Published in Economic Development
Jonas Peterson Jonas Peterson COURTESY PHOTO

After ‘soul searching,’ Southwest Michigan First finds new CEO

BY Sunday, October 24, 2021 06:40pm

KALAMAZOO — The new CEO at Southwest Michigan First sees the job as an opportunity to come home to the Midwest and run what he considers “one of the best” economic development organizations in the country.

Jonas Peterson starts in early January as the CEO at the Kalamazoo-based economic development organization,  officials announced on Friday.

Peterson served as president and CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance for eight years during a period when Nevada surpassed every other state in the U.S. for job creation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peterson was familiar with Southwest Michigan First through his role with the International Economic Development Council, where he serves as vice chairman and “had an admiration for their work over the years.” 

Peterson wasn’t looking for a new job, but “when the opportunity at Southwest Michigan First popped up, it was just too good not to explore,” he said.

A native of the small town of Warren in northwestern Minnesota and a married father of two, Peterson saw the opportunity in Kalamazoo as a chance to return to the Midwest.

“The community is exactly where we want to live, and it couldn’t be a better fit,” Peterson said in an interview with MiBiz.

“The work that Southwest Michigan First has already done and the team in place is very attractive. I think this is one of the best organizations and one of the best jobs in the country. It’s very attractive for me to come in and be part of that team and, hopefully, continue the great work and push it to the next level,” he said. “I hope to come to the market and do a lot of listening, do a lot of learning, build relationships, pull people together and identify that common mission.”

Peterson describes economic development as a personal “passion” and a “calling,” and he believes “in the power of job creation to build stronger communities.”

Similar core work

Southwest Michigan First President and Interm CEO Carla Sones will remain in her role as president.

With the new job, Peterson is moving from a large, fast-growing metropolitan area to a smaller mid-sized Midwestern city with an economic base rooted in manufacturing and life sciences with the large presence of Pfizer Inc. and Stryker Corp.

Peterson notes that manufacturing has been one of the quickly growing sectors in Las Vegas and, despite the distinct differences, the basics of economic development are essentially the same.

“The core work is very similar, and it’s what I love to do,” he said.

In announcing his hiring, Southwest Michigan First credited Peterson with leading a team in Las Vegas that worked with more than 250 companies from 2012 to 2021 to create more than 29,000 high-wage jobs. The organization also cited his work on embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion into Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance’s work plans. Peterson is also credited with implementing strategies that moved Nevada from 50th in the U.S. in job creation in 2013 to first prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Extensive search

Southwest Michigan First directors selected Peterson after a six-month search for a new CEO working with Greensboro, N.C.-based executive search firm Jorgenson Consulting. The search started with a list of 179 prospects that was narrowed to eight and eventually three finalists before the board unanimously voted to hire Peterson, said Bill Parfet, a director at Southwest Michigan First who chaired the CEO Search Committee.

Directors wanted a new CEO with a deep knowledge of economic development and “what’s effective, what works and what doesn’t work,” Parfet said. They also sought strong leadership skills and someone who could “see things that need to be done and motivate people to work together and align people’s interests in getting those things that really matter accomplished so we can be successful,” Parfet added. 

As well, the Southwest Michigan First board wanted a new CEO who can build strong working relationships “in a collaborative way,” Parfet said.

As directors searched nationally for Southwest Michigan First’s next CEO, Peterson “rose to the top as the individual who most thoroughly embodies the skills, experience and attributes identified by our community as critical for success in this position,” Parfet said.

“This guy is right for the job. We’re matching his skills with our opportunity,” he said. “If there are headwinds to our efforts, he can work collaboratively to eliminate those headwinds with other people in our community.”

‘Soul searching’

Southwest Michigan First’s search for a new leader followed the tumult earlier this year when former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield was hired to succeed former CEO Ron Kitchens.

Chatfield resigned in February after less than two weeks on the job after objections from the community and as some supporters pulled funding from Southwest Michigan First. The concerns stemmed from Chatfield’s opposition while he was House Speaker to expanding Michigan’s civil rights law to include protections for the LGBTQ community. Specifically, Chatfield sought to include religious exemptions under the potential expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

The board was also criticized for a lack of transparency after hiring Chatfield.

Directors subsequently went through a “thorough, thorough process of regrouping to really do an internal look at how we should be going about finding a CEO,” said James Liggins Jr., a Southwest Michigan First board member and senior counsel with the Kalamazoo office of Warner Norcross + Judd LLP.

The CEO search committee reached out to 655 participants from 469 community organizations to determine the key attributes of the new CEO.

“The organization as a whole learned a lot through that process and has grown significantly because of it,” Liggins said. “We really did some soul searching and really jumped in and embedded what we thought was a good process into the search this time around.”

Prior to Las Vegas, Peterson served as the president and CEO of the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corp. in California, and as director of the Mohave County Community and Economic Development Department in Kingman, Ariz.

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