Shinola’s Awenate Cobbina on Michigan Economic Development

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Awenate Cobbina’s journey to become CEO of luxury goods maker parent company Shinola passed through the Obama White House, the Detroit Pistons front office and a pair of transition teams for President Joe Biden and Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

“I can’t say when I started my career I would end up here,” Cobbina told Crain’s. “And, frankly, even when I came to Detroit six years ago, I can’t say I would end up here.

“But all of these experiences have really helped me develop what I think is a pretty clear view of the world and my place in it.”

At Detroit-based Bedrock Manufacturing Group, Shinola’s holding company, Cobbina focused on growing a 10-year-old brand and long-term economic development for Detroit and Michigan.

Cobbina chairs the executive committee of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. At this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, he will participate in an onstage discussion about Michigan’s future competitiveness in the global economy.

Prior to the conference, Crain’s spoke with Cobbina about Michigan’s competitive challenges and Shinola’s staying power in the luxury retail market. This partial transcript of Crain’s podcast interview has been edited for clarity.

  • Crain’s: What have sales been like at Shinola over the past six months?

Cobbin: Sales have been strong, in fact. It was hard to predict at the start of the year. Every company, including Crain’s, makes their budget and what to expect from readership and subscribers. And when we looked at budgets, we expected e-commerce to continue to be strong. But not knowing where COVID would be heading or what would happen with supply chains, we were a little bearish on retail. And what’s happened is that e-commerce has remained strong – there were some momentary dips, but mostly remained strong and outpaced 2021 – and at the same time retail stores, people came back. We have seen a large number of customers returning to our retail stores which is great for the future. Because when something like COVID happens, you never know what the new normal will be.

  • Two years ago, in May 2020, you weren’t with the company, but the people running the company were dealing with a daily sorting of having enough PPE, of which we had so many shortages. Now that seems like a distant memory. How did the business go from crisis mode to the factors we have now with labor shortages, supply chain issues?

We have three product categories. There are things that we assemble and manufacture in Detroit. There are products that we purchase from other US-based manufacturers. And then there are the parts and materials we source from overseas, which have been impacted the most by the supply chain – securing the materials, shipping the goods, getting them here on time and on budget was a challenge. One of the things we’ve been trying to do is manage our inventory smarter. This means increased dependence on our American partners. … We have redoubled our efforts to find partners in the states who are reliable, produce the quality we need, and can get them here on time. … From a talent perspective, we looked internally. … We launched an internal learning program. This is called the Be More program where our sales people in the stores or people on the manufacturing floor can be promoted to other jobs that match their interests and level of education – or we train for these jobs. Nearly 50% of jobs that opened up during COVID were filled by internal candidates or people participating in these apprenticeship programs. This has helped us maintain a competitive talent environment during COVID by reinvesting in people who are already with us, in addition to obtaining talent from outside.

  • In your role as Governor Whitmer’s appointee to the MEDC Executive Committee, what competitive issues do you see on the horizon right now for Michigan that will affect our economy?

You mentioned it many times in your articles: what is the future industry or industries that will create jobs in Michigan? We have talked a lot about electric vehicles. We’ve seen many battery manufacturers and suppliers find homes for the next decade or two over the internal combustion engine. And the thing is, my car isn’t an electric vehicle yet – I probably shouldn’t say this – but I still drive a car and go to the gas station. And I think a lot of your readers do too. So the internal combustion engine isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, I think it would be naive to say that electric vehicles aren’t coming with a bang. We’ve seen the rise of Tesla and there are others — Rivian, etc. — looming on the horizon. So we have to make sure we balance what has been the industry that has powered Michigan for over a century with what the future will be. And part of that, from a planning perspective, is making sure that we continue to be recognized for mobility, whether it’s automobiles and building things primarily in manufacturing , but also what resources we have. We have land, we have the Great Lakes and access to the Canadian border. We have a lot of advantages that other states, especially those in the south that have created a lot of jobs, don’t have. So we have to make sure we focus on those positives in order to stay competitive.

  • What other advantages should Michigan exploit?

We have some of the best schools in the country. We have in-state and out-of-state students who come here in the tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, who attend these schools, and then some of them leave. Some of them go to Chicago, some to New York, and some to other places. We have to make sure that once we have that talent in the state and we spend our resources in our fine universities to educate them, let’s keep them and keep their ideas and let them know there’s a place for them here in Michigan where they can develop their careers in a number of industries, not just automotive and mobility.

  • I hear some people say we need more singles and doubles. We’re still fighting for that home run, like the GM battery plant deal in Lansing and the expansion of its Orion assembly plant. From your perspective, picking up what was a wildly successful startup ten years ago, how do we get more singles and doubles, Shinolas of the world, to start in Detroit, Marquette or even Petoskey ? How can we replicate this and on a large scale?

Now that we’re 10 years on Shinola’s side and 13 years into the Great Recession for the state, it’s not so much about having singles and doubles. While I agree it’s necessary, I would say what Michigan needs is consistency. You want to make sure you’re enjoying it in a way that can be consistently recognized by your peers, your businesses, and your customers — the residents of the state — so they can tell every day that we’re moving the ball. And, yeah, when there’s that opportunity and you see the ball, swing clearly for the fences, try to hit that home run. But I think it’s really cohesive, making sure we keep businesses that are in the state here, showing entrepreneurs that this is the place to start small businesses and sometimes incentivizing big businesses that aren’t not in our state to come here is part of that too.

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