Bringing it back home: Tech alum using consulting skills to grow local businesses

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Marilyn Clark, CEO of MTEC SmartZone, stands with Jim Fish, an innovation consultant with Innovatrium. Fish, who graduated from Michigan Technological University with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and engineering administration, returned to the area in 2017 for the first time in 25 years to do consulting work.

HOUGHTON — Jim Fish graduated from Michigan Technological University in 1990. Aside from two years as a recruiter for Ford immediately after graduation, he hadn’t been back.

Not that he’d been idle. He spent another decade with Ford, becoming a product engineer and researcher. Most recently, he was chief innovation officer for Bosch’s Automotive Solutions unit; Bosch would also name him its inventor of the year in 2014.

He’s an innovation consultant at Innovatrium, a consulting firm co-located at the University of Michigan that helps companies grow. He’s also a professor at Wayne State University and on the faculty on the University of Michigan’s executive education program.

“This college helped me achieve a lot,” he said. “I’m kind of at the stage I want to give back to those who helped me and make a difference for the Keweenaw.”

As a consultant, Fish uses a “competing values” framework of approaching problems from different perspectives.

There are four perspectives, each with relationships to the others. They’re represented by pie chunks forming a circle: Collaborator and Artist on top, and Engineer and Athlete below.

The Artist is a visionary and pattern recognizer, where the primary goal is to do things first. Its oppositional style is the Engineer — data-driven, process-focused and with a need to drive out variance. (think of companies such as Boeing or General Motors, where variation in a product could mean death.)

“They struggle to be creative; the Artist companies struggle to deliver consistency,” he said.

The Athlete style is defined by rapid response. Its counterpart is the Collaborator, found among groups such as the Catholic Church, which have long-term, legacy-based approaches.

The two on the right — Athlete and Artist — are focused on external forces, either competitors or trends, while the other two are internally focused. There are also differences between the top and bottom hemispheres — the top looking at the future, the bottom living in the present.

Teams with all four styles will solve problems faster, be more effective and generate more value, Fish said.

“It not only becomes the prism through which we view the world, but it also becomes the prism through which we’re able to incubate better companies, we’re able to identify these opportunities for these companies,” he said. “The SmartZone is really connecting ideation with opportunity, so it’s helping these budding entrepreneurs to realize there’s coaching and mentoring and support.”

Fish came back up to Houghton in September as part of 14 Floors, in which alumni with experience in high-tech return to campus to meet with and mentor students. In February, he led a group of about 25 people from the community giving feedback to SmartZone on its strengths and weaknesses, and where it should grow in the future.

That panel rated SmartZone highly in most respects, but said it could have a better connections to the university and to outside companies.

Companies are also being brought up from Detroit and other parts of Michigan to be part of the area’s business ecosystem, Fish said. MTEC SmartZone is creating a corporate board that will figure out what companies need, and how the Keweenaw — whether startups, regional companies, students or professors — can help them solve their problem.

“This region has always been extractive technologies; they’ve taken the ore out of the land and when that was done, they left,” said SmartZone CEO Marilyn Clark. “What we’re trying to create is roots here that maintain a sustainable company like Grand Rapids and Detroit did. Furniture and automotive — they’re still there. And Jim has the connections and he has the tools to help us figure that out.”