2016 Get Local Party

Finding Joy on Michigan Trains and Attracting Workforce Talent

July 3, 2018 |

The commute between Ann Arbor and Chicago takes four hours by automobile but only 10 minutes by rail, Rich Sheridan often jokes.

The CEO and chief storyteller of Menlo Innovations, a software design and development firm in Ann Arbor, doesn’t count the time sitting on the train. That’s because he uses the time to open his laptop, answer emails and get work done—or sit back, sip a coffee and relax. On a good day, Sheridan can be as productive while riding the rails as he would be at Menlo’s headquarters on Liberty Street near the University of Michigan campus. Upon arrival he feels more rested and ready for business meetings than he would following a stressful car trip or an airplane flight.

Learn more about the A2TC train project at A2TC.org

Menlo used to have an office in downtown Chicago, a five-minute walk across the river from Union Station where the train arrives. Sheridan still travels frequently to the Windy City to meet with clients or friends. While riding Amtrak’s Wolverine Line he wrote part of his forthcoming book, Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear, which will be published in November by Penguin Random House. Sheridan’s first book, Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love, describes how he built a joyful culture at Menlo Innovations. The book describes how any organization can follow similar methods to build a passionate team of workers.

“I can get work done the entire time I’m on the train,” Sheridan says. “I connect to the wifi, put on headphones, spend hours writing and watch the beautiful scenery go by. On a plane I’m only productive for 25 minutes, even though a flight and a train trip have the same door-to-door time. I arrive fresh and relaxed. I spend a few hours there, take the train home and sleep in my own bed.”

The Ann Arbor to Traverse City passenger rail project excites Sheridan for several reasons. Easy, and non-automobile access to these popular “up north” destinations is an important selling point that he can use to attract talent to Menlo. Tech-savvy young professionals who Sheridan would like on his team often come from cities and university towns where reliable public transit isn’t considered a luxury but is expected. In short, rail attracts talent, which will help Michigan companies reverse the brain drain that has afflicted the Mitten State in recent decades. Take it from Jeff Bezos, who is considering the accessibility of public transit, among other factors, when choosing his next Amazon location.

“If someone’s on the fence about whether to work for Menlo, I’d tell them ‘by the way, I’ll give you and your significant other train tickets to visit Traverse City. Take a weekend up there and see what it’s like to work in the beautiful state of Michigan.’ This is the calling card for businesses these days in our ability to attract talent. Young people today determine first where they want to live, and second where they want to work.”

“The ability to get effortlessly from Ann Arbor to Traverse City would be a delight beyond measure. You’d arrive relaxed and ready to recreate or do business.”

The rail project, initiated and led by the Groundwork Center, will run from the population centers of southeast Michigan to the emerging economies in the northwest Lower Peninsula, and will pass through towns like Owosso, Howell, Durand, Alma, Mt. Pleasant and Cadillac before reaching Traverse City and Petoskey.

The rail route travels through thriving downtowns that include growing businesses, tech sectors, and colleges that are collectively home to 90,000 students. Those towns also include families and young professionals who are looking for a reason to put down roots in Michigan. The line would also intersect Amtrak’s Blue Water and Wolverine lines, which could connect passengers to larger metro areas like Lansing, Detroit and Chicago.

Revitalizing the Traverse City train line is a unique opportunity for Michigan for three reasons: The state owns most of the tracks, much of the line is in good shape, and there’s already broad public support for the idea. Furthermore, civic and business leaders believe this effort will help the state attract the next generation workforce that wants to live and thrive in Michigan without depending on a car.

Menlo’s Rich Sheridan also sees technological opportunity in Traverse City, which he describes as a town in transition—from a tourism-centric destination in the summer and sleeper in the winter, to an entrepreneurial tech hub where classic downtown buildings are being retrofitted and where people are choosing to house their businesses.

Monthly TC New Tech meetups draw hundreds of entrepreneurs and tech whizzes to Traverse City’s historic City Opera House to pitch ideas, seek funding and collaborate with each other. TC New Tech was founded by entrepreneur Russell Schindler, who tired of frequent four-hour drives to Ann Arbor to take part in monthly tech meetups there.

“It would make sense for me to spend more time up there getting to know tech companies,” said Sheridan. “It would probably grow my business more. It’s not lost on me that maybe we need to have a Menlo in Traverse City.”

Sheridan concedes he feels a nostalgia for trains. His parents met each other on a streetcar in Detroit shortly after his late father, Bernie, returned home from the Second World War.

“My dad saw this beautiful young lady sitting there and realized they had gone to high school together. It’s safe to say, I wouldn’t be here today if they hadn’t met on that streetcar.”

Bernie Sheridan was a “train geek,” his son remembers. “Back in the ’60s there were regular steam engine tours through southeast Michigan. He’d take us three kids to Detroit, and we’d ride the trains. For souvenirs we were given engineer caps that we’d wear home.”

But Sheridan’s advocacy for expanding rail in Michigan has as much to do with pragmatic s