last month Kroesing began calling the unemployment agency's automated number as soon its office opened, while his stepson dialed on another phone.

"I was calling, he was calling; we still couldn't get through," he said. "We sat here for seven hours that one day. Finally, I just gave up."

'A lot of confusion'

The same daytime nightmare confronted Copemish resident Todd Humphrey last month after he committed a minor error while filing his online claim. He tried to contact someone at the state to fix the problem.

"I called for four hours and never got through," Humphrey said. "When you've got a (child) at home, you can't spend all day on the phone."

Greene-Farmer said the state typically prepares for and receives an increase in post-holiday calls, thanks to seasonal layoffs common in many parts of Michigan.

But Congress dealt a wild card this year — a holiday season extension of jobless benefits that muddied the water but ultimately didn't change the status of most Michigan residents' claims.

"There was a lot of confusion about that," Greene-Farmer said. "People had questions. That's understandable."

Kroesing finally drove to the state Public Resolution Office office in Gaylord on Jan. 18 to seek answers. There, he encountered one state employee and more than two dozen others — people from Levering, Petoskey, Mackinaw City — who had the same problems with their unemployment claims.

His perseverance paid off. He received an unemployment check a couple days after the face-to-face meeting in Gaylord.

"The gentleman was very polite; he knew the answers," Kroesing said.

Kroesing missed out on two weeks of jobless benefits, though, a shortage that put a crimp in his household budget.

"The utility bills, the groceries; I depend on it," he said. "I've never encountered the problems we've encountered this year. Never. It's very upsetting."

Humphrey also climbed into his vehicle and slogged through a snowy drive from northern Manistee County to Gaylord to reach the state office at 7:30 a.m. A state employee quickly resolved the problem.
But an hours-long trip in rough weather seemed a bit much.

"I had money for gas; some people don't," he said. "It'd be nice if they could free up some people for phone time."

It's stressful for families to wait for jobless benefits, especially when they can't get answers on their claims' status, Humphrey said.

"The bills get backed up, and you get off-schedule. Pretty soon people start calling you wondering why they aren't getting paid," Humphrey said. "You've got to tighten your belt a little bit; pay the bills and see what's left over for groceries and gas."

'Frustrated and upset'

Kroesing and others sought answers at the Michigan Works office in Traverse City. But staffers there said their hands are tied.

Unemployment insurance regulations are complex, and Michigan Works employees can't provide counseling, other than to offer standard advice such as calling during less busy periods.

"We're in a real Catch-22 situation," said Jan Warren, director of the Michigan Works offices in northern Michigan. "People come in very frustrated and upset, and they need help."

The offices allow visitors to use their phones or computers to seek jobless claims information. But that's no guarantee of success.

"It's been harder and harder for people to get through," said Jane Sage, who manages Michigan Works' Traverse City office. "We have the same (telephone) number everybody else does. We certainly can't make recommendations or suggestions."

Greene-Farmer said the UIA office employs about 300 workers in its customer service division to handle both phone and online inquiries about jobless benefits.

"We can re-assign staff to those areas as need be to handle that volume, and that's what we've been doing," she said.

 She described the volume of calls as "extremely high" in early January — the agency wouldn't give a specific number — and acknowledged that many clients couldn't get through.

"We are concerned," she said. "We're trying to meet the demand as best we can with the resources we have available."

State lawmakers also heard from residents frustrated by unemployment claim troubles.

"There are multiple issues with unemployment claims with constituents," said Eric Dean, chief of staff to state Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City.

Dean said Department of Licensing officials sent a late January email to lawmakers to explain recent telephone tie-ups, as well as their response to the problem. Lawmakers try to help but can't do much more than refer residents to state websites or phone help lines, Dean said.

Greene-Farmer said the agency is looking at other solutions, including expanding the number of PRO offices such as the one in Gaylord elsewhere in Michigan. They also constantly study call volumes to determine where assistance workers are most needed.

"We're going to continue to monitor what's happening and see what our demand is," she said.

Kroesing hopes his problems are resolved for now. But his recent experience will make him think twice about accpeting a layoff to benefit others.

"Sometimes I wish I wouldn't have taken the layoff," he said. "If I'd been aware of the problem, I wouldn't have taken it."

03 February 2012

University Cost Puts College Out of Reach

First appeared in Detroit Free Press
After half a century of observing discussions about public policy in this state, what I find amazing is not that people have different views — it's that they so often seem to be living in different universes.
Take Michigan universities. Two studies in Bridge, the Center for Michigan's online magazine, showed that tuition at Michigan public colleges is higher than for nearly every comparable school around the country.
Not surprisingly, student debt in our state has ballooned to $1.8 billion for last year alone. Talk to university officials, and they have no doubt why this is so: They say it's the result of our governors and legislatures choosing — for decades — to shortchange higher education.
The less state support, the argument goes, the higher schools have to push tuition.There is, indeed, evidence for this: In the 1970s, the state covered around three-quarters of total university costs; today, the numbers are reversed. Not surprisingly, tuition has soared.Consequently, it's not unreasonable to conclude that Michigan has imposed a stiff "college use tax" on hundreds of thousands of Michigan students and their families.
But the folks in the current legislature, particularly the House of Representatives, sharply disagree. They think the universities are constantly whining for more state money while asserting that their constitutional autonomy immunizes them from legislative attempts to cut costs, boost productivity and enforce graduation standards.
Rep. Bob Genetski (R-Saugatuck), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee on Higher Education, is an outspoken critic of university spending practices. In an interview with Bridge's Ron French, Genetski talked about whether Michigan has made a conscious policy choice to have individual families shoulder more and more of the cost of an education."We're not saying we don't care about higher education. … But there are so many places we can cut, and higher education happens to be one of those. It happens also to be one where, as soon as you cut it, (universities) can turn around and, instead of looking inward for legitimate cuts, increase tuition. … Parents tell me universities don't make a strong effort to make cuts. Taxpayers deserve better."
While university and legislative officials talk at each other, rather than with each other, this much is clear: Michigan's damaging and unsustainable higher education policies are giving nearly everybody the shaft.
Students and their families are paying way above national market price for college degrees at Michigan universities. The cost alone is enough to simply scare many off, or price them out of the college market — in this state. Many simply leave the state to get cheaper degrees elsewhere; few come back.
College graduates are burdened by crushing debt at high interest rates. Families in hock to student loan outfits aren't going to buy as many cars, houses or goods. Student debt last year far exceeds the $1.2 billion in total state support for higher education. Michigan's economy, which depends crucially on lots of college-educated folks in the work force, is suffering.
Many new, high-tech start-ups depend on inventions from university labs migrating into business. Starved universities are unlikely to be robust innovators. Michigan employers are crying out for better trained, more skilled workers — workers with college degrees.
Fewer Michigan kids going to college means fewer productive workers for Michigan businesses, and that means our economy doesn't grow as fast as it could.
The cumulative result of years of decisions at the State Capitol is a huge divide between Michigan and the rest of America. Just to reach the middle of the pack in per-capita spending on universities, Michigan would need to increase higher education funding by 56 percent; to reach the top 10, the state would need to almost double the $1.26 billion it now spends on universities.
That could mean more taxes (reaching the top 10 in per-capita funding would mean an extra $154 per Michigan resident). It could mean reordering priorities (The $1.7 billion business tax cut passed in 2011 far exceeds the current higher education budget).
"At the end of the day, we still have one of the finest sets of universities in the country," said Central Michigan University President George Ross. "It's a jewel. And we have to protect the jewel."
Protecting higher education is cheaper than you might think. Consider this: Cutting $1,000 from the annual cost of attending Michigan's public universities for every full-time, in-state student, would cost each state resident $23, according to the House Fiscal Agency's Kyle Jen.
That's 44 cents a week.
If you double that - with every resident paying roughly the price of a candy bar more weekly toward higher education - students could graduate with a bachelor's degree with $8,000 less debt than they have now.
The failure to communicate on solutions and the joint hostility that we've seen has only hurt everybody, and hurt Michigan's future most of all.We can certainly do better.
Here's a suggested starting point: University officials and legislators need to sit down - together with representatives of the business community, economists and the governor's office - and start talking candidly about higher education and what it means for Michigan's future prosperity.
One possible outcome: agreement on a set of outcome-based performance standards (sort of an 'education dashboard')for universities, one that could be used to help determine state support.
Another suggestion: The state and the schools could hammer out an agreement under which Lansing pledges to fund Michigan universities at levels comparable to the top-10 states in the nation, if they meet or exceed a set of agreed-on performance standards.
For years, everybody's paid lip service to the assertion that our universities are among our state's "crown jewels." And for years, we've been leading the nation in tarnishing the diamonds.For all of our futures, we really need to stop.

Madonna Dedicating Super Bowl Performance to Dad in Michigan

First appeared in Detroit Free Press
Kindly pardon Madonna -- she's nervous.

The Material Mom took to the podium at a Thursday news conference to talk about her halftime show for Sunday's Super Bowl XLVI and said that she's freaking out a bit about performing for such a large audience, with the broadcast expected to draw more than 100 million viewers in the U.S.

"I am so excited to be here and kind of nervous. This is a Midwestern girl's dream," she said.

"So if I speak fast or run out of breath, you'll know why. I have to say over 25 years of performing that I've done, I have never worked so hard or been so scrupulous or detail-oriented or freaked out as much as I have. ... I want to make the most amazing show for the Super Bowl."

The former suburban Detroiter talked up her Midwestern roots a great deal and said she will dedicate the performance to her father, Silvio Anthony Ciccone, who is a winemaker in Suttons Bay.

"Because I was raised in the Midwest, and he is the personification of Midwestern values," she said. "He gave me the work ethic that I have. If I'm a hard-working girl, that never stops. It's because of him. Of all the things that I've ever done in my life, this would be the thing he's most excited about."

Madonna's show is being put together by her longtime collaborator Jamie King and the Cirque du Soleil. She kept mum on what she would be performing -- except to say that she would be doing three vintage Madonna tunes and a new one, likely "Give Me All Your Love," which drops on iTunes today.

"We started rehearsing in December, then we took a Christmas break, and we've been rehearsing again for three weeks," she said. "I have to keep pinching myself. I can't believe that I'm here."