Randy Thelen saw the downside of economic trends as his home state slid into the recession in 2009 with unemployment at 14.2 percent and 685,000 people out of work.
But over the past decade, the western Michigan region where Thelen has worked in economic development has gained $2.1 billion in new investment and more than 10,500 jobs.
“If you can do economic development in Michigan, you can do it anywhere,” Thelen said Monday. Now his expertise is coming to Omaha as the metropolitan area’s top economic developer.
Beginning March 3, Thelen, 41, will be senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and leader of the six-county Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership.
“We took our lumps like everybody did in the downturn, but we’ve had a faster recovery since then, both in the state and the nation,” Thelen told The World-Herald by phone from Zeeland, Mich. “We’ve had a good run of success.
“Everybody wants new challenges, and when the Omaha opportunity was presented and you start digging into the community and the region, you quickly realize what a gem it is.
“You see all the top rankings that the community has stockpiled, the strong economic base. ... You see the leadership, public and private, is all in sync and wants to continue to grow and thrive. That’s the type of environment I know I would enjoy.”
Thelen will leave his position as president of Lakeshore Advantage, a private, nonprofit group formed in 2004 to stimulate the economy along the shore of Lake Michigan. He will succeed Rod Moseman, who retired at the end of 2013 after a 35-year career in economic development.
David Brown, chamber president and CEO, said Thelen “has a proven track record as an economic developer, attracting new business and growing existing businesses.”
He also has a background as an entrepreneur — “a firsthand appreciation for the highs and lows involved in creating, growing and managing a business,” Brown said. In 2009, Thelen and two partners founded Pi Optima, a machining services and engineered products company in Grand Rapids and Zeeland.
Thelen said he plans to build on the Omaha regional economic development partnership, focusing on retaining and creating jobs, helping local businesses expand and attracting new companies to the region.
“In the end, it’s hard work and persistence and understanding customer needs that really differentiates one effort versus the others,” he said. “In the upper Midwest, we’ve been swimming upstream, but we’ve been able to be successful in that environment.”
The Omaha partnership recently added groups in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, to its eastern Nebraska counties and is devising a new brand strategy that includes western Iowa.
“This region is ready to compete,” Thelen said.
In Michigan, he led efforts to convert a Pfizer research and development facility into the Michigan State University Bioeconomy Institute.
Among companies he worked with on expansion projects are Boar’s Head Provisions, Energetx, Gentex, Johnson Controls, Haworth, Herman Miller, Hudsonville Ice Cream, LG Chem, Request Foods and Siemens.
He has worked in economic development for 17 years, including positions with the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Monroe County Industrial Development Corp. and the Osceola County Economic Alliance, all based in Michigan.
Last year Thelen received the top award from the Michigan Economic Developers Association and was named Dealmaker of the Year in 2010 by the West Michigan Business Review.
He is on the boards of the Community Foundation of the Holland-Zeeland area, the New North Center for Design in Business and Spectrum Health-Zeeland Community Hospital.
Thelen is a graduate of Alma (Mich.) College and has a master’s degree in applied economics from the Binghamton University, a part of the State University of New York.
He and his wife, Christa, have four children, ages 7 to 13.