Michigan Matters: CEOs On The Pandemic

On this week’s Michigan Matters – it’s a conversation with 2 CEOs helping our state in important ways: One discusses their involvement as more electric vehicles take to Michigan’s roads. The other talks about their role in the Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine.

Video Transcript

CAROL CAIN: Hi. And welcome to "Michigan Matters". As more electric vehicles take to Michigan roads, there's growing need for power stations. Garrick Rochow, the president and CEO of CMS Energy is here to talk about how they're stepping up to help and a few other things. Then, Tom Russ, president and CEO of Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing is here to discuss their involvement in Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine, and also some other things. There's an awful lot to talk about. Let's get started.

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- From CBS 62, this is "Michigan Matters" with Carol Cain. "Michigan Matters" is brought to you in part by PNC Bank.

CAROL CAIN: And we are so pleased to welcome Garrick Rochow, the president and CEO of CMS Energy, raised in Jackson. Local guy done well, running the company. Good morning and welcome to the show.

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: Thank you, Carol. It's great to be on the show this morning.

CAROL CAIN: Well, since Patti Poppe left and you were named to that position, we've been trying to get you in here to, well, with us at least even virtually to talk about the job. So how long has it been? And how has the new job gone?

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: Well, certainly it's been busy. But I would tell you this has been amazing. And I'm honored. I'm humbled to run this type of company. We serve electric and natural gas to 6.7 million residents within the state. We're in every county in the lower peninsula. But to me, so much more than electric and natural gas. It's light, it's heat, it's the quality of life we all come to know and expect. It's such a great responsibility. I get to do that with 8,500 co-workers who have a amazing, amazing heart of service.

They show up in your yard in all kinds of conditions to replace a pole or put in a new gas service for business, building out renewable energy, and then also volunteering in the community. I couldn't ask for anything more. What a great opportunity this is to lead an amazing company. All our Michiganders.

CAROL CAIN: So you stepped into this job in the middle of this pandemic. And I know that CMS has been so involved in so many different ways. Just talk about quickly about a couple of programs maybe that you did to help with the community things, particularly in Jackson.

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: Well, that heart of service that I just spoke of, we have an amazing heart of service with our co-workers. It shows up not only in how we give financially, but also how we volunteer. And I just want to give a couple examples here. One of the things that we've done for small and medium sized businesses, particularly over the holidays, was doubling the gift cards. And so a person would purchase a $25 gift card. We would double that. So it'd go to a local small business.

In our town, we worked with local restaurants to source materials locally, had them make meals, 1,250 meals a week, and those were provided free to the community for those in need. Again, helping to support those in need as well as small businesses in the community. And one of the big highlights too is we've been working in Jackson County where our headquarters is located with Henry Ford Allegiance Health and working at their vaccine clinic.

We've had 378 of my co-workers volunteer, myself included in that mix, seven days a week helping the medical professionals vaccinate many of the Jackson County residents. Last I heard, it was over 37,000 residents that came through one of their facilities. An amazing opportunity to help out as we go through this historic time and help people navigate through this pandemic. I couldn't be more proud of the way we volunteered in our community and around the state of Michigan.

CAROL CAIN: And just real quickly here before we go to break, there was an announcement this week, in fact with the governor, about buildings going totally solar energy, and alternative energy, and all this sort of stuff. Tell us real quickly what CMS's role is in this.

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: Yeah, this is a great announcement we had this week. 100% renewable energy for state facilities, state operated facilities. They're moving to 100% renewable by 2025. We have an amazing opportunity right now. How people interface, how our customers interface with energy, is changing. The supply of energy is changing. We have an opportunity to lead the clean energy transformation, moving to cleaner sources of energy, energy efficiency, how people use energy. And what a great opportunity.

The state of Michigan, our governor, a leading spot here, not only in Michigan but in the nation in clean energy.

CAROL CAIN: What's the biggest challenge to making that happen? That's only four years from now. That's not a lot of time.

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: We're in a large renewable energy build out right now as we speak. We've announced many renewable wind and solar projects here over the last few months. We're in the process of building out 300 megawatts. That's enough to provide energy for many residents and many businesses across Michigan. And so it's well underway right here in Michigan, leading the nation.

CAROL CAIN: And there's a lot more to talk about here. But we're going to take a quick break and continue the conversation right after this.

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CAROL CAIN: And welcome back to "Michigan Matters". We're talking to CMS Energy CEO, Garrick Rochow who is involved in so many different things here. And one of the things, Garrick, that's been taking place in recent years, but seems to be full throttle right now, is the push to more electric vehicles. So as we sit here in Michigan and more vehicles are electric, this is putting some pressure on having stations around the state. And I know this is something that you've been dealing with that as a company. Right?

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: Yeah, we had a great announcement this week as part of Earth Week to be able to-- and Earth Day as well to build out more of that DC fast charging system. And so maybe I'll start with the bigger picture. You've heard the announcements from General Motors. You've even seen the funny commercials with Will Ferrell in the Super Bowl. But there's a strong movement to electric vehicles. And some of the concerns around range anxiety, most charging occurs at home. If I want to cross the state, or I want to go up to North for the weekend, will I make it with my electric vehicle? That type of concern.

And we've worked closely with Michigan State University and other organizations to lay out what that network needs to look like to support charging across the state. We've put 24 in place already of these fast charging units with another 170 approximately to go. What a DC fast charger does, it will charge your electric vehicle in less than an hour. And so what a great way to be able to travel the highways and byways of Michigan to go from Southeast Michigan to Mackinaw, or to Traverse City and not have to worry about range anxiety.

CAROL CAIN: From a logistics standpoint, who decides where the stations are located? I mean, how do they decide, you need to put one here on this side of the state, or you need a couple in Southeast Michigan and maybe only one or two in the UP? How is this decided?

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: That was part of the work with Michigan State University. Through their research, through their education and engineering schools, they did a lot of studies, research on the appropriate placement of those facilities. And so we go and look at that. We offer rebates with a number of business owners to place a vehicle charger at their business.

Because as you're traveling throughout the state, it's important that if you're going to charge, although it's fast, less than an hour, you may want to stop at a location and enjoy not only the scenery, but maybe a coffee shop, maybe a book, and have that opportunity to charge. So a lot of research went into the placement of those to ensure that there was coverage throughout the state, but also that you could find a nice place to stop and enjoy the great Michigan scenery while you charge your vehicle.

CAROL CAIN: And we're hoping people get out more here. So what kind of vehicle are you driving?

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: Now, I drive a pickup truck. And I'm excited about General Motors and Ford. We got an F-150 or a Silverado coming out here shortly. That's when I'm going to make my transition to electric vehicles. I'm a hardcore Michigander, been here my whole life, I'm used to moving around in the snow. So I need the four wheel drive. And I'm excited where both Ford and General Motors are going here in the next year with their trucks.

CAROL CAIN: Things are going at such lightning speed in this arena here. But we're at the time of year where we have internships coming up for high school, college students. And I'm curious amid the pandemic, how are you doing in internships? Are you still offering them?

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: Well, even larger than that. We're hiring 625 full time positions. This is beyond the interns for a variety of roles, both trades in electric and gas, but also a number of other skilled positions and professional type positions, engineering, accounting, a variety.

And then also we're bringing on 170 ish interns into our system, many of them already hired, and are working virtually in our offices, some in the field. And so I'm excited. We're one of the largest investors in Michigan. We're continuing to enhance our electric and our natural gas system. So they're safe, they're reliable, they're clean. And that work continues, even in the midst of a pandemic. And so again, it's an honor to serve 6.7 million residents across the state. It takes thoughtful, deliberate, customer investments. And whether a pandemic or not, we're going continue to serve Michigan.

CAROL CAIN: Before the pandemic, the conversation about talent and having gaps, and particularly in the skilled trades, other things, was a huge conversation. And at the same time, you have baby boomers retiring. When you're looking out over the next, say, four five years, how do you see the landscape?

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: Well, it's concerning. And I think it's also concerning too from some of the events that we've seen this year. And I'm talking about some of the social and racial injustice that we've seen. And so we're focused on how to not only hire, but expand that hiring pool, and think about it from a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And so we're active now out there in high schools to get people interested in the trades, we're working with local community colleges throughout the state to get people into apprenticeship programs.

We're working with a variety of the universities on engineering talent and sponsorship for the same reasons. We've got a robust intern program. Because there is a gap. There is a gap, Carol, as you've mentioned. And we want to make sure that we're reaching out both from the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but ensuring there's not a gap in our future.

CAROL CAIN: And will things get better real quickly the rest of this year from an economic standpoint amid the pandemic, which hopefully is winding down?

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: I feel good about Michigan's future. I think we've got great leadership here in Michigan. And I think we're-- if I was to speculate or guess, I think we're going to have a V-shaped recession. Again, I'm not an economist, but there's a lot of positive indicators here in Michigan. And I'm excited to see the growth here in Michigan as we come out of the pandemic.

CAROL CAIN: And that'll be the last word. Garrick, thank you so much for being with us. Thanks for all the things you're doing helping the community. We'll certainly be watching.

GARRICK J. ROCHOW: Carol, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

CAROL CAIN: And we'll be back with just a little bit more "Michigan Matters" after this quick timeout.

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CAROL CAIN: And welcome back to "Michigan Matters". We're talking with Tom Ross, who's the president and CEO of Grand Rapids Aseptic Manufacturing, based in Grand Rapids. Good morning and welcome to the show.

TOM ROSS: Morning. Thanks for having me on the show, Carol.

CAROL CAIN: Well, I don't need to ask what you've been doing. We had Alex Gorsky, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson with us a few weeks back ago. And he was talking about your role in the COVID-19 vaccine. So tell us, what specifically are you doing in this?

TOM ROSS: Yeah, well, thank you. It's actually been an honor for us to support what J&J is doing. The COVID vaccine is critical to what we're working on these days. And back in the summer when Operation Warp Speed was just starting off, they had identified some companies like our company. We go by our acronym of G-R-A-M, GRAM, for short. And GRAM was one of the few companies that received a contract from Operation Warp Speed. And that led to us working with Johnson & Johnson.

So we've done many of the vaccines directly outsourced to companies like GRAM, we're called a CDMO, a Contract Development Manufacturing Organization. So Johnson & Johnson is a wonderful company. The vaccines are an incredible product. And if you think about what's happened over the last year, the fact that a product, or vaccine can be developed, tested, and manufactured in a year, it's truly unprecedented. So it's been great supporting J&J in their efforts. And we're very pleased with our ability to support that project.

CAROL CAIN: How closely do you work with Johnson & Johnson in this?

TOM ROSS: We work very closely with Johnson & Johnson. We work closely with J&J. We work closely with the US government. And the US government actually was very instrumental in doing some things from a supply chain and distribution to help the process along. So again, trying to pull all that together in a matter of a year was just amazing. So it's been a lot of very close contact and very lately--

The ability for our team to focus on the quality of the service and the technical side of things working with J&J is something that has been integral to launching the product.

CAROL CAIN: Along the way, you've also been adding employees in Grand Rapids. You have a facility there, right?

TOM ROSS: Yeah. We're based in Grand Rapids. We were founded about 10 years ago. We have four facilities near downtown Grand Rapids, the newest one of those facilities is on Butterworth Street. And we are so creative. We call our facilities after the street name. And so Butterworth is a brand new building that was completed in record time. And it truly is a state of the art world class farmer facility purposely built for the CDMO marketplace.

So it's right here in downtown Grand Rapids.

CAROL CAIN: So when it comes to this Johnson & Johnson vaccine, there's been a lot of conversation. Millions have received the vaccine, certainly. There have been some incidents of blood clots, others it seems like particularly with younger people getting this. Has this impacted what you're doing at all in terms of production right now?

TOM ROSS: That hasn't. It's been I think tomorrow actually the CDC is going to issue their recommendation. And it's possible they'll follow what we're going to do in the US and what Europe did. In Europe, it's announced earlier this week that they released that back to the marketplace. So don't know for sure what that's going to mean. But that pause for a couple weeks, I think more than anything else, I think it encouraged people to understand the process of how we're going to be safe from the FDA of looking at how safe and effective drugs are made.

To be able to take that pause and just to ensure the public that it is a safe and effective product, I think is actually a good thing. So--

CAROL CAIN: If I were to ask you, besides the time frame which has been so accelerated over the past year with this process, what's been the biggest other challenge from your standpoint in this process?

TOM ROSS: That's a great question. A year ago, I was very concerned of our ability to hire as many people that we needed because. There's a significant contract, a significant increase. And it just a 24/7 type operation. So we've actually hired 145 people in the last seven or eight months. And we still need to hire a little bit more. But the ability to recruit the level of talent, and that's been fantastic. We've got some great people that have joined the grand team.

The work that the people are doing within GRAM, the focus on quality constantly and trying to really serve this mission as a unique opportunity for all of us is-- so it was really the people, trying to recruit that many people, and get them trained, and focus on quality and service. I think that's been one of our greatest accomplishments in addition to just working on the technical side of the vaccine.

CAROL CAIN: And just real quickly, where are the jobs you've been hiring for? What departments? What functions?

TOM ROSS: It's across the entire company. It's anything from more of a middle of the senior management. We've been able to recruit some good people there. And we've hired 50 to 60 people in our packaging, labeling and packaging, and inspection area, though they're a little bit more entry level. But most our positions are very technical. They're science based. It's really in the wheelhouse, frankly, of what the state of Michigan wants to do for the whole life sciences industry. And it's been great to see our ability to recruit some talent and to see the company grow.

CAROL CAIN: And we're going to continue the conversation and talk a little bit more about the life sciences here in Michigan. Keep it right here. We're back with more "Michigan Matters".

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And welcome back to "Michigan Matters". We're talking with Tom Ross, who runs Grande River Aseptic Manufacturing in Grand Rapids, who's helping with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. And so, Tom, we were talking a little bit offline before we started this about the importance of the life science industry here in Michigan. Talk a little bit about that. And as an economic development thing, how do you see it in terms of it being able to help bolster the state's economy?

TOM ROSS: Yeah, that's a great question, Carol. I mean, when GRAM was formed about roughly 10 years ago, we had a lot of support from the state and a lot of support from the community. And one of the things that the state had focused on at the time, it had actually focused on seven different industries. One was life sciences. Another was advanced manufacturing. And what we do is a combination of those. So life sciences is right in the wheelhouse of what the state is trying to do to drive great jobs and to drive economic throughput throughout the whole economy.

And in our side of the state, in West Michigan, the community effort, the collaboration, has actually been pretty fantastic. We-- actually a little back story of the-- our company was actually formed-- the predecessor was formed by a combination of Van Andel Institute, Grand Valley State University, as well as the state of Michigan. And when we were formed to have the support of both the VEI and Grand Valley State of Michigan, the City of Grand Rapids has just been fantastic, the MEDC, the state.

And so the investment that the state has made, I'm proud to say that the support that we received from the MEDC and the City of Grand Rapids, that we've been able to grow dramatically. And that's important. It's a great job for the state of Michigan. When I started at the company, I was actually one of the original investors that got involved and bought the company back 10 years ago. And I actually took over as president and CEO about eight years ago. And when I was involved, we had 25 people at the time. And now, we're up to about 350 people.

And so we'll be able to bring that level of activity. And just and far as the West Michigan area, actually the medical mile that we call here in the Grand Rapids area where we have Michigan State is there, with the Executive Center and College of Human Medicine, and now we have the Bioresearch Building. Spectrum has a lot going on with Van Andel Institute. It's somewhat of a unique collaboration in downtown Grand Rapids. And again, we call it the medical mile.

And we're part of that whole process. Perrigo. I used to work at Perrigo, my old company is actually moving downtown in that area too.

CAROL CAIN: I saw that in fact. Mike Jandernoa who ran Perrigo for a long time. I don't know if he's involved officially or not, but he's involved with so much up there. It's interesting because it seems like there's so much synergy up in Grand Rapids in the life science corridor area.

TOM ROSS: Yeah. Yeah, it's unique because of the collaboration between the public private sector. And we're actually doing a video series in conjunction with-- [PHONE RINGS] oh, shoot. Sorry about that. So we are actually--

CAROL CAIN: We're actually beginning this and mentioning that.

TOM ROSS: But we're actually doing a video series in conjunction with the GR Chamber of Commerce. And that is why Grand Rapids is a great place to live and work and focus on the life sciences industry. And it highlights what we've been able to do here at GRAM. So but thanks for highlighting that here in our town.

CAROL CAIN: Certainly. The other thing too, as a company, a business owner, with all the conversation about corporate social responsibility amongst all the crisis you're dealing with yourself internally, have you been able to do much out in the community?

TOM ROSS: Well, funny, we do not talk about that. And that's a lead in question that I love. So we actually just this past Friday, we had a bunch of people at our company that just work in the afternoon or actually the morning doing a cleanup in some of the city parks in Grand Rapids. And we actually have a program we call a VTO. It stands for volunteer time off.

And so each of our employees received 16 hours of paid time off to volunteer their time for a charity or a community event. So community is a big part of the fabric of our company and our culture. And yeah. We very much love the support. There have been a tremendous number of great charities in town that we've been able to be a fan of and provide some support, not just financially, but as well as people and some of those resources.

CAROL CAIN: As we sit here now as we're getting into the midst of 2021, as you look out to 2021 next year, what are you seeing? And how do you plan for it?

TOM ROSS: Yeah. Well, from a vaccine side, there's certainly going to be some lag to this issue that we have to deal with. There are a number of variants that are continuing to pop up. I mean, most recently in the state of Michigan, we've had some challenges trying to keep COVID under control due to a lot of these variants. So there's going to be booster shots, there's going to be reformulation work done to try to address some of the COVID issues that we're dealing with.

It would have been nice if it'd all gone away, but it's really not going away. So if we look to the future, we'll play a role in that in trying to support that effort. And as well, and frankly to be prepared for a future pandemic. That's something that we're actually in conversations with Europe's government about about what we can do to help support that in the future.

CAROL CAIN: It's amazing with your company here, you are in the life sciences. I'm not sure when you started this that you knew that you'd be involved with life saving measures for the country and the world, actually.

TOM ROSS: Yes. Yeah, the whole world's been watching. Our vision is very much wrapped around enriching lives. It's that important. And you get rich in saving--

CAROL CAIN: Tom, I hate to do this, but I'm going to have to cut you off here. I want to thank you so much for all you're doing and spending time with us. Again, thanks for being here. And thanks to you at home for tuning in. Enjoy the rest of your day. We'll see you next Sunday for more "Michigan Matters."