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NLEA honors economic development efforts at annual gathering

Courtesy of Steve Foley, News Review  |  

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The 2019 Northern Lakes Economic Alliance Project of the Year Award was presented to EJ and its new, state-of-the-art foundry which began construction in the fall of 2018. Pictured (from left) are NLEA president Andy Hayes; Tracy Malpass, EJ president; Tom Teske, EJ vice president and general manager of the company’s Americas operations; Dawn LaVanway, Antrim County commissioner, and Rick Diebold, NLEA board of directors chair.

BAY HARBOR — With one of the area’s newest venues serving as the setting, Northern Lakes Economic Alliance celebrated a variety of contributions to economic development last week.

About 475 attendees were on hand Friday for the regional economic development group’s annual meeting at Great Lakes Center for the Arts in Bay Harbor.

Welding a success

The keynote speaker of the event was Tom Moran, owner of Moran Iron Works. Based in Onaway, this company has grown to also include facilities in Rogers City and Cheboygan.

Moran, a self-taught welder, entrepreneur and innovator, spoke of how he grew his business from limited means.

“We were very poor, four of us boys slept in the same bed and we lived in the basement of a house,” Moran said. “My father was a lumberjack and that taught me a lot. Lumberjacks really specialize in destroying equipment and my grandfather was constantly looking for welders.

“There wasn’t a lot of welders in Northern Michigan at that time.”

Moran spoke of his days in school, where he wasn’t academically inclined. He could hardly read and even wrote his own name backwards, so much to the point his sisters referred to him as “Mot.”

“That haunted me a long time,” Moran said. “I was a good student, I got along with my teachers, but I had to listen to every word they said. All I ever wanted to do was get to shop class.”

It was quickly discovered Moran was good at fixing broken desks and chairs from study hall in his school, and by his sophomore year in high school one of his teachers gave him a pass to be a shop assistant.

“I became the school repairman,” Moran said. “I was doing work for my English teacher on a trailer. The defining moment of my life was when our principal said we needed a screen over a new scoreboard. He’d get me out of class and feed myself and my buddies all the pizza we could eat. Here I am, probably the dumbest kid in class and he wanted the skill that I had.

“I knew I was going to be a welder no matter what.”

Moran started his ironworks business by renting a building from his father and working in his lumber business. Money was tight during his early days, and he would make his own shears or press equipment from older equipment he’d discover.

“It was all about using all your resources and not your money, because there wasn’t money to start off with,” he said.

Moran spoke of how he was employed to build equipment to tear down the cement plant which previously stood along the Bay Harbor corridor, which led to his realization that he could specialize is doing large module construction.

“We discovered there wasn’t a lot of competition in that,” Moran said. “Large module construction was going to be a key for us in the future.”

He also discovered in Northern Michigan there was a market for marine construction, and also began doing large-scale boat construction — including the building of Shepler’s ferry Miss Margy, which took to the Straits of Mackinac in 2015.

“Several of our projects are now marine projects,” Moran said.

However, Moran’s proudest moment is the Industrial Arts Institute, a welding school located in Onaway. The idea came to Moran based on his conclusion about his own path — if he’d had a structured education, he’d be light years ahead of where he is even today.

“Twenty years ago we had adult enrichment programs in the back of our shop, it was mostly for loggers or farmers looking to be more self-sufficient,” Moran said. “It wasn’t a formal program, but we found we had more young people that’d participate and we’d hire them exclusively.”

Not knowing the details of how to become an accredited institution or how to be a nonprofit, Moran said he came up with his own idea.

“We came up with the idea of, what if we are a for-profit, we don’t care about accreditation and when you get done with the program you’ll get a written note on a bar napkin saying you passed,” Moran said. “That’s exactly what we did.

“We found out that bar napkin became very popular,” Moran added. “I had to compete for my own students and couldn’t afford my own students. We’d have people recruiting on career day, offering signing bonuses, and I had to raise the bar in my entire company.”

What the venture also proved, Moran said, was something he didn’t think of some 30 years back.

“It has proved to me all along, which took me my first 30 years to know, that education is the key to success,” Moran said. “I’m really proud to be a small example of what all us in Northern Michigan are.”

Giving recognition

Friday’s program also included recognition for several efforts to help boost the region economically.

The NLEA’s Maniac of the Year Award — which is given each year to an individual or community who, with unbridled enthusiasm, is the driving force behind a project — went to Marcella and John Costin of Cheboygan for their business, Simply Marcella.

In 2018, the City of Cheboygan was awarded a Community Development Block Grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to improve two facades in their downtown, with the Simply Marcella owners cooperating in the effort. More than $540,000 was invested in interior and exterior improvements to Simply Marcella and the addition of their wine pub, Queen’s Head, which has brought life back into the once-blighted building.

NLEA’s Project of the Year Award, given annually to a local organization that has made a significant impact in the community, went to EJ this year, recognizing the state-of-the-art foundry the company — formerly known as East Jordan Iron Works — opened late last year near Elmira.

With Warner Township, Antrim County and the State of Michigan showing support for the project, NLEA noted EJ’s major investment will help the business grow in Northern Michigan, and also to retain more than 340 employees.

“After 25 years of growth and acquisition, this is a major investment in Northern Michigan which keeps jobs in place,” said Tom Teske, EJ vice president and general manager of the company’s Americas operations. “We have a multigenerational workforce that is happy they could move 15 miles from where they’ve worked for many years.

“It’s taken a tremendous amount of teamwork and collaboration to make it happen.”

Tracy Malpass, EJ president, said his company is honored to be selected for the project of the year.

“The business or the foundry, as we call it, is something we have a great passion for, and what you may not know is that every day nearly 200,000 people go to work in America in foundries producing complex engineering parts that are essential to modern life,” Malpass said.

“From this activity which constitutes a $33 million industry emerges countless great stories. No matter where you are, castings are part of your life.”

Malpass said it’s not uncommon to be within 10 feet of some sort of casting every day.

“We look forward to making a positive difference in Northern Michigan, a place where we live, work and truly love,” Malpass said. “We dedicate this award to all the dedicated and hardworking individuals of EJ.”

NLEA board of directors chair Rick Diebold recognized two past board members of the organization, Randy Frykberg and Gary Fedus, as well as past board chair Stephanie Baldwin, who headed the board in 2018.

Also, Pete Garwood, Antrim County’s administrator who also serves on the NLEA board, presented Frykberg with a lifetime achievement award for his more than 44 years of local government, planning and zoning experience in Northern Michigan. Frykberg also has served on many governmental boards and commissions over the years and from 1984 to 2018 as a founding member and officer on the NLEA board of directors.

Jim Tisdel, North Central Michigan College director of corporate and community education, presented Shiloh Slomsky with a special award for her work involving the SEEDS grant which enabled NCMC in partnership with a private company to offer a mobile computer numeric control training program.

Adam Koivisto, Michigan State University Extension District 14 director, presented a special award to CharEm Intermediate School District career and technical program director Jim Rummer and Bill Scott of Great Lakes Energy for their work involving the Energy Fundamentals Program, a partnership which gives students the opportunity to learn basic concepts of working in the electrical field while developing necessary skills to work as a line worker.

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