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A Catalyst for Growth

Michigan’s Automotive Office attracts jobs and investments

Pages 22-23

By Melissa Anders

Nigel Francis and Kevin Kerrigan have been busy the last 14 months.

In just over a year, Francis, Kerrigan and their colleagues have engaged with more than 20,000 automotive executives from around the world in an effort to solidify and expand Michigan’s role as the worldwide automotive leader.

“Fundamentally, the message is ‘We’re open for business and we’re business-friendly,’” Francis said. “The second message is ‘We’re the epicenter of the auto industry and here are some facts to prove that.’”

Francis recently stepped down as the state’s  first leader of the Michigan Automotive Industry Office, created by Gov. Rick Snyder in September 2013 to create a strategic plan, engage with industry and academia, and retain, attract and grow automotive businesses in Michigan. The office is housed within the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

Kerrigan, who served as the Automotive Office’s vice president, has taken over Francis’ role as senior automotive adviser.

In the last 14 months, they’ve held about 75 speaking engagements and over 200 individual company meetings. They’ve traveled throughout North America, Europe and Asia to promote the bene ts of conducting automotive business in Michigan. The men, who both hail from England, have used their decades of automotive industry experience to carefully tailor messages to executives.

They’ve also led efforts to address talent issues, promote development of advanced technology and align capital sources to sustain industry growth – all goals contained in the state’s long-term automotive strategic plan.

Gov. Snyder praised the office’s progress in its first year, noting that it played a key role in expanding skilled trades education and helped attract investments from overseas-based companies.

“Michigan leads the nation in virtually every aspect of the automotive sector – manufacturing, assembly, research and development, engineering and technological innovation – and we are determined to continue this leadership further into the future than anyone can see,” Snyder said in a statement to the Detroiter. “The state’s Automotive Industry Office is leading our strategy to achieve this aim in areas where we currently excel and those where we are headed. Fields like autonomous vehicles, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure wireless communications, and lightweighting of components to improve fuel efficiency are important advances as Michigan moves forward. The auto office is driving our efforts in all of these dimensions.”

Francis estimated that the office, along with the MEDC, has directly or indirectly helped attract some $5 billion in automotive investments in Michigan in the last year, creating thousands of jobs.

“Let’s be clear, this isn’t just us,” Francis said. “We’re the catalyst; we were always meant to be the catalyst … so this is happening from a team that we’re driving that is much wider and bigger than just us.”

He lauded the announcement in February of federal funding to help launch the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Detroit, and said the state is working on a proposal for federal funding for a composites material institute.

Moving forward, Kerrigan said he plans to continue with the office’s current operations and direction. Now that the state’s automotive strategic plan is in place, Kerrigan will focus on more business development and job creation by helping existing firms grow, as well as attracting new firms to Michigan.

“There is a lot of interest right now in Michigan and in Detroit because of the re-awakening and resurgence of Detroit,” Kerrigan said. “So, we’re getting a lot of interest from other countries that are beginning to understand that we are the central focal point in North America for automotive design and research and development.”

They’re also focused on developing a talented workforce, which Francis said is “arguably the most important thing we can do for the whole state.” A study is underway to determine future talent shortages and in-demand skills.

Kerrigan said he’s working to promote automotive and industrial design with the formation of a new Michigan design council. The office also plans to launch a major marketing program for the automotive industry in 2015. “We think it’s going to be a fantastic show this year,” Kerrigan said. “There is a new aspect to the show, which will be a technical showcase that will include advanced mobility.”

Melissa Anders is a metro Detroit freelance writer.