A view of Kalamazoo's future

Diether Haenicke
Interim President
Western Michigan University

Last Wednesday morning, a small group of economic development officials, university functionaries, entrepreneurs, and employees assembled at WMU's Business Technology and Research Park along Parkview Avenue. It was bitter cold. The two preceding days had brought a taste of spring with record warm temperatures. But, as it goes so often in Michigan, a day later it was winter again, and icy, cold breezes were blowing at those who had come to the ground-breaking ceremony for the Kalexsyn company. It was a special moment for me. I could not help but remember the battles we had fought 20 years earlier when we developed the first plans to create a research and business park on the farm land on which we were standing. Some segments of the community were strongly opposed to the idea. Some area residents wanted to preserve the view from their homes over unspoiled pastures. Others wanted the land for flying kites and walking their dogs or to replant as a prairie. Others saw no need to bring any more industries to Kalamazoo. The Upjohn Co. was still the dominating business in town, and many thought that the company's benevolent presence would continue forever. The Stryker Company had just begun its meteoric rise but was still young. All the banks in town had different names and had not yet been swallowed by bigger banks. Big mergers had transformed the world around us; but the news that major changes would also come to our community had not reached many. But the world did change. None of the local banks with which I did business 20 years ago still operates under its original name. Upjohn merged into Pharmacia Corp. and then was acquired by Pfizer Inc. and eventually changed beyond recognition. At each, press releases assured us that all would remain pretty much the same and not much would change. Since then, Upjohn buildings have been razed, thousands of workers have had to retire early, and bank headquarters were relocated. I've never trusted press releases. All these memories went through my mind while I was standing in the cold morning air. And then I had an epiphany. I saw the future of Kalamazoo, and my spirits were buoyed. I talked with David Zimmermann and Robert Gadwood, two former Pharmacia scientists, who founded Kalexsyn, a medicinal chemistry firm, in 2003 when Pharmacia transferred their jobs to another location. The two men, having worked for many years in the seemingly safe cocoon of the research lab, took the enormously courageous and bold step to become entrepreneurs and to found a new company on the basis of their own scientific knowledge, their skills, energy and vision. I admire them for that. Few people appreciate what it takes to go from receiving a paycheck to cutting paychecks for others. It means shouldering great responsibility for people who put their trust in you and set out with you on an uncertain journey. Zimmermann and Gadwood spoke to the assembly before they put the symbolic spade in the ground. They spoke with justified pride but also with great humility. They failed to tout their own accomplishments but instead thanked the community that had rallied behind their business efforts. They thanked the many people who had coached them, counseled them, and lent their support. And indeed, this community has rallied behind this Business Park in an exemplary fashion. And the two men did not forget to express their gratitude to their employees who had believed in them, who had thrown their lot in with them, and who have contributed to the fledgling company's success. I was genuinely touched. I saw two smart, highly intelligent, energetic, and entrepreneurial men on their way to success, two men who decided to stay with this community and whose social conscience makes them responsible and desirable employers. If new, young companies like theirs are the future of Kalamazoo, it will be a good future. That was my epiphany. May their grandchildren one day tell the story of how their grandpas had the courage to found a little company, and see what's become of it now. I wish for that to happen. Nobody would deserve it more than these two good men. Diether H. Haenicke is interim president of Western Michigan