Behind the Scenes: Chris Holman

Chris Holman, 68, is the founder and CEO of the Michigan Business Network, which hosts conferences, seminars and broadcasts designed to help grow and develop the state’s economy. His entrepreneurial endeavors include a rug manufacturing factory in China and publishing. Thirty years ago, he founded Greater Lansing Business Monthly magazine, now owned by M3 Group.

What’s going on with you?

I wish I could keep track of it. It’s so funny because I always complain about being so busy and my wife always says, ‘When you’re not overly busy, you’re miserable.’

Well, you don’t look miserable. 

I always followed this mission of being a small business advocate. That has been in my heart and I’ve served as the chair of the Small Business Association of Michigan and the National Small Business Association. I was in the Rose Garden with President Obama when he signed the jobs bill and met with him a couple of times on small business issues. Arm-in-arm, this is another mission I’ve had and that’s to get us thinking more globally; international trade has been a way to do that.

It’s a mission that you’ve backed up with actions.

You’re right. It’s all of the stuff I’ve done for 30 years. I own a factory about an hour-a-and-half outside of Beijing with about 300 employees. We make Oriental rugs.

What sort of advice can you offer to those looking to embrace the global economy? Is it different working overseas?

It’s all about people. One of the things that I’ve always liked about Asians is that they establish the relationship way before they do business. For me it was a good thing, a wonderful cultural experience, though it’s never been a huge money maker. Anyone who says they go to China and get screwed, they have a better chance to get screwed in New York. 

What do you bring to Lansing from your global business experience?

It’s kind of interesting how it relates to China. All the years I owned Greater Lansing Business Monthly magazine, 85 percent of my advertisers never signed a contract. We’d talk on the phone, decide what they wanted. They would get a confirmed contract – this is what you bought. I got screwed two times in 26 years and they were both Detroit agencies, who I’m sure got paid by the client and then canceled their contract. I’ve always been one that if there are two people in a relationship, the contract is only as good as the people. In China, when you sign a contract it’s sort of a living document. If this isn’t working in 18 months, we’ll re-huddle.

What’s your sense on leadership in the business and economic leadership in the Lansing region, particularly from LEAP and the Chamber of Commerce?

We collaborate a lot better with the leadership getting together. And, we have to. Having been one of the guys who formulated Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), it succeeded because it was private sector driven. You get to the point where you can say to the institutions and politicians, ‘You don’t have to come along. We can find somebody else.’ When you can do that with the firepower of people and money, it’s amazing what you can get done.

What about political leadership, particularly the City of Lansing and soon to be former mayor,
Virg Bernero?

As much as we argued with him and as clumsy as he was, Lansing was in his heart. He cared. He made mistakes about the way he did things. When we started LEAP, he came to us right away and said, “I should be running this.” And we said, ‘you absolutely shouldn’t be running this.’ It was a pretty interesting meeting.

From your perspective how’s the local business climate?

Every six months we do the Michigan Future Business Index. There are a couple of things happening. It always astounded me that a Donald Trump can run on the basis of ‘We will make America great again!’ We were great and we’re still great. We’re already there.

We are strong economically, now as we’ve ever been, to the point where unemployment is at historically low levels and we can’t fill jobs. Twenty-four months ago, the issues were access to capital — business couldn’t get money — and health care costs. Number three was government regulation, which has been in the top five since 1776. Now you know what the top issues are. Getting and retaining talent and dealing with growth. Businesses say they can expand tomorrow if I have enough good people, but they can’t get them. For the first time, our low unemployment rate is impeding our progress. That’s a dangerous place to be.

Isn’t immigration a way to address this?

I get kicked every time I say that. We have two fixes here: all of the training stuff we are doing. It’s great, but it doesn’t work overnight. The immigration regulations are keeping us from importing what we need. We’ve got to get immigration reform. And, remember with an unemployment rate of 3.7, most of them don’t want to work or they can’t work. Now we are trying to rob from other states to get people back. 

As you look at Lansing, and you’ve been looking for a long time, what’s missing?

We need some architectural integrity here. If somebody dropped you here and you looked around at the buildings you’d say “How did somebody get me to Berlin? We’ve got cement buildings. You go up and down the river and you see the backs of parking structures. We need some things that stick out, architectural pieces that show uniqueness. Pat Gillespie is doing some of that stuff. You can agree or disagree, but it’s like you can drive through some subdivisions and say that house was built in the fifties or that house was built in the sixties. I think this is going to date his projects. I think you have to be careful that you don’t get caught up in the genre of the day.

I look at the building he did across the street from the stadium and I think that is a wonderful piece of architecture. It gives a city character when you can come in and see something other than ramps and industrial style buildings. 

This is all tied in with attracting people to the area, particularly millennials. Lansing isn’t really that big, not a lot of critical mass.

I think we need more activity outside. On October 31, we kind of lock our doors and put salt out on the roads for the season and we come out again in May. Why don’t we have winter fests? Why don’t we have a chili cook-off in January? And, if worse comes to worse, open the Lansing Center. Old Town sort of stumbles on that; they are good party throwers.

This is part of placemaking, attraction stuff. Compare us to Ann Arbor. What are the fundamental differences between us and Ann Arbor, because Ann Arbor thrives? It leads the state in patents, in innovation. It’s not about buildings, it’s about attitude. 

And, leveraging successes?

Absolutely. I think from an innovation standpoint we’ve made great strides here. We’ve done some really cool things with Next, Hatch and the TIC. All those things are starting to bring success. We’ve got kids thinking more innovatively. Overall, we’re moving in the right direction, though sometimes I wonder about how effective you can be hastening the pace of change. You know our long-range plans here? Four years. Every political cycle. 

This conversation with Chris Holman has been edited for space and clarity.

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.