Easy access to talent and the support of business, government and education convinced Newell Rubbermaid to chose Kalamazoo over London, Milan, Chicago, Atlanta and other locales, its top executive said Monday.
And the consumer and commercial products maker is looking to exploit those relationships to grow the design work it is now doing here.
“We had lots of opportunities to put our design center either close to our corporate headquarters in Atlanta or in any one of our other U.S. hubs or even outside of the country, in Milan or in London,” said Michael B. Polk, chief executive officer of Newell Rubbermaid. “We’ve chosen to come to Kalamazoo because of the access to talent, the strength of the engineering partnership with the college right across the street and the partnership between business, government and the community.”
Polk was in Kalamazoo Monday morning to help dedicate the 40,000-square-foot research and design facility inside Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research Park, south of Parkview Avenue and Drake Road. It is within shouting distance of the university’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, which is also in the business park.
Polk said local and state governments have been very welcoming.
The Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Michigan Strategic Fund approved a lump-sum $2 million performance-based incentive grant for the project, which was announced in March of 2013, and the city of Kalamazoo is supplying tax abatements valued at $164,000.
Regional economic development organization Southwest Michigan First spent an estimated $4 million to build the structure. Newell Rubbermaid, which has invested another $2.3 million in the project, will lease the facility, which includes modern open spaces and carrels for workers to interact and spaces for product design, prototyping and testing.
“This center is going to be a critical, important piece of Newell Rubbermaid moving forward,” said Chuck Jones, chief design and research and development officer for the maker of Sharpie markers, Rubbermaid containers and Graco baby strollers and car seats. “Essentially we need to think of this as an idea factory. This is where great design, great engineering and technology, and great brands come together to create products, services and experiences for our consumers around the globe.”
Saying Michigan has had a quarter-million private sector jobs created in the last few years, Gov. Rick Snyder added, “This is a continuation of that.”
“It’s a recognition that this is the place to be,” said Snyder, who was among local and state officials to attend Monday’s dedication ceremony. “We’ve always been known as the place that makes things. What people don’t recognize is that if you’re going make something, you have to design it first. If you look at the design center of our country, in many respects (and) in many fields, it’s right here in Michigan.”
He cited the automotive industry, the office furniture industry and the home appliance industry as already established segments, and said, “more industries are looking to Michigan as the place to do their design and research.”
Ron Kitchens, chief executive officer of Southwest Michigan First, thanked Newell Rubbermaid, Snyder, WMU and city and state officials for sharing a vision that made the project possible.
“Without those parties coming together and operating under the belief of what is the best for the community … we wouldn’t be here today,” Kitchens said.
Bob Miller, associated vice president for community outreach for WMU, said, “We’re very excited about it (the design center) for a number of reasons. The economic development piece (it is one of two projects that complete the development of the 265-acre BTR Park) and job recruitment and creation. But also for the potential. We are talking with Newell Rubbermaid and this design center about several different projects already, involving our College of Engineering and Applied Science. There is potential for various research projects and product testing. The university’s relationship with this design center has really hit the ground running.”
Newell Rubbermaid staff members started using the facility about six weeks ago, a company official said. The location will house about 100 workers focused on product design, prototyping and testing. That is work that the company has done in as many as 15 different locations, but is now consolidated here.
Nicole Quinlan, corporate spokeswoman, said 25 of those working at the facility are transfers from other Newell Rubbermaid locations and 30 are local hires. There was no word on whether the majority of jobs there pay $70,000 to $90,000 per year. That was the pay range the jobs were supposed to have when the project was announced.
Philip Thompson, vice president of global design for Newell Rubbermaid, said the vast majority of the 100 workers at the location will be involved in design and innovation. He said he does not try to sell colleagues and potential workers on living and working in Kalamazoo. He said it is exciting, all by itself, to be in on the ground floor of a new development, in this case, the consolidation of several research stations into one.
Thompson is a seasoned company employee who is a native of the United Kingdom and has worked in various locations, including Italy and Chicago before relocated back to Michigan to work here. He lived in Michigan previously, working in design for Benton Harbor-based home appliance maker Whirlpool Corp.
Polk said, “This facility will be a great example within our company of leveraging this capability that we’re developing across our total portfolio (of products). We compete in very different segments of business, from baby gear to professionally facing tools for contractors and plumbers and electricians, to being the preeminent writing company in the world with brands like Papermate and Sharpie and Expo and Parker on the high end and Waterman on the high end. … Our commitment is to make these brands really matter and the work that will happen here will in fact deliver on that promise.”
Newell Rubbermaid is a Fortune 500 company has 2013 sales of about $5.7 billion. It has more than 40 brands in its product portfolio including Aprica, Calphalon, Dymo, Goody, Levolor, Paper Mate, Parker, Rubbermaid, Rubbermaid Commercial Products, Sharpie and Waterman.