GRAND RAPIDS — Former Lakeshore Advantage CEO Randy Thelen is returning to West Michigan to lead regional economic development firm The Right Place Inc.
Thelen will replace long-time President and CEO Birgit Klohs, who is planning to retire at the end of January after 33 years with the organization. Thelen starts March 1.
The Right Place board of directors chose Thelen after a national search. He comes to the organization from Downtown Denver Partnership, where he served as senior vice president of economic development. During his tenure in Denver, Thelen’s organization was involved in more than $1 billion of investments. He also formerly led economic development for the Greater Omaha Chamber in Nebraska.
“We’ve had an adventurous life and a great experience in Omaha working in a city and region with a great blend of corporate, civic and philanthropic leadership, and in Denver, one of the hottest and fastest growing regions,” Thelen told MiBiz. “I was able to get the secret sauce for that kind of dynamic and I’m looking forward to bring that out-of-market experience to the West Michigan region.”
Thelen described The Right Place leadership role as one of the top economic development positions in the nation. He cited the COVID-19 pandemic as one factor that convinced him to move back to West Michigan, which he considers his home.
Even with the pandemic-related economic slowdown, Thelen said he’s optimistic and excited for the region, given some of the fundamental discussions taking place in the broader community.
“Just look at the last year: The whole world continues to face a pandemic and economic recession, and the third thing is recognizing the inequalities that persist and have for too long,” Thelen said. “As we look to recover from challenges like a pandemic and a recession, it does creation an inflection point for the region. We can accelerate our region and our recovery in a way that brings everybody in the tent. The most successful cities are going to do that.”
During his 10-year stint at Lakeshore Advantage from 2004-2014, Thelen helped the Holland/Zeeland area lure in major corporate investments even during the depths of the Great Recession, including a lithium-ion battery manufacturing plants from LG Chem Michigan and Johnson Controls.
Given his prior experiences, Thelen said economic development takes on a crucial role during a recession to help shape a region’s economic future. He pointed to Denver, which “used each of these recessions as a catapult for growth.”
“They dug in, invested and really accelerated their recovery,” Thelen said, citing investments in the region’s airport, infrastructure and in downtown Denver. “They invested in ways that attracted talent and companies, and now they have this flywheel effect going.”
Prior to Lakeshore Advantage, Thelen also had stints in economic development at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and at local agencies in Evart and Monroe.
“Randy will help us write the next chapter for The Right Place and West Michigan,” Sean Welsh, The Right Place board chair and regional president for Western Michigan at PNC Bank, said in a statement. “Continuing to tell our story to business leaders and job providers around the world is so important in a very competitive market. I’m confident that he’s the right person to continue building our significant accomplishments.”
When Thelen left Lakeshore Advantage after being recruited for the job in Omaha in 2014, he cited the “terrific professional opportunity” to move to a larger market. He told MiBiz at the time that he gave the community “everything I had, and I think we produced some good results, and in some instances some great results.”
For her part, Klohs said she looks forward “to welcoming Randy back to West Michigan.
“I have been honored to serve The Right Place and this community over the past 33 years,” Klohs said in a statement. “It’s been a true privilege to do so alongside many dedicated business and community leaders.”