By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON TOWNSHIP — The Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan has been around since 1943 and has had its fair share of iconic guests for its speaker series.
Speakers have ranged from former presidents to famous athletes.
Michael Cook, president of the Econ Club, spoke with Herald-Palladium staff writer Tony Wittkowski to address some of the challenges the club faces as well as recent changes.
How did the Econ Club speaker series start?
The Economic Club was founded by Louis Upton, one of the founders of Whirlpool Corp. He served as the club’s president for 10 years, and was followed by John Paul Taylor, who served as president for 30 years.
How long have you been affiliated with the club?
I’ve been president since 1983.
What kind of speakers does the Econ Club look for?
The word “economic” in our title is a bit misleading, as we don’t focus on economic topics. Rather we seek to bring to our area nationally and internationally known speakers who cover a wide range of topics. We don’t advocate for any particular ideology or cause. The audience has a chance to listen to each speaker’s views, and gets to ask questions of the famous speakers.
The club has had a lineup of famous people visit here. Tell me about them.
The club’s guests have included five United States presidents; a number of first ladies, beginning with Eleanor Roosevelt; four British prime ministers – Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa; and almost 200 other distinguished guests.
Whose been your favorite speaker so far and why?
There have been so many wonderful speakers. One of my all-time favorites was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To rise to the top in what was then Britain’s male-dominated and very combative parliamentary system, I assume she had to be far more talented than the men. I found her to be most impressive.
Who decides on who to go after?
We survey our over 2,000 members for suggestions, and a committee of our board makes the final decisions.
What’s the process like in scheduling the speakers? What happens behind the scenes?
There’s lots of competition to get these speakers. The challenge is to persuade them to accept our invitation out of the hundreds of invitations they receive. Between our audience’s excellent reputation and our close relationships formed over the years with the speaker’s representatives, a famous speaker’s itinerary often ends up along the lines of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Benton Harbor, Washington D.C., and New York City.
Are there new challenges facing The Economic Club?
Yes, for the last eight or so years, the speaker fees have been skyrocketing. Our speaker fee budget in 2008 got us six top-tier speakers. That same amount today is only enough to get two top-tier speakers.
Speaker series across the nation can no longer exist on just membership fees. Our competitors get about half of their revenues from corporate and individual donations. So, we’ve just concluded a fundraising drive, and the community has been very generous.
I assume a smaller area trying to compete against large metro areas is difficult?
Unfortunately that’s true. Large communities have many more potential members and many more potential donors. So, it’s definitely a big challenge for our smaller area to keep bringing these notable people to our area.
I understand the club recently made some changes?
Yes, there are several changes. In addition to annual memberships, people can now purchase tickets to our individual events. People attending the club meetings can choose to have dinner, or have a speech-only ticket, which lowers the cost of attending a meeting.
We’re presenting the programs on large screens using high-definition cameras so those in the back have excellent views of the speakers. And we’re inviting lots of area students to not only attend each meeting, but to meet ahead of time as a group with the speaker. The speaker then addresses the students and takes their questions.
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 14, 2016)