Howes: Michigan CEOs pool experiences, resources to battle COVID-19

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
DTE Energy Co.'s executive chairman, Gerry Anderson

There’s no playbook showing Michigan business how to manage the coronavirus outbreak endangering public health and the state economy, so a dozen CEOs led by DTE Energy Co.’s Executive Chairman Gerry Anderson turned to some of the state’s largest companies for help to make one.

The experiences of General Motors Co. and Lear Corp. at their plants in China, and Dow Chemical Co.'s in Italy, helped form a sort of manual available to companies managing in the age of COVID-19. They include policies on travel and social distancing; what to do in response to a confirmed case in the workplace; deep-cleaning facilities and mental health concerns; even a simulator businesses can use to practice response to an outbreak.

“We put in motion a business intelligence network of highly sophisticated companies who had experienced the event in China, in Italy, well ahead of it in Michigan,” said Anderson, who also chairs Business Leaders for Michigan. “We’re just trying to push out the learnings as fast we can.”

They’d better. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, effective 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, is shaped by public health concerns and the need to keep critical businesses running and their supply chains functioning — key reasons businesses are being required to demonstrate how they are essential to the economy.

But failure to state explicitly which businesses are exempt from the order risks sowing confusion precisely when it should be avoided. Just hours after Whitmer's action Monday, the director of Michigan's National Federation of Independent Business cited the example of Ohio and asked for "more specificity on the types of businesses that can remain open during the period of the ‘Stay at Home’ order."

This is exactly the kind of thing that Anderson's COVID-19 Working Group, started just 11 days ago, aims to avoid: the unintended consequences of decisions — often contemplated, much less made, for the first time — amid a fast-moving public-health crisis with cascading economic consequences. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has issued a "Stay Home, Stay Safe" executive order to stem the spread of coronavirus.

In the state that can claim to be home to the Arsenal of Democracy that helped the allies win World War II, large Michigan companies are lending their financial heft, managerial smarts and engineering know-how to the battle against the virus. And they're leading by example, sharing the learning over a website that the CFO of a California utility told Anderson doesn't exist in his state.

But it does here. It's another sign that today's business leadership is inclined toward partnering with each other, and with the state's top political leaders irrespective of party affiliation, to help Michigan navigate the outbreak and its impact on the state's economy and its people. 

Dow Chemical Co., the Midland chemical giant, is donating $3 million to help fund COVID-19 relief efforts and moving to produce hand sanitizer. General Motors Co. is partnering with Seattle-based Ventec Life Systems to boost production of life-saving ventilators in one of GM's Indiana plants. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is converting a plant in China to produce surgical masks.

In response to requests from the White House and the government of the United Kingdom, Ford Motor Co. is studying whether and how it could begin to produce ventilators or other medical suppliers needed to care for patients who require hospitalization to battle the disease.

Perrigo Co. PLC, the generic drug-maker with operations in west Michigan, also is pushing to make hand sanitizer, said Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. Herman Miller Inc., the office furniture maker, is exploring ways it could repurpose fabrics for its office chairs and begin to produce masks for doctors, nurses and first responders. And Bedrock, the real estate arm of Dan Gilbert's Rock Family of Companies, is forgiving rents for restaurants and small businesses.

These companies, and more, are acting individually — not because of any official mandate and not because they've been ordered by President Donald Trump under the Korean War-era Defense Production Act. One overriding goal, Anderson said, is learning from the mistakes of others to better ensure decision-making here "does not produce undue chaos."

That means allowing companies to identify their critical suppliers, lest a government mandate inadvertently interrupt a vital service. It means advising state and local officials how their next set of decisions could impact business and employees. It means working closely with the Whitmer administration, as the working group did over the weekend, to avoid potential screw ups.

Whitmer and her team get high marks, said Rothwell: "We feel very good about the level of cooperation and coordination. There's a real esprit de corps that's happening across the state right now."

It should. "Everybody's scrambling," Anderson said, "so the job of the business community is to just dig in and help out."

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.